It was 4 a.m., and his wife had heard something outside. Opening the front door of their Snoqualmie house, Alan Leong saw a wall of fire reaching up to the roof. Realizing the fire was too intense to fight with a fire extinguisher — and that it was now too dangerous for his wife, Janet, to leave through the front door — Leong steeled himself and dashed back in, pulling Janet and their two French bulldogs out the back door and into the hot summer night.

By the time they came around to the front of the house, firefighters had arrived and were battling the blaze, started by the spontaneous combustion of their compost bin in the intense August heat. As Leong’s panic slowly ebbed, the pain seeped in. “I had second- and third-degree burns on my arms, my face and my left leg,” he says. “I hadn’t even realized it.”

An ambulance rushed Leong to a nearby hospital. “They took one look at me and sent me to Harborview,” Leong says. Tam Pham, M.D., director of the UW Medicine Regional Burn Center, treated Leong. After staying overnight, he was sent home — but once the bandages came off a week later, the real work of recovery would begin.

At the hospital, a physical therapist had visited Leong, warning him that he would need to exercise regularly to stretch his skin as it healed. During follow-up visits, nurses explained how his healing was progressing and recommended medications and supplements to take or avoid. Leong followed the instructions to the letter, and was surprised to learn that isn’t always the case.

“Unfortunately, not all patients listen to their doctors, and when they don’t, they may find later that they have limited mobility because their skin is so tight, or that it looks really bad,” Leong says. A project manager at Boeing, he talked with Pham about their shared interest in using technology to help patients maintain a healing regimen after they leave the hospital.

Continuing to heal at home can be hard, Pham admits. Burn therapy can be painful, and once patients leave the hospital, they have competing demands on their time: work, family and other priorities.

“So how can we keep you, the patient, engaged? How do you motivate yourself and advance along the path of recovery?” he asks. “What are the missing ingredients — engagement, technology, community or fun? As providers, we can’t be at your side all the time, so I’m looking for tools to bridge that gap.”

One idea is a virtual-reality headset that can help patients visualize how their choices can affect their healing skin. Another, now being tested in a clinical trial, is a virtual-environment home rehabilitation program using wristbands that remotely monitor patients’ physical activity.

“Being able to participate in a young specialty where we can really improve outcomes is exciting,” says Pham. “I’m very interested in adopting technological tools to help patients.”

Six months later, Leong is healing well, and the couple is rebuilding their house. In the meantime, their neighbors had rallied, offering places to stay, transportation and other help. “The outpouring of support was overwhelming,” says Leong. And that includes the support from his care team at the burn center, too.

“The only place I would recommend for burn treatment is Harborview,” he says.


With a gift to the Burn Memorial Discretionary Fund.