What a TV star did right and wrong when she caught on fire—in real life. | The Survival Doctorby James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Many of us try to stay outside as much as we can this time of year. Grilling, camping, swimming, there’s so much to do. You sure don’t want to waste time when you could be having fun recuperating from an injury.

One hazard common to all the activities I mentioned is burns. Even a bad sunburn can be severe enough to cause blisters and make you feel horrible. (In fact, I recently wrote on how to avoid this and on the pros and cons of using sunscreen.) But sometimes, accidents just happen—and so do burns worse than any sunburn. That’s why everyone should know at least the basics of how to treat a burn. Minimize the damage, and you’ll minimize that recovery time.

As an example, let’s look at a real-life burn. Would you know what to do in the following situation?

Case Study

ESPN anchor Hannah Storm was anticipating enjoying a cookout last year, but in a flash, literally, her day (month) was ruined when the gas grill she was trying to relight exploded. According to USA Today:

Rushing to fix dinner at her Connecticut home Dec. 10, Storm turned off her propane grill and then turned it back on. Propane, she has learned the hard way, “is heavier than air and it pooled around the grill” – so turning the grill back on produced “a flash flame, a fire ball like you’d see in a movie.” She saw the flame, then instinctively closed her eyes — which, doctors told her, probably saved them — and “then my chest and head caught on fire. It was a big explosion.” Now this can ruin a girl’s day. Picture it happening to you. One second you’re turning a knob; the next second, poof. You’re in horrible pain, smell cooking meat, and realize it’s you who’s cooking.

Ms. Storm ended up with burns over her face neck, chest, and hands but apparently had little to no permanent scarring. The following is what Hannah did. I relate it so maybe you can learn what she did right and what she could have done differently.

According to The Associated Press:

With her left hand, she tore off her burning shirt. She tried to use another part of her shirt to extinguish the flames that engulfed her head and chest, while yelling for help. Her 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, called 911 and a computer technician who was working in the house grabbed some ice as Storm tried to cool the burns.

Now, I’m in no way criticizing here. Hannah and her cohorts performed remarkably well under the circumstances. But, for learning purposes, I’m going to delve into what I think they did right and what they did wrong.

How to Treat a Burn:
The Basics

If the person is aflame, get the flames out. Then:

  1. Call 911 if you can.
  2. Immediately remove burned clothing and jewelry in the affected area. (It can retain heat, and jewelry can get stuck if there’s a lot of swelling.)
  3. Cool the burn by draping water-soaked material around the skin.
  4. If you can’t get immediate medical attention, help prevent swelling by using cool cloths and keeping the burned area at heart level or above.
  5. Keep the burn clean, and apply antibiotic ointment until it’s completely healed.

Certain types of burns are more dangerous than others. I teach when you especially need medical help, how quickly, and what to do if you can’t get it, in The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Wounds. Here’s a preview: “Second- Vs. Third-Degree Burns—and Why the Worst One May Not Hurt.”

Right
  • Ms. Storm yelled for help. I don’t know if she or her daughter thought of it first, but no time was wasted in calling 911. OK, it’s pretty obvious that needed to be done in this case, but in any burn that involves more than a little of the neck or face, it’s the right thing to do (after you get the fire out if the person is aflame). The reason is the smoke and heat can injured the lining of your lungs, and the burn can cause swelling. Either of these problems can quickly lead to trouble breathing.
  • At the same time her daughter was calling 911, Hannah was taking off her shirt. Even if the shirt had not been aflame or even if she had been able to immediately douse herself in water, burned material continues to retain a surprising amount of heat. This is no time to be shy. Immediately take off burned clothing and jewelry that’s in the affected area.
Wrong

OK, now for a slight criticism. The ice wasn’t the best idea. I know you do what you can in the spur of the moment, but for future reference, ice is so cold it constricts blood vessels and limits blood flow that the injured tissue needs so badly to survive.

It would have been better to use water, or better yet a towel, sheet, or clothing soaked in water for her to drape around the burned skin.

What to Watch for Next

Ms. Storm was kept in the hospital for 24 hours. I presume this was to keep an eye on her airways. Burns can cause extensive swelling, so burns around the neck and face can swell enough to compromise breathing.

If someone you knew were to have burns in these areas, it would be wise to get medical help as soon as possible. If that’s out of the question, use cool cloths to try to limit the swelling, and keep the burned areas at heart level or above. In this case, it would mean keeping the head and neck slightly raised if the person is lying down.

In a few weeks, Ms. Storm was able to return to work, albeit with bandaged hands, singed eyebrows, and very short hair (she wore a wig).

One of the main things to remember in your recovery is your primary defense against infection (your skin) has been damaged. Think of the burn as a hole in the wall of your fortress. From sunburns to the deepest of burns, keep the area exquisitely clean, and apply antibiotic ointment until the burn has completely healed. It’s your best bet to keep the invaders at bay.

In my e-book The Survival Doctor’s Guide to Burns I share more detailed information on different burns and how to treat them.

How about you? Have you ever had a scary burn?

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Photo: Flickr/warriorwoman531