The medical teams at Sunnybrook “gave my life back,” says Kerry Comiskey. (Photograph by Tim Fraser)
Kerry Comiskey recounts the events of September 1, 2013, in an even tone, rationing out detail after detail, of the hours before a cauldron of boiling water spilled over the lower half of his body.
There was a game with neighbouring cottagers, the beloved family dog always nearby, a slow walk up a steep flight of stairs to the corn roast, an unlucky stumble and then panic. His wife, Teresa, recalls catching a glimpse of a half-naked man running into the forest, her mind imagining it was a “wild man,” rather than her husband of 37 years.
They both reach easily for plot points: someone cooling Kerry with water from a garden hose, the 911 call, the improbability of nurse, Pam Gullo, being among the crowd of Labour Day partygoers. Speaking about it nine months later, there are silences that seem weighted by whatever bafflement and gratitude follow from surviving an accident that leaves skin from almost 50 per cent of your body sloughing off.
“I remember the pain was so excruciating,” Kerry says. “I didn’t say much.
“My eyes kept going back. I am thinking, ‘I am not going to make it. I didn’t think I was going to go this way.’”
Kerry is one of hundreds of people treated each year at Sunnybrook’s Ross Tilley Burn Centre. Like many others, he arrived by helicopter as soon as doctors in cottage country determined that the critical state of their 61-year-old patient would be better managed at a world-class institution. Though an IV was implanted on Kerry’s hip, pulsing heavy drugs through his system, he was lucid enough for the dining room table-sized slab of stainless steel to make an impression. “That’s where they hose you down,” Kerry explains.
Kerry’s 4 a.m. admittance marked the beginning of a months-long recovery process that would reshape his understanding of suffering, compassion, team work and gratitude. “What impressed me about the burn unit was how everyone worked as a team,” he says. “It’s a family. When you leave, you feel a loss. I cried.”
Social worker Anne Hayward is among the team of experts who made up Kerry’s care team. Every case is unique and can draw on a range of resources, including burn surgeons, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, dietitians, pharmacists, speech language pathologists and psychiatrists. Hayward set about supporting Kerry, according to the needs he made known.
“Kerry’s number one concern was making sure his family was okay,” she says. “Kerry is a normal guy, with a normal family, who had an accident,” says Hayward. “The challenge was to get [him] back to a newnormal life.”
The solution was an approach that championed ongoing communication. Hayward’s support of the Comiskey family was pivotal, Kerry says. “I’ll never forget her. I progressively got stronger through compassion, care and encouragement.”
One of Teresa and Kerry’s three grown children was particularly fearful of seeing her father in pain. Hayward was there for their first visit. “I wanted her to see: ‘He’s still your dad,’” Hayward says.
Equally important was the care teams’ reference to and confidence in Kerry’s eventual recovery. They spoke about him returning to visit his care team after he was discharged. “When you see someone vulnerable, in their gown, we know that they will be better – they’ll one day be back in their street clothes – but, they don’t know that,” she says.
After about five weeks as an in-patient at Sunnybrook, Kerry was well enough to be discharged, but still required significant support. “I knew I was getting better when there was less blood on the bed,” he says, recalling how he was first able to gauge his progress.
Kerry was moved to Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab, where a team of health professionals helped him improve what functionality he was beginning to regain. Staff at St. John’s Rehab help patients relearn skills so basic they are seamless to most people: doing up buttons, bathing, preparing meals. They helped Kerry manage his scars, improve his range of motion and provided psychological support, as necessary. Just as it had been at the Burn Centre, an interdisciplinary approach to patients is taken.
Though she did not work directly with Kerry, occupational therapist Shahzia Adatia says the central goals of each custom-designed care team designated to individual patients and their families are consistent. “There are a lot of variables with how someone is going to cope with their injury,” Adatia says. “There are a lot of people involved. We have all the science; the patient guides the treatment.” All therapies are dedicated to managing scars, maintaining range of motion and strength, and addressing psychological needs, she says.
Early in his recovery, Kerry was so resolute about his comeback that he considered choice irrelevant. “I have a will to live. I have a lot to live for: Teresa, my family, watching my kids grow up and settle, my friends. I wouldn’t give up.”
Less than a year after the accident, many of Kerry’s trips to Sunnybrook are voluntary. During a recent scheduled visit, a dermatologist took a biopsy to test for a malignancy. While the procedure was by some standards routine, performing a surgical technique on a swath of fragile skin that has been grafted and is healing daunts even an indomitable-spirited outpatient. “It really tests you. It tests your relationships. I live every day now with a greater sense of gratitude,” says Kerry. “I am realizing how special it is when you have great relationships.”
Between regular checkups, Kerry says he likes to visit with the medical teams that saved his life. “I have a huge sense of being grateful for what they’ve done for me and my family. I’ll never be able to thank them enough: Dr. Marc Jeschke [director, Ross Tilley Burn Centre] and the teams at the burn centre and St. John’s Rehab gave me my life back,” he says. “Anyone who faces a situation, they’re in good hands at Sunnybrook.”