Survivor Spotlight: Luis Nevarez

Our recent Burn Support Magazine features a survivor profile of Luis Nevarez, firefighter and burn survivor, who suffered an electrical burn injury.  Luis shares his story of recovery, support, and his enthusiasm for ‘getting back to living’ – back to full duty as a firefighter, and promoting through the ranks to his current role as Division Chief.  Here is that story:

By James Bosch, MA, MFTi

There’s a voice in my head. It’s been there ever since the day I conducted the interview for this story. I’m glad the voice is there, because it’s the voice of Luis Nevarez, and Luis has powerful wisdom and positive messages to share. I’m sure that you too will be inspired as you learn of Luis’ perseverance and courage in the aftermath of a doubly devastating injury—a severe electrical burn that ultimately led to the amputation of his left forearm.

It is difficult to bounce back from injuries of this nature. It is rarely quick or easy, and every survivor has his or her own story and path to recovery, based on individual life circumstances and support networks.

???????????????????????????????????Many firefighters who have survived burns say that they struggle with seeing themselves as having survived a trauma versus simply having experienced an occupational hazard. Luis’ story includes both sides of this issue—although his main focus was getting back to work, he recognized along the way that his burn injury uniquely qualified him to help other individuals recovering from similar traumas.

In this interview, Luis mentions having a more synergistic life view since the accident. In its most basic definition, this means that by working together we are stronger than the individual. I have had the great fortune of seeing Luis in action as a volunteer with burn survivors. We co-facilitated a support group for young adult male survivors one evening. Luis’ calm presence made the guys in the room feel comfortable. He really let his own life story be an example; I watched his empathy and care in action.

Luis Nevarez is an amazing person for each of us to have on our support team. And if you listen closely, you just might hear his encouraging voice in your head the next time you’re facing a challenge.

James: When you were a kid, did you know you wanted to be a firefighter?

Luis: I can’t say I knew I wanted to be a firefighter. I was always into sports; that was my main focus as a kid. In high school, I had a job bagging groceries at the local supermarket. The fire crews would come in to shop, and I’d ask about their jobs. They finally invited me to the firehouse. Talking with them, I realized that it was a job I was interested in, so I enrolled in the Fire Academy and applied to many counties throughout California. My first job came after a 15-hour Greyhound bus ride from LA to Humboldt County. I shaved and changed in a Denny’s [restaurant] bathroom and was ready for my interview. Needless to say, I was hired and that is where my career as a firefighter began.

James: What most motivated you to accomplish your goal?

???????????????????????????????????Luis: I have always believed that if you really want something, you have to go grab it. No one will just give it to you. After I was hired for that first job in Crescent City, I tested all over the state to get into a full-time firefighter position. Tulare City was one of the places I tested, and 2 years later they called me for a job. I’ve been there for 25 years, and throughout my career I have stayed consistent with training and education. I have worked very hard to attain my goals in promoting through the ranks.

When I was injured and lost my hand, doing office work was not an option. I was determined to go back as a firefighter with no limitations or special accommodations. The more people questioned if that was really possible, the harder I worked at it. This field is very competitive and promoting was not easy and on one occasion I did not get the promotion. I did not let this get me down, I realized my strengths were in the field, not in administration, so I went back to school and received a bachelor’s degree to balance out my skills. The second time I went for the promotion, I got it! I always tell people that it’s not how you fall down that matters, it’s how you get back up.

What motivates me? My passion for the fire service and family. I’m a single dad with three kids that I have taught to work hard for their dreams. They are excelling in their lives.

James: Can you talk about your accident and your experience in the hospital?

Luis: My accident happened on January 26, 2002. I accidentally touched a hidden 12,000-volt line while breaking a limb off of a smoldering tree. This caused my burn injuries and eventually the amputation of my left forearm. I was in the hospital for 35 days. I was back to work on light duty by August, and 364 days after my accident I was back on a fire truck with no accommodations or restrictions. I was missing an arm, but my heart was there and my passion was there. It was a long road of hard work to get my job back but again I was determined.

The day I was admitted to the hospital, the HBO (hyperbaric oxygen chamber) nurse asked me if I had trouble being in confined spaces. I laughed and asked if they could give me continuing education hours towards my confined space rescue certification. That was the attitude I brought into it.

There were definitely challenges being in the hospital and in my recovery. The support that I had from the fire service, my family, and friends contributed to the positive outcome of my rehabilitation.

James: What are some of the emotional challenges you have faced?

Luis: Some days were worse than others, and I still have some bad days. What I’ve learned is to just ride out the hard days and remind myself that the feelings won’t last forever. The next day I am usually back to myself again. Accepting the emotions I feel at the moment instead of ignoring them is important in the healing process. It’s a daily challenge, but any step forward is better than none.

My kids had to deal with people staring at me when I didn’t have a prosthetic, especially in public places like taking my son to baseball games or the mall with my daughter. I had so much support, but I don’t think my children received the proper counseling to deal with the accident. I really don’t know how they got through the experience so well.

Luis’ three children are Ashley (24), Luis, Jr. (22), and Alyssah (15).

Ashley: Since the accident, nothing about my dad has changed except that he now has a hook. He has taught me to be a very hardworking person and to not give up no matter what. That’s his motto: Never give up. I would like employers and loved ones of survivors reading this to also know that they should never give up on people with a disability. Just look at my dad!

Luis, Jr.: To watch him overcome his accident showed us that we can find a way to do anything. He has taught us to stay positive and surround ourselves with people who want us to succeed. My dad is great because he doesn’t let “how” be a factor. Just envision yourself there and you will find a way; have fun and enjoy every day.

Alyssah: The accident brought us closer as a family. We laugh together and make jokes. I think what is great about my dad is that he is a living example of how you can see the positive side of things. My dad is the person you can go to for anything. He looks at life as a challenge to win. I wouldn’t change it now. My dad is amazing as he is.

Luis: At first I had some body image issues. It was challenging for me because people would stare at me and I found myself repeating my story over and over again and repeating my trauma making it difficult to move forward. Aside from the amputation, I was dealing with third-degree burns all over my body that were hidden to the outside world. I am a patchwork of scars and donor sites. I recently ran across a Polaroid picture of the burns to my bottom when I was in hospital and it looks like a red heart. Humor is important in dealing with my burns.


Sandra Yovino is the nurse manager at Leon S Peters Burn Center at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, California.

Sandra: Luis’ personality lights up a room, he attracts people to him with his mannerisms and his charisma. I’ve gotten to watch his process over the 10 years since his injury. You know, there’s a false belief among many that the healing takes place in the inpatient phase or the outpatient phase. The truth is, the real work starts when patients are discharged from the hospital, when they start dealing with things like pain management, chronic pain, adjusting to a new lifestyle or career, or adapting to their previous work. With all my work with burn survivors over the years, I have also noticed that the milestone marked by each decade or life event can trigger important new issues for survivors to deal with. For instance, I have watched Luis successfully navigate endings of relationships, disappointments at work, and children transitioning to teenagers. These events bring up new challenges in anyone’s life. I’ve watched Luis transition through all these phases.
James: Luis, tell me about your amazing journey from this major burn injury and  amputation to full-duty firefighter with no accommodations.

Luis: When I first went back I was on light duty, mostly doing fire prevention work. I was determined to pass the manipulative and physical tests required as a firefighter, and return to full duty.  There was a new fire academy starting, so I joined the new recruits and went through all the trainings with them. These were classes that I used to teach! I became a student again to relearn my skills. I was determined not to return to work if I was going to get hurt or if I was going to hurt others.

I also went to the gym everyday. I worked with my prosthetist and my occupational therapist to find the best type of hook for my arm. I learned new ways to do old tasks, like screwing on a fire hose coupling or operating the Jaws of Life. It was actually fun for me to figure out new ways to do things. There were days I would get frustrated, but our job is about challenges and pushing ourselves to find solutions. My coworkers would get involved and make suggestions, too. They were amazing. They would joke about me having a rope burn on my hook after a training exercise, and they would put a Band-aid on the hook and keep going.

I passed everything. The media was there that day filming. A year later I was promoted to engineer, and when we opened a new fire station, I was promoted to captain. I was a fire captain for 10 years with no restrictions or limitations on an engine company. I also teach at several local fire academies, and whether it was confined-space rescue or sliding down a fire hose from a second-story window, I always demonstrate first for my students. Now, I’m proud to be on this new venture as Division Chief, with the new challenge of handling the administrative side of the fire service.

James: Describe what your life is like today.

Luis: My life today…I am a very blessed individual. The three things I am most grateful for are to be able to continue to do the job I love, to be an example for my kids, and to help others. I not only had the motivation to come back to work but to continue accomplishing all the short- and long-term goals I had set for myself long ago. I am blessed to have survived this trauma so that I could have the privilege to raise my children and watch them grow and succeed in all their endeavors.

???????????????????????????????????I would describe my view on life now as more synergistic. I’m not as task oriented or “one-minded,” so I’m more able to see how others around me are experiencing their lives. I think I understand better what people need, and not just those that have been through traumatic events, but everyone I am connected to. This means becoming interested in what others are going through and talking more deeply with them. I take the time to share my knowledge and experience. If I notice someone is off or having a bad day at work, I
take the time to find out what is bothering them.

I saw a man at the gym about 6 months ago, an older man in a wheelchair who perhaps had had a stroke. I noticed him over the months, and then one day he came in with a cane. I took the time to go up to him and tell him how good he was looking. He told me that watching me work out at the gym had been motivating for his rehabilitation. We had a great talk, an amazing connection.

Sandra: Luis has become an important member of our burn team. He is always available to us. He really does give of himself freely. Luis stayed involved with the burn center at first because of his continual needs with his amputation. An important point is that Luis is a person who will seek out help. It is sad that a lot of survivors never deal with their burn injury. Luis did. He started dealing with some of the more core emotional issues about 5 years after the injury. He then became a Phoenix SOAR trainer at the hospital and got connected to Phoenix World Burn Congress. Phoenix WBC really helped him look at the emotional side. He took his younger daughter with him last year, and I think this was an important step for the family’s healing.

Recently, during a visit as a Phoenix SOAR peer supporter, Luis came in to support another burn survivor who was about to have his arm amputated. He shared his story so this patient might be able to imagine life after his amputation by meeting Luis. Luis was able to talk to this guy about acceptance of his amputation. As clinicians, we just can’t do this. It is vital to have survivors as trained peer supporters on the burn team.

James: Luis, do you have any advice for other firefighters injured on the job, burn survivors, or individuals who have lost a limb?

Luis: Continue to work hard with the passion that you have. Set your own limitations; don’t let any other individual set your limits for you. Stay true to yourself, and only do something if you have a passion for it. When you fall down, get back up. Train hard and work hard. Remember that the sky is not the limit—you are.

James: What is the biggest “gift” of this experience?

Luis: Having the ability to reach out to others. I believe my experience is a part of God’s plan for me to help. I am constantly being called on to inspire others in similar circumstances; it is a pleasure never a burden. I walk away feeling good after I have talked to another amputee or burn survivor, or to a classroom of new recruits. Giving hope to others through my life experience and inspiring others through my story is what it’s all about.

I visited the burn center last month to meet a burn survivor who had lost his hand. He was worried he couldn’t do push-ups ever again. I said, “Push-ups, those are easy.” I took off my shirt and showed him how to do push-ups with a prosthetic and without it by utilizing
pillows. His face lit up. I felt so good afterwards because he felt good and I gave him hope.

Another experience that comes to mind happened about 3 months ago. A burn survivor was brought by the fire station. He also had an arm amputation. I demonstrated how to do simple tasks that we take for granted with and without a prosthetic. He wrote me that when he went home he tied his shoes. These are big victories. I let survivors know they can do whatever they want to do. When I see that my experience has had a positive impact and gives hope to at least 1 person, that makes it all worth it—that is the gift that I’m rewarded with.

James Bosch was burn injured as an infant. He has dedicated much of his professional life in the service of helping other burn survivors and their families heal and find meaning after a burn. Acceptance of new life, new body, and finding new meaning are at the core of his work. He speaks and facilitates at burn meetings in Canada and the United States. He is a member of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors SOAR National Advisory Committee and a consultant.

Firefighters and Their Families: Making Connections at WBC

As its participants can confirm, the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress (WBC) creates a community that nurtures the common bonds among burn survivors. Burn survivors, regardless of their careers or other life circumstances, share similar steps to recovery and universal experiences, such as healing from trauma, grieving, and forgiveness.

The Phoenix Society acknowledges this shared experience among survivors, but also creates space for attendees at WBC to connect with others who share characteristics that are specific to their burn injury. For example, the programming at WBC includes special topic support and discussion forums for such groups as adult burn survivors burned as children, survivors with “hidden” burns, and survivors who experienced electrical injuries.

Partnerships Make it Possible
The Society, through its partnerships with burn foundations, individual members of the fire service, and organizations such as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Charitable Foundation Burn Fund, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), and the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, has also worked to better meet the support needs of another group—burn-injured members of the fire service and their families.

FireFighters Find Forum For healing
The fire service-related sessions at this year’s WBC included a support group for burn-injured firefighters (attended by about 30 firefighters), as well as one for their spouses (attended by about 16 spouses); a discussion group for all firefighters (attended by about 75 firefighters); and an In the Line of Duty panel, featuring Fire Capt. Luis Nevarez,

Luis Nevarez, firefighter and burn survivor, shares his viewpoint as a panelist at WBC.

Luis Nevarez, firefighter and burn survivor, shares his viewpoint as a panelist at WBC.

firefighter Scott Atchison, and firefighter-spouse Amy Adams, which provided insight into the firefighter experience to all attendees. As part of a general session panel, Providence, Rhode Island, Fire Lt. Antiliano Estrella discussed advocacy efforts and fire code policy changes that stemmed from the tragic Station nightclub fire in 2003. Lionel Crowther, a Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada), firefighter, and his wife Joanna also shared their story in the general session. In 2007, Lionel and another firefighter, were burned while operating at a house fire that also claimed the lives of 2 fire captains. Establishing forums where firefighters and their families can share their experiences, thoughts, and express their feelings has been an important addition to WBC programming. Their impact and benefit can best be described in the words of several participants:

  • Fire Lt. Paul Machado of the Fall River, Massachusetts, Fire Department was burned in March and attended WBC for the first time this year. He wrote, “it was great to meet everyone there and experience the conference. There was an instant connection meeting other firefighter burn survivors—they understand everything that has gone through my head. I was skeptical going in. I think you have to be here to get it—firefighters reaching out to and learning from the burn community. I’m now an advocate and will be sharing this with Brothers and Sisters.”
  • Fire Lt. Joe Kalinowski of the Marshfield, Massachusetts, Fire Department was injured fighting a fire in November 2012. He commented on the bonds that exist among firefighters and, in particular, burn survivors in the fire service, saying, “The [WBC] sessions reinforced the fact that we are a family in our profession throughout North America. Regardless of the severity of our individual injuries or stage of healing, as burn survivors we are a family that is able to support each other and share what we are experiencing or have experienced; unconditionally we have resources available to us.”
  • Firefighter Atchison, also a first-time WBC attendee, who was partnered with Firefighter Crowther that tragic night in 2007, commented, “As part of the In Line of Duty panel, I gave the perspective of a firefighter who survived a tragic incident without burn injuries, as well as insight into the workplace the burn survivor firefighters would potentially be returning to. My wife, Sheri, was also able to attend with help from the Phoenix Society and she attended the spouse support groups that helped her greatly. We were truly and deeply inspired by the survivors, health care providers, and firemen we met.
    “Going into the conference there was a feeling of apprehension as to my place with burn survivors as there are no physical scars on me. When you are a fireman, you can usually identify who has been in serious situations by looking at the gear of fellow firefighters. Some of the experienced guys will wear blackened helmets or gear that displays the wear and toil of prior incidents. My peers at the conference—both firefighter and non-firefighter— wore their blackened helmets everywhere they went in the form of physical scars. These scars gave unspoken stories of survival. After speaking on the panel and in support groups sharing the tragedy we experienced in Winnipeg, we heard the stories of some others. The internal scars, coping mechanisms, and healing processes of the survivors in this group became apparent, affirming the feeling of belonging only a group like this can bring. It helped us greatly. We felt very welcomed into this family of special individuals. Thank you very much to the Phoenix Society for helping us attend and creating such an incredible forum for healing.”

Spouses Bond With others
Who understand Journey Scott’s wife, Sheri, added to his comments from her perspective, saying, “This was my first conference at the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress and I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect. For me personally, I didn’t realize that I buried my feelings/stress from the event until I attended a burn injured firefighter spouse support group. This was the first exposure I ever had to feeling like I was “normal”— every spouse feeling the same feelings… I walked away from this event with a new purpose and a new light. There was a real benefit of attending the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress this year. The connections that I made felt so genuine, and I know they will carry me through the rough times ahead for me. I wouldn’t have even contemplated starting this emotional recovery journey if I hadn’t attended the firefighter spouse-specific session. Firefighters are a special breed; while everyone else is running away from danger they thrive on running into danger. It is hardwired into them and you can’t change that, so to be able to communicate our fears with other spouses is a release for us.”

Leslie Kalinowski attended WBC for the first time along with her husband, Joe. She shared that “there is strength in bonding with people with similar situations in life—people who can truly understand the journey.” She explained that after attending the conference she has a new sense of “moving on” that she hasn’t had for many months. “It’s a good feeling,” she says. “I had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. I went under the premise of being there to support Joe. I had no idea that I would take so much out of it for myself….I feel I have new resources in my journey as a spouse of an injured firefighter.”

Jeannine Barrera, wife of retired Stockton, California, Fire Capt. Oscar Barrera initially faced her husband’s injury in 1997 without this type of support. Oscar was injured when responding to a house fire during which the second floor collapsed, killing two of his fellow firefighters. Jeannine has since become a Phoenix Society SOAR (Survivors Offering

Phil Tammaro at In the Line of Duty, one of several programs at WBC focusing on the experiences of firefighter-survivors.

Phil Tammaro at In the Line of Duty, one of several programs at WBC focusing on the experiences of firefighter-survivors.

Assistance in Recovery) peer supporter and a regular participant in WBC and the burn-injured firefighter spouse support group. She shares that when she was finally able to speak to other wives of burn-injured firefighters, she felt as if she had “finally found a home.”

“Before that,” she says, “I felt like I was just floating through the [WBC] conference since nothing really connected to what I went through. Yes, we all had a burn survivor connection but no one quite had the experience I had. It’s unfortunate that our support group probably will grow because that means more firefighters will be injured, but I am grateful to the Phoenix Society for understanding that there is a much needed place in their conference for the burn-injured spouse support/discussion group.”

Libby Feyh and her husband, Sacramento, California, Fire Capt. Mike Feyh, who was burned in 2010 during a house explosion that was determined to be the result of arson, have been involved since the inception of the fire service-specific support groups. Libby, who now serves as co-facilitator of the spouse support group, shares her perspective about the necessity of having these specialized offerings at WBC and their involvement in the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program, saying: “Mike and I both went through SOAR peer supporter training a few years ago at World Burn Congress and we are proud to be part of something so important to so many. Beyond the SOAR curriculum, though, we learned that being a burn-injured firefighter, or spouse of a burn-injured firefighter, meant we had a different perspective on many things than our civilian SOAR counterparts.” For one thing, she explains, the incident surrounding a firefighter’s injury is often a media event. Additionally, the firefighter-survivor hopes for nothing more than to be able to remain in the profession that put him or her in the position of being burned.

“This creates different dynamics in the recovery process for us,” says Libby. She adds that there are many other more subtle, but nonetheless significant, distinctions that also make the experience of the firefighter-survivors and their families unique.

Libby credits the addition of dedicated fire service sessions, including the fire service-specific discussion
groups, as being very helpful. There, she says, the couple could freely express their doubts, concerns, anxieties, and triumphs and know that others in the room would understand because they were walking the same road.

“This support meant a lot to us during Mike’s recovery and all through the subsequent arson-related trial and the continued glare of the media spotlight,” explains Libby. “The fact that attendance in these groups
has essentially doubled each year since they have been offered is testament to their power and the need for them.”

FireFighter-Specific Component of WBC to Continue to Provide Support
WBC programming includes sessions that connect attendees through shared experiences and characteristics—and those addressing the needs of the fire service are now among them thanks to the efforts and participation of many. Fire Capt. Nevarez, who lost his hand and forearm after contacting a 12,000-volt power line while on a call, credits the fire service involvement in WBC with giving many firefighters “direction and the guidance to many other resources.” We hope that others in need of support will join us next year at the Phoenix Society’s 2014 World Burn Congress, October 22-25, in Anaheim, California.

Karen Badger, PhD, MSW, is an associate dean and associate professor at the College of Social Work, University of Kentucky. Phil Tammaro, FF-EMT is a professional firefighter in Billerica, Massachusetts, and 3rd district burn coordinator for the IAFF Charitable Foundation Burn Fund.

Special thanks to all those firefighters and their spouses who contributed their reflections.

Phoenix Society at SOAR Firefighter Summit

by:  Pam Peterson

The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Charitable Foundation and National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), and the University of Kentucky College of Social Work came together this past week to participate in a Firefighter Peer Support Summit, in Phoenix, AZ.

SOAR Summit - IAFF firefighter - unedited 01.30.13

Phoenix Society SOAR instructors, coordinators, and peer supporters, IAFF District Coordinators, Burn Foundations, and the NFFF were among those who took part in the discussion of peer support for the burn injured firefighter and their families.

During the two day summit, participants were introduced to the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program, the support needs of burn-injured firefighters and their families, as well as the firefighter specific components newly added to SOAR. Together we have developed goals for future work.  We began discussion about dissemination strategies and will continue this exploration at the meeting at the ABA.

SOAR Summit - Amy A 01.30.13

This exciting effort would not have been possible without the investment and interest of all of those individuals and organizations involved. We especially would like to extend our gratitude to the burn injured firefighters and spouses who participated in the focus groups and surveys that initially explored peer support as a resource for firefighters- they have provided the foundation on which this project has been built.  We would also like to thank everyone who participated in the summit to ensure access to peer support for anyone affected by a burn injury.

Holiday Stress Strategies

As the holiday song says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”.  Yet, while this may be true for some people, for others, including those recovering from a burn injury, the additional pressures of the holiday season can make this time of the year anything but wonder-full. But be of good cheer… here are just a few simple de-stressing strategies that could help you and your family find the spirit of celebration and fill it full of the wonder that we hope for each December.

Shutterbox- pic 1- WBC 2012 - 11.12.12

–          The holidays are usually a time of visiting family and friends. For those of us with changed appearances, this can bring additional stress to the season.  Be prepared for the reactions people may have when they see new scars, bandages or splints: Use the Phoenix Society’s Online Learning Tool so you can be prepared to respond with comfort and confidence.  Here’s a link to the Online Learning Program: http://www.phoenix-society.orgShutterbox - Pic 3 - 11.12.12

–          If your family is still maneuvering through the inpatient stage of the burn injury and you’re wondering how to manage the holiday demands, consider asking a family member or friend to do the honors for you this year.

–          Bouncing back from a burn trauma is a slow process.  Allow for this holiday season to be smaller, slower and more focused on a few activities or traditions that your family really treasures.

–          It’s a season for giving; you may be at a place in your recovery to give back to others or you may be in a place where it would help you to receive.   When support is offered, remind people that other family members close to the burn survivor can also use a card and gift of encouragement to lift their spirits.

–          While we sing of this being “the happiest season of all”, it is also a time of the year where we may especially feel the losses and changes of the past.  Perhaps the greatest gift you can give to yourself this holiday season is the time and space to feel and honor the sadness within.  Allow yourself to do something that feels comforting.


–           And finally, to you and yours, from all of us at the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, we hope that love and joy may come to you this holiday season.  May there be peace, not just on earth, but in the hearts of all.

Survivor Firefighters Learn to SOAR – Steve Halliday


They call it the “firefighter mechanism.” Some refer to it as a mentality—something unique to the highly trained individuals in the fire service. It’s the ability to shed emotion, disregarding the fundamental human instinct to avoid fire and, instead, make the conscious decision to run into a disaster in hopes of saving someone from it. In the flight-or-fight scenario, firefighters live up to their namesake. But doing so sometimes comes at great personal cost.

Meet Duane Wright, Rob Kokko, and Steve Halliday. They have experienced the same trials and tribulations as other burn survivors, but from a slightly different perspective.



Despite losing almost all of his fingers to amputations, firefighter Steve Halliday of New York says he got lucky. The support that he received during his burn recovery was overwhelming. “There were almost too many people and too much help,” he laughs, “It was almost exhausting because there were always people around.”

In November 2002, Halliday responded to a basement fire in Queens. While searching the first floor, the temperature inside the house began to rapidly rise. “That’s when you need to get out. Now.” The house lit up from floor to ceiling. Halliday says in this situation you are past the point of crawling. He and the other firefighters made a run for the door, bumping into walls and furniture as they tore blindly through the smoke. Halliday banged into an entertainment center, causing it to fall on top of him— television and all. His helmet had also been knocked off. He was still breathing through his mask, but his oxygen was running low.

Steve Halliday at the Phoenix Society's 2009 World Burn Congress

While the other firefighters quelled the flames from outside, Halliday recalls his vision faded from bright red to black. “I assumed I was dying at that point,” he says. He was pinned for only 15–30 seconds before the fire was put out. It was a quick burn, Halliday says, but under temperature conditions ranging from 1500 to 3000 degrees, it was an effective one.

Halliday was placed under a medically induced coma for 6 weeks. In that time, he went through eight surgeries while his family and friends went through the emotional turmoil of not knowing whether or not he would live. “There is a lot to be said for what the caregivers go through,” he says.

Like many burn survivors, nothing could have prepared him for the shock he would receive upon waking. “I woke up thinking it was just a day ago…it’s so surreal. Life goes on and you miss a lot.” Halliday’s wife wanted to make sure he was out of his coma before Christmas. Meanwhile, a local youth soccer team ensured that his yard was kept up. His sister moved into their home so that his children could continue school while his wife was granted a year off of work to be at his side. The New York Firefighters Burn Center Foundation put his wife in a hotel near Weill Cornell Medical Center, where he was recovering. Two NYC firefighters were at his family’s beck and call at all times. The fire department, along with the community, made sure his boat was properly stored, that the remodeling on his house was finished, and that handles that Halliday would be able to use were installed there. From his doctors to his family to his fellow firefighters, Halliday recalls, “Every question I had, there was an answer for. I can’t say enough about the care I received.”

After 2 months in recovery, Halliday left Cornell. A couple hundred firefighters and a press conference waited to greet him outside the door. Then he was taken by limo to an inpatient rehab facility.

Halliday, 51, retired as a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department. He had survived 9-11, a situation that he recalls left many people feeling helpless in its aftermath. “After that, they took every opportunity to help.”

Halliday says he feels humbled by the outpouring of support and wishes everybody could have the experience he did.

The Phoenix Society is able to offer the tools and resources burn survivors need to thrive again through your support! Donate today!

“Everybody can [recover], they just need the help…There are so many pieces that go into recovery,” he says, “so many players.” The tremendous support he received inspired Halliday to get involved in the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program. He believes every survivor sees life after a burn injury differently, and that sometimes it is just a matter of making the right connection with another person who has gone through similar circumstances. “If someone says a certain thing in a certain way at a certain time… something clicks and someone can change.”

This was the case when he was called to speak to another burn survivor who had received burns on over 40% of his body. Halliday was able to connect with the approximately 60-year-old firefighter, who had refused further treatment, and convince him to attend rehabilitation. Halliday, who says the man is now walking again—and with a bounce in his step—also reports, “He is going through the program to become a SOAR volunteer.”

Halliday, meanwhile, continues to walk his own path.

“I want to do everything,” he says. He has participated in four triathlons since his injury. He took flying lessons, rides a motorcycle, and started snowboarding. His greatest fear after seeing his hands was that he would not be able to walk down the aisle holding his daughter’s hand at her wedding. It was a random, yet overwhelming thought that he could not shake. “Then my wife told me, ‘You don’t walk hand in hand. You walk arm in arm.’ After that, I was good.”

Read Part I (Duane’s Story)
Read Part II (Rob’s Story)

Learn more about the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program …

This article can be read in its entirety in Burn Support News, Issue 3, 2011.
Join our mailing list to receive BSN.

Survivor Firefighters Learn to SOAR – Rob Kokko


They call it the “firefighter mechanism.” Some refer to it as a mentality—something unique to the highly trained individuals in the fire service. It’s the ability to shed emotion, disregarding the fundamental human instinct to avoid fire and, instead, make the conscious decision to run into a disaster in hopes of saving someone from it. In the flight-or-fight scenario, firefighters live up to their namesake. But doing so sometimes comes at great personal cost.

Meet Duane Wright, Rob Kokko, and Steve Halliday. They have experienced the same trials and tribulations as other burn survivors, but from a slightly different perspective.



“Any survivor will be able to relate to another survivor in some way,” says 43-year-old Rob Kokko. Injured while on a call as a volunteer firefighter, Kokko adds, “It’s also nice to have someone who walked in the same shoes. [Firefighters] know things can change on a whim.”

In March 2000, Kokko responded to a 2 a.m. call for an arson related apartment fire. Spotting an elderly woman in a second story window, Kokko and his friend, and fellow volunteer, made the decision to act. They found the woman by following the sounds of her coughing. As Kokko threw her over his shoulder and they headed toward the door, the structure collapsed over them.  A wave of high heat “blew through our bodies,” recalls Kokko. The elderly woman was lost and the firefighters’ air was beginning to run low. “We knew we were burnt, but not how bad… that’s when the firefighter mechanism kicked in.”

At the Phoenix Society's 2011 World Burn Congress, Rob served as a panelist at the special session "In the Line of Duty: Open Forum for Those Who Serve."

Attempting to escape in the confusion of smoke, Kokko and his partner found themselves trapped—dead-ended in the apartment bathroom. They broke the tiny window, but were unable to fit through. Kokko’s partner got hung up trying to get out the window and lost his mask. By the time a ladder was brought and the two volunteers were pulled from the building, Kokko had suffered third-degree burns over 35% of his body, including his hands, upper back, scalp, and ears.

He had managed to keep his mask on, but still received significant smoke inhalation injuries. Kokko’s partner passed away on the scene.

While in recovery at University of Michigan’s Trauma Burn Center, Kokko suffered bouts of injury-related pneumonia. For nearly 5 years following the incident he had to undergo regular lung x-rays to monitor his healing. Muscular atrophy also limited the use of his right hand and arm.

It was a visit by a fellow firefighter and burn survivor that encouraged Kokko to adhere to his doctor’s demands. “He told me ‘I got through this, you are going to get through this.’”

After 15 months of surgeries and the accompanying physical therapy, and a year of that time spent in pressure garments, Kokko was able to return to his job as a truck driver.

The Phoenix Society is able to offer the tools and resources burn survivors need to thrive again through your support! Donate today!

During recovery, Kokko also spent a lot of time on the Internet where he discovered multiple outlets for burn survivors, including the Phoenix Society. Soon after, he was attending his first World Burn Congress (WBC). It was an eye-opening experience. “Seeing people who have gone through so much worse really puts things into perspective,” he says.

Kokko admits that early in his recovery he sometimes wondered, “Why me?” and even blamed himself for what had happened. However, after attending WBC, his thoughts changed. “I realized I did everything I could. I could not have done anything different. This happened, and now I have to deal with it.

After the death of his partner and friend, Kokko thought that returning to firefighting would be impossible, “No way am I going back to that. Not now.” Through the experiences shared by others, Kokko learned that his injuries were not life crippling. He met other burn survivor firefighters and was inspired to pursue the job he loved full time.

Kokko has since gone through the training for the Phoenix Society’s SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) program in an effort to give back to a program that helped him through so much.

Read Part I (Duane’s Story)
Part III (Steve’s Story)

Learn more about the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program …

This article can be read in its entirety in Burn Support News, Issue 3, 2011.
Join our mailing list to receive BSN.

Survivor Firefighters Learn to SOAR – Duane Wright

by Alyson Mabie and Nathan Caminata 

They call it the “firefighter mechanism.” Some refer to it as a mentality—something unique to the highly trained individuals in the fire service. It’s the ability to shed emotion, disregarding the fundamental human instinct to avoid fire and, instead, make the conscious decision to run into a disaster in hopes of saving someone from it. In the flight-or-fight scenario, firefighters live up to their namesake. But doing so sometimes comes at great personal cost.

Meet Duane Wright, Rob Kokko, and Steve Halliday. They have experienced the same trials and tribulations as other burn survivors, but from a slightly different perspective.



Forty-three-year-old retired firefighter Duane Wright explains, “[On the job] you get in the habit of thinking, ‘This is not about me right now.’ But, it is about us when it comes to the burn injury.” Firefighters need to face shocking situations objectively, he says. This coping mechanism allows for emotional detachment while on the job, which, according to Wright, is necessary. “Being able to step up and do the job when horrific things are happening around you…if you stop and feel emotions you can’t perform.”

From left: Bernadette Martinez-Wright, Duane Wright, and mother, Linda Wright

Wright started his firefighting career as a seasonal wildfire firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE). In July 1989, the 21-year-old Wright and three other firemen were caught in a firestorm, a situation he describes as a “fire tornado” that explodes and blows radiant heat at more than 100 mph. All four men were brought to the local burn unit in the city of Chico. However, due to the severity of his burns, Wright was soon med-evaced to UC Davis.

There he spent 7 weeks in the burn unit after waking up from an induced coma to what he calls a nightmare. Twenty years ago, medicine was ill equipped to ease the pain associated with the early stages of his treatment.

“The recovery process was absolute torture,” Wright recalls. Following his discharge from the hospital, he struggled with impaired mobility. It took a year of occupational therapy for him to regain his range of motion. Nine months after his injury, Wright was finally able to return to the fire service on light duty.

Wright says he had a brilliant support system of wonderful parents and friends. “My parents did not give me special treatment. It was like nothing had changed.”

Still, Wright faced scarring on more than 40 percent of his body. At 21 years old, he was worried that no one would find him attractive. As a burn survivor and a firefighter, Wright excelled professionally, but says he struggled personally because of his insecurities. “The hospitals fix you. They help you survive… . It’s the nonprofits that help you thrive; they are the missing link.”

Wright cites the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors and the Fire Fighters Burn Institute as major players in his emotional recovery. “They have done more for me than words can express. And I hope to give just a little  of that back.”

Wright joined the Phoenix Society’s SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery)program after seeing the value of peer support throughout his own recovery. “I wasn’t alone. I could see others around me successfully navigating their lives with significant burn injuries, which meant there was no excuse for me not to do well.” On a personal level, he says, the SOAR program has helped give purpose to his injury and “gives the hope to give hope” to others.

The Phoenix Society is able to offer the tools and resources burn survivors need to thrive again through your support! Donate today!

He is also very enthusiastic about programs specific to burn survivors in the firefighting community. He says fellow firefighters are able to “appreciate what [each other] sees on a day-to-day basis, and how you have to learn to live with things that should normally bother you.”

Wright, who now works as an individual therapist, and his wife (social worker and Breslau Award winner, Bernadette Martinez-Wright) are actively involved in the burn community. They have spoken at the Phoenix Society’s annual World Burn Congress (WBC) on topics ranging from substance abuse to intimacy to the emotional impact of trauma.

“Recovery is a lifelong process,” Wright says, and sharing his experiences has helped him to be able to help himself. “Minus the pain, I would do it all over again. I love my life.”

Learn more about the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program

Parts II and III to this story will be made available next week.

This article can be read in its entirety in Burn Support News, Issue 3, 2011.
You can join our mailing list to receive Burn Support News.