Burn Survivor Who Received Lifesaving Care at Torrance Memorial Gives Back Through Volunteering
Dustin Varela achieves certification to support fellow burn survivors through the Phoenix SOAR program and stays connected with his "Torrance Memorial family" through weekly volunteer service.
Written by Lisa Buffington
On September 3, 2015, Dustin Varela of San Pedro was severely burned in a building fire in Harbor City. With burns covering 70% of his body, Varela was taken to Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s Burn Center, where burn surgeon Vimal Murthy, MD, burn and reconstructive plastic surgeon Matthew Reiss, MD, and plastic surgeon John K. McKissock, MD, provided lifesaving—and later, life-enhancing—treatment.
“I don’t remember the worst parts of what happened to me during my hospital stay because I was in a coma for six weeks, during which time my lungs collapsed and I was almost lost as a result. But unfortunately for everyone else in my family, they remember,” says Varela. “However, I actually remember almost everything from my hospital stay after my time in the coma. I had to re-learn how to walk, talk, swallow and eat.”
Dr. Murthy, who managed most of Varela’s acute inpatient care, says Varela, then age 30, was fortunate to survive. “Dustin was young and healthy at the time of the accident. If he had been older or had other health problems, his injuries may have killed him.”
Comprehensive, Multidisciplinary and Supportive Burn Care
As one of only three American Burn Association-verified centers in the region and under the leadership of Dr. Murthy and Dr. Reiss, the Burn Center at Torrance Memorial provides comprehensive burn and wound care for children and adults.
The Torrance Memorial Burn Center team includes board-certified general and plastic surgeons with fellowship training in burn treatment, as well as physical, occupational and speech therapists, social workers/counselors, respiratory therapists, and psychiatrists who specialize in helping patients recover physically and emotionally.
As Varela began his recovery journey, the focus of his treatment changed from lifesaving to life-optimizing. Varela received most of his burn and reconstructive care from Dr. Reiss, while the Burn Center nurses attended to his everyday needs, as well as the needs of his loved ones.
“The support I received from the nurses was unreal,” says Varela. “My mom was practically living at the hospital while I was there, and the nurses took care of her just as well as they were taking care of me.”
All told, Varela’s inpatient stay at the Torrance Memorial Burn Center lasted six months. Since Varela’s discharge from the hospital, Dr. Reiss has performed surgeries every three to six months for the past six years to enhance Varela’s mobility and improve his quality of life.
Learning to SOAR
During Varela’s hospital stay, he met with a volunteer from Phoenix SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery), a program run by the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors to connect survivors and their families with others who have experienced a similar trauma.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I was discharged from the hospital,” says Varela. “The SOAR volunteer answered my questions about medical care, life and everything in between.”
When Varela returned to the Burn Center’s annual holiday party to visit with the physicians and nurses who saved his life, several nurses told him he should think about becoming a SOAR volunteer.
“I thought, ‘Even if I am only able to help one person through SOAR, then I am able to help pay it forward and hope it snowballs from there’,” says Varela.
“Despite his injuries and adversities, Dustin is an affable, charismatic, loving and generous human being,” says Dr. Reiss. “For Dustin, SOAR is a gateway to help other people.”
“Dustin’s strong family support system and resiliency is reflected in his interest in giving back to others,” says Dr. Murthy.
Finding a New Path for Giving Back
After several days of training provided by Phoenix SOAR, Varela was ready to help. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed his plans. Pandemic-related restrictions have prevented Varela from connecting with his first burn survivor. But staying true to his upbeat, “never-give-up” attitude, Varela has found another way to give back.
“Even though SOAR remains on hold, Dustin still wanted to serve,” says Mary Matson, director of service excellence at Torrance Memorial. “He volunteers every week as part of our escort services program, which assists with discharging patients and other errands around the hospital—and he is a great member of our team.”
Varela, now age 37, enjoys spending time with his family—especially his parents and his 10-year-old niece, whom he credits with providing unwavering support and encouragement. And through his volunteering at Torrance Memorial, Varela is able to stay in contact with what he refers to as his “Torrance Memorial family.”
“I spent so much time at the hospital, it became like my second home. Volunteering allows me to keep in touch with people and give back to the hospital that saved my life,” says Varela. “And since my accident, I’ve adopted a motto I like to tell myself and others when life is being unfair: ‘It’s life; we’ve just got to go with it’.”