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A Stunt Gone Wrong

HOW SPECIAL EFFECTS TECHNICIAN SCOTT WHEATLEY SURVIVED AN ON-SET FIRE THANKS TO THE TORRANCE MEMORIAL BURN UNIT

The work day started out as usual for special effects technician Scott Wheatley on the movie set of Mission Impossible III, located in Agua Dulce, California. Wheatley and his team were doing preliminary tests on a pyrotechnics stunt for the film prior to the start of shooting.

You are likely familiar with the trailer for the movie: a rocket screams into the scene and explodes a black SUV from behind. It flips forward, and Tom Cruise runs down the freeway bridge toward the camera. This is a unique shot, because most car explosions result in cars flipping sideways, not forward.

The first test did not go as planned for the special effects team, so Wheatley went back to reset it to try it again. Without warning, the pyrotechnics for the scene—full of gasoline—exploded violently and fully engulfed Wheatley in a fireball.

“The heat increased so intensely, it felt like it turned into a ton of pressure all over my skin—the pain was excruciating. I dove on the ground and began rolling and yelling for help. I felt as though I was alone. I couldn’t hear or see anyone. When I realized the fire was out, I noticed my co-workers standing around me,” recalls Wheatley.

“My concerns grew as I noticed the sense of urgency all around me. I began to think of my wife and kids. I prayed to God to let them know my love for them. I also prayed to be forgiven for anything that I already hadn’t. Even though I had a lot of pain, I had a lot of peace and strength. I handed my cell phone to a co-worker and asked him to please call my wife to tell her what happened and where I was to be going.”

Wheatley was eventually transported to Torrance Memorial and admitted to the Burn Center, where Vimal Murthy, MD, medical director of the unit, became his primary doctor. The Burn Center admits 130 to 150 people annually into its eight-bed wing.

The burns seen here can be categorized by age: Toddlers are usually admitted for scalds, typically of the pull-down type (picture a child reaching up to a stove and getting burned by heated liquid). In the adult population, the doctors see more flame burns from cooking mishaps, gas grills and fireplace accidents. The elderly population is often admitted because of fires that result from smoking in bed and patients on oxygen (which burns extremely hot). Those who work in and around chemicals are also seen for sustained chemical burns.

“The general guideline says for every percent of body burned, a patient will be in the hospital one day,” explains Dr. Murthy. “So for a major burn—20% or more of the body—a patient is looking at a two- to three-week stay. But again, this is a guideline, not a mandate.”

Scott Wheatley’s stay at Torrance Memorial lasted 110 days (four months). His wife’s stay at a local hotel lasted the same amount of time, while extended family moved into their home to care for their three sons. Scott sustained first-, second- and third-degree burns to 67% of his body on both upper and lower extremities.

“Burns are a unique and life-changing injury,” explains Matthew J. Reiss, MD, who works with burns and reconstructive plastic surgery in the Torrance Memorial Burn Center. “Care of the burn patient is undertaken in a multidisciplinary fashion, with surgeons, psychiatric services, pain management, critical care, nutrition and physical and occupational therapy—all coordinated under the burn surgeons.”

“This was a very difficult time for all of us, yet at the same time Scott was being treated for his injuries, I too was being treated with care and sincere compassion from the staff,” explains Mary Wheatley, Scott’s wife of 31 years.

A UNIQUE TEAM

“Because of the large, multi-specialty team needed to treat burns, there are only three centers in Los Angeles,” says Dr. Reiss. Torrance Memorial is unique from other hospitals. Its burn center serves the entire Los Angeles area—a population of around 9,900,000 people.

“Because burn centers are scarce, we want to make sure our patients have optimal care. It is a somewhat unique aspect of our hospital, and we serve both adult and pediatric populations,” explains Dr. Murthy. “There is an expectation to provide great care in the unit, and that is what we strive to do.

“I was told by the ER doctor at Henry Mayo [where Wheatley was sent to be stabilized] that Scott was flown to Torrance Memorial. ‘Torrance?’ I said. ‘What and who is Torrance?’” recalls Mary.

“It ended up being a great thing that I went to Torrance Memorial,” says Wheatley. “Dr. Murthy got me through it. It was a battle, and it was a challenge. I don’t think it was easy for him.”

RECOVERY–ONE DAY AT A TIME

Wheatley woke up—after nine weeks in a drug-induced coma—in a hospital room. He thought it was the same day as the accident. He could not speak because of a trachea in his throat, and he could not hear or see at first because of the ointments the hospital staff had applied to his head injuries.

“Burns are treated in a variety of ways,” says Dr. Reiss. “We use a number of different topical medications, depending on the patient’s needs. Bigger injuries often need extensive surgeries with skin grafts or synthetic grafts. Sometimes more complicated reconstructive surgeries are done as well.”

Wheatly was scared and frustrated with his injuries. He had three surgeons on his team, a respiratory technician, doctors for his sight and hearing, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. He had to re-learn how to talk and eat and walk. Overall, his body weight fluctuated more than 100 pounds during his stay.

“There’s a joke in our family that I was seen by every type of doctor in the hospital except a pediatrician and an OB/GYN,” says Wheatley.

“After their initial stay in the burn center, patients are followed as an outpatient and will have physical and occupational therapy, psychological follow-up and often further reconstructive procedures from laser therapy to plastic surgery,” says Dr. Reiss. “During the acute period, patients also frequently get very ill from the injury and need the level of Intensive Critical Care, including ventilator and fluid support.”

In addition to Wheatley’s medical treatment, the nurses were wonderful with supporting Mary. “They helped her understand what was going on from medical, physical and psychological perspectives. They really helped my wife out, and she was so thankful that the staff there was so diligent and open,” says Wheatley.

“Watching and learning and documenting Scott’s progress, the procedures done, test results, even blood pressure—Dr. Murthy and the nurses explained to me what could and might happen due to the unpredictable changes that a burn patient endures,” says Mary. “I was told that there would be good days along with bad days. You can take one step forward and two steps back, and these words will forever stay with me: ‘You are not out of the woods until you are in the parking lot and your keys are in the ignition.’”

Burn patients run a high risk of complications. Skin infections occur because of the raw, open wounds. Bacteria that live on the skin’s surface are attracted to breaks in the skin, putting these patients at increased risk of infection. Patients might also have lung problems from smoke inhalation or even pneumonia over time.

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