Carolyn Busch can think of a few major mile markers in her life. One was the birth of her only son, Wyatt, her “miracle baby.” Another happened on his 15th birthday when her shirt caught fire. There is life before the burn and life after. Her journey hasn’t been easy, but it’s been full of hope, resilience and kindness when it matters most.
When the unthinkable happens
Busch loves to throw elaborate birthday parties for her son. However, for this 15th birthday, at his request, she was keeping it simple — dinner on the patio with family. But that didn’t mean the evening couldn’t be perfect.
She had already spent a small fortune on King crab legs, picked up a beautiful birthday cake, and was setting the patio table, when she looked down and noticed the bottom of her top was black. It had caught fire from a votive candle. When she reached down to touch it to make sure it was out, her entire shirt burst into flames.
“I didn’t drop and roll,” Busch recalls. “I just wanted the shirt off me.” Her son heard her screams and came to help. After the fire was put out and the shirt removed, she was in shock. Busch recalls she still felt determined to finish the dinner.
However, it wasn’t long before she realized she needed to be in the emergency room. “Everything tasted like saw dust and I couldn’t pull myself together. I couldn’t stop crying,” recalls Busch, who says she normally has a high pain tolerance.
The emergency care team at UW Medical Center – Northwest confirmed she had made the right decision. And due to the severity of her burns, they sent her to the Regional Burn Center at Harborview Medical Center, the region’s only Level I trauma center.
Injuries can heal
Tam Pham, MD, professor of surgery at UW School of Medicine and director of the UW Medicine Regional Burn Center, thinks that uncertainty is probably one of the hardest things for traumatic injury patients. “You go from well to unwell in the span of seconds. That’s tough,” he says.
And that’s when having a caring team of experts looking after your wellbeing is especially important. Busch noticed the quality of care immediately. “Everybody at Harborview was very kind and gentle. Not an unkind word or an unkind touch,” she says. “When you’re in a disoriented situation, that is so comforting.”
Over the next few days, Busch stayed at Harborview and learned how to change her bandages, a very painful process. For burn patients, even air on the wound can feel excruciating.
Busch remembers asking one of her favorite nurses, Lauren, how she could stand working in a place surrounded by so much pain. Her reply stuck with her. “She said that she liked it because it was an injury and injuries could heal. These words were very important to me. I kept having to remind myself, this is not forever,” says Busch.
On the road to recovery
Over the span of a week, it became clear that Busch’s burns weren’t healing as hoped. In fact, they were becoming more painful. She would need surgery.
There were a few things that Busch first noticed about her surgeon, Dr. Pham, like his dry sense of humor and his compassion. But most of all, she remembers the way he made her feel — like a human being. “He really listened to me. He asked me about what I love to do. I talked about hiking and how important it was to me.”
She told Dr. Pham that for her a successful surgery meant she would be able to continue backpacking. With the knowledge of how important physical activity was for Busch, Dr. Pham decided to adjust the surgery, doubling the time it would take, so that she could have more mobility and flexibility.
“He listened,” says Busch. “That’s why he made this huge incision. It’s very jagged and it’s not pretty to look at. I do not care. It means I get to wear a pack.”
Dr. Pham says what he did for Busch isn’t unusual. He listens to every patient to ensure that his priorities and his patient’s priorities are aligned. That’s what’s most important. “Like I always tell my residents,” says Dr. Pham, “It’s a couple hours of your time but a lifetime for your patients. The journey is mostly on their own.”
However, Dr. Pham is quick to de-emphasize his role as an individual. Harborview, he says, is a vast system of nurses, therapists, surgeons, people who see you before surgery to make sure you’re ready and people who work with you afterwards. “We are a large team of people all with the same desire to achieve the best functional result possible for every patient,” he says.
An expression of gratitude
After the surgery, Busch immediately noticed a dramatic decrease in her pain levels. Soon she was back to her active lifestyle: biking to work, skiing and backpacking across mountain ranges. The summer after her surgery she showed Dr. Pham photos of herself backpacking across the Dolomites.
When she thinks back on her experience, she feels immense gratitude. “With his humor and his compassion, Dr. Pham brought me back from an injury that devastated me, and he gave me hope,” she says. “He could do that because he’s working with a great team of doctors. They know what they’re doing.”
Busch has acted on that gratitude. She shared her own story at the Benefit last November in support of Harborview’s work in burn care, spinal cord injuries, and long-term recovery from trauma. The evening was a resounding success because of people like Busch who helped to raise thousands of dollars.
Dr. Pham recognizes that most patients don’t have the ability or bandwidth to give back in the same way that Busch has, yet he feels immense gratitude when patients do give back in any way they can.
“Carolyn is engaged,” says Dr. Pham. “We want patients to be part of our team, helping us to design a better health system, and she’s doing exactly that.”
Busch’s motivation springs from the treatment she received — and that she saw others receiving at Harborview. “The people there care about every single one of their patients regardless of their income,” says Busch. “That to me is what Harborview does. They don’t judge you. They’re here to help you. That comes through loud and clear in how they treat you as a patient.”
Written by Eleanor Licata