Real life

An oil rig­ger de­fied all odds to sur­vive burns over 95 per cent of his body. His wife tells his story.

Friday - - Contents -

Iwas 15 when I first met Billy Jack. He was work­ing in a gro­cery shop and a friend and I went in to buy a drink. My friend knew him and in­tro­duced us. Billy Jack was 17, had al­ready left school and seemed so­phis­ti­cated as well as hand­some.

The next day he found out where I lived and came round with a gi­ant bunch of roses. I couldn’t re­sist him from that mo­ment on. We mar­ried three years later, when I was 18. Jack was my per­fect man – good look­ing, with a bit of swag­ger on the out­side, but kind and re­spect­ful on the in­side.

I loved him and was so happy. We were both work­ing hard – I started a beauty salon while Billy Jack went to work on an oil rig six hours from where we lived in­West Texas, US. He’d work seven days away, then be back for a week.

It was hard at first, and I missed him when he was away, but we got used to his shift pat­tern. His new job meant we had a bet­ter life. We had a nice home and cars. We were both de­lighted when I be­came preg­nant two years later, and had a lit­tle girl, Car­ney.

We fell into a rou­tine – a week on and a week off, jug­gling the salon, his job and our daugh­ter, who was grow­ing up fast. That car­ried on for years, but it never got any eas­ier to say good­bye.

One day Billy Jack had to get up early to be­gin the long jour­ney to the rig. I was still in bed, and he kept run­ning back to kiss me and Car­ney good­bye. “I love you,” he smiled. “I don’t want to go.” I hugged him tight; I hated it when he was away, but he had to leave oth­er­wise he’d be late. “Get out of here!’’ I said, laugh­ing. Billy Jack winked, then left. I was so busy, drop­ping Car­ney, then six, off at school, and work­ing. I snatched chats with Billy Jack when he was work­ing – this time he was on nights. So when my phone rang on his third day away at mid­night, I picked it up ex­pect­ing to hear his voice. “Hi honey,” I whis­pered, so as not to wake up Car­ney, who was sleep­ing be­side me.

But it wasn’t Billy Jack. It was Bob Quick, his drilling part­ner.

“I am in your drive­way, can you let me in?’’ he said, and I sat bolt up­right. Fear knot­ted in my stom­ach. I’d known Bob, 42, for more than five years. What was he do­ing here? Was Billy Jack hurt? Or – my head was spin­ning just think­ing of it – was it some­thing worse? I wanted to ask what was wrong, but no words came. My mouth was so dry I could hardly swal­low. I dropped the phone and, slip­ping out of bed qui­etly,

I grabbed my dress­ing gown.

My hands were shak­ing so much I fum­bled with the cord, try­ing to tie a knot around my waist. A sense of fore­bod­ing pressed down on me, and I kept see­ing my mother’s face. My dad had been badly burnt in 1970. A miner, he had been tun­nelling when there was a nat­u­ral gas ex­plo­sion and he was burnt from the waist up. It was a mir­a­cle he had sur­vived.

“I hope you never have to go through that,’’ Mum had once said when she learnt Billy Jack was work­ing in a po­ten­tially high-risk area like a rig.

Now her words were ring­ing in my ears – so much so that I de­cided to call her right away.

Mum and Dad lived just down the road. Numb, I punched in their num­ber. “Some­thing’s wrong,” I croaked when Mum an­swered. “Please come.” Then I hur­ried down­stairs, my legs buck­ling they were trem­bling so much.

Nerve-wrack­ing jour­ney to hos­pi­tal

Bob and his wife Peggy were stand­ing on the doorstep, their faces white. “There’s been an ex­plo­sion,” Bob told me quickly. Billy Jack’s been burnt. We don’t know how bad it is.’’

He didn’t have any de­tails, but he wanted to take me to the hos­pi­tal in Shreve­port Louisiana, which was three hours’ drive away. “Get dressed and let’s go,” he said. On au­to­matic pi­lot, I found my clothes and got Car­ney ready to go to my par­ents.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll be all right,’’ Mum said, try­ing to calm me. “You just go on to the hos­pi­tal and I’ll take care of Car­ney.’’

I was numb, as Bob drove. We were silent as I kept will­ing Billy Jack to be OK. About 30 min­utes later, my phone rang. It was a nurse from the burns unit at the hos­pi­tal.

“Is this A’leta McDaniel?’’ she asked, and ter­ror twisted in­side. I didn’t want to an­swer, didn’t want her to tell me any bad news. But I couldn’t stay silent for ever. “Yes,’’ I fi­nally said. “I have your hus­band here.’’ Relief thud­ded through me. “Is he OK?’’ I asked. I had a med­i­cal back­ground – hav­ing trained to be a cer­ti­fied med­i­cal as­sis­tant, be­fore do­ing a course in beauty and make-up – and knew about burns. I wanted to know what we were deal­ing with. “He’s burnt,’’ she said. “How bad?’’ “Very bad.’’ I took a deep breath. “Tell him we love him and I’m on my way,” I said, steel­ing my­self for what was ahead. It must be re­ally bad for her to say that, I re­alised. I knew I had to be strong so Billy Jack knew he was go­ing to be OK, so I was com­posed when we fi­nally ar­rived at the hos­pi­tal.

Dr Kevin Sit­tig, the di­rec­tor of the re­gional burn cen­tre, was wait­ing to see us. “Your hus­band has re­ceived third-de­gree burns on 95 per cent of his body.’’ I bit down on my lip, hold­ing back the tears.

“The nurses are wrap­ping him up now, and then you can see him,’’ he said. There was no talk of treat­ment, noth­ing about surgery, skin grafts, the fu­ture. That was be­cause no one ex­pected him to live­live.

The doc­tors who had seen Billy Jack gave him lit­tle chance of re­cov­er­ing. They were just wait­ing for him to die. I shook my head.

“He will be OK,” I said and the doc­tor gave me a kind smile. He didn’t be­lieve me. He thought he knew bet­ter, that no one could sur­vive such burns. But he didn’t know my hus­band. At 183cm and tip­ping the scales at 110kg, Billy Jack was a trained vol­un­teer fire­fighter, who was al­ways ready to face any­thing in life. In­clud­ing this.

Af­ter wait­ing hours I was even­tu­ally led to see my hus­band. I gasped. Noth­ing about him looked hu­man. He was cov­ered in white gauze from head to toe and only his eye­balls and mouth were vis­i­ble. His tongue was en­larged and was hang­ing out of his mouth. It looked like he weighed about 400kg as his whole body was swollen.

I held back tears as I bent to whis­per into his ear. “Hey, we haven’t got time for this,” I said, forc­ing my­self to sound nor­mal. “We need to get you up and out of here. I love you, you are go­ing to be fine. Don’t be scared, don’t worry about any­thing…’’

I wanted to hold his hand but I couldn’t. He was com­pletely swathed in ban­dages. “Keep on talk­ing,’’ said a nurse who was hunched over a bank of mon­i­tors hooked up to Billy Jack. “His vi­tal signs went up when you spoke to him.’’

But I could not con­tinue for long. My throat grew tight. My voice was chok­ing and I was over­come by emo­tion. It was too much see­ing my big, strong hus­band ly­ing there help­less, barely hang­ing on. It broke me. It took all my strength not to break down next to Billy Jack. All I wanted to do was kiss him, but I was scared to hurt him, even though he was in a med­i­cally in­duced coma and on painkillers.

I put my head in my hands, and that’s when I re­alised I’d been al­lowed in with­out wear­ing a gown or scrub­bing up be­cause the doc­tors didn’t think Billy Jack would last the night. But he did. And the one af­ter that. Doc­tors were sur­prised. He was kept on a ven­ti­la­tor and in the coma to help his body re­cover from the trauma.

Tapped in a fire­ball

It was only on the third day that the de­tails of the ac­ci­dent were slowly told to me. It was on the third day of his shift – Fri­day, March 3, 2006, just af­ter 11.30pm. Billy Jack had been work­ing about 27 me­tres off the rig floor when there was an ex­plo­sion just be­low the plat­form he was stand­ing on. Leak­ing gas ig­nited, trap­ping Billy Jack in a fire that was rag­ing at well over 1,500°C. It lasted for more than 20 sec­onds be­fore it could be put out.

He tried un­suc­cess­fully to jump – to safety or death – while con­tin­u­ing to beat him­self in an ef­fort to ex­tin­guish the flames.

His hard hat melted and dripped on to his face and large chunks of burnt skin were fall­ing off his body. Amaz­ingly, he was still con­scious when his co-work­ers reached him. They got him off the rig and into an am­bu­lance. He ar­rived at the hos­pi­tal scream­ing.

Now that Billy Jack had man­aged to sur­vive 72 hours, doc­tors re­alised he had a slim chance and be­gan re­mov­ing the burned skin from his body and gave him blood trans­fu­sions – a to­tal of 80. “Re­cov­ery is still un­likely at this point,’’ one of the doc­tors warned me. “Burn pa­tients have a high risk of pneu­mo­nia and sep­tic in­fec­tions as long as they have open wounds. We are do­ing what we can.”

But Billy Jack kept hold­ing on. The con­di­tion of his vi­tal or­gans was not known at the time he was ad­mit­ted but based on his burns the doc­tors were sure there was lung dam­age. Ten days af­ter the ac­ci­dent when his chest X-ray was taken, the doc­tors were in for a shock – he had no in­ter­nal dam­age from the burns or from the fire.

Two weeks later the doc­tors brought him out of an in­duced coma. The mo­ment he came to, Billy Jack be­gan to panic be­cause he had no idea where he was. “Don’t worry, it’s all right,’’ I said, so happy to see him awake.

I didn’t bring Car­ney in to see her daddy – I was wor­ried she would be scared see­ing him wrapped up in ban­dages and with tubes com­ing out of his body. “He’s in hos­pi­tal and get­ting bet­ter,’’ I told her when­ever she asked me about him. I showed Billy Jack pic­tures of her. Slowly, he re­cov­ered un­til three months later, all tubes were re­moved af­ter the doc­tors found he could breathe, eat and drink on his own.

Billy Jack then wanted to see him­self and doc­tors al­lowed him to take a look in the mir­ror.

“I wish I had died,’’ he said, star­ing at his re­flec­tion. “Car­ney will think I am a mon­ster.”

He had lost his ears and his face was just a mass of tis­sue. The skin of most of his trunk was miss­ing. He still had a tra­cheostomy – a sur­gi­cal open­ing made in the neck to de­liver oxy­gen more eas­ily to the lungs.

“Don’t worry. It will all get bet­ter,’’ I com­forted him.

“Are you sure?’’ he asked me. “I am not sure I will be able to do any­thing that I used to. I feel use­less ly­ing here like this.’’

Wip­ing away the tears, I said, “You are alive, there is still pur­pose for your life. You will get bet­ter. You sur­vived the hor­ren­dous fire. You can come back to your usual self.’’

I knew the best thing for him was to see Car­ney so I ar­ranged to bring her in. He was ap­pre­hen­sive about what she would say when she saw him. “Car­ney will think I am a mon­ster,’’ he kept re­peat­ing.

The mo­ment she walked into the room, the first thing he asked her was “Daddy looks dif­fer­ent, doesn’t he, Baby?’’ Car­ney smiled and gen­tly held his hand.

“Yeah, but you still look real good, Daddy,’’ she replied with a big smile. She wasn’t afraid at all af­ter see­ing him, and her ac­cep­tance of how he looked was heal­ing for him.

I had told her that he had been se­verely burnt and that he had lost lot of his skin but that he was also re­cu­per­at­ing. Of course, there were mo­ments when Billy Jack would slump into de­pres­sion, but I’d re­mind him that he could have died, and that he had ev­ery­thing to look for­ward to. Then he’d cheer him­self up and chat­ter on, talk­ing about what he was go­ing to do when he came out of hos­pi­tal.

He had to un­dergo op­er­a­tion af­ter painful op­er­a­tion to re­build his face, and graft skin on to his burns.

Re­build­ing our lives

Af­ter four months and 17 days in hos­pi­tal we were able to move Billy Jack to a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre in our home­town of Jack­son Mis­sis­sippi. Ini­tially the doc­tors said he would have to be in hos­pi­tal for two years, but see­ing how he was pro­gress­ing, they agreed to let him come nearer to home, so that friends and fam­ily could all help with his phys­i­cal and men­tal re­cov­ery.

Al­though the cen­tre had no idea how to treat burn vic­tims, it was only 20 min­utes from our home, so I fought to get him in. I agreed to look af­ter him, and would change his dress­ings each day. His body was still like ham­burger meat, but

I learnt to deal with it.

He also needed a 3,000 calo­rie-aday diet – re­quired for his body to heal it­self.

On Au­gust 23, 2006, five months af­ter the ac­ci­dent, Billy Jack was al­lowed home, one of the sur­vivors of the worst burns in Amer­ica. From there we had a hard few years of ther­apy.

The nurses at the hos­pi­tal burn unit taught me how to do his dress­ing changes at home. Be­cause he was big and needed to be moved with ex­treme care so as not to hurt the skin grafts that were still heal­ing, my dad and brother-in-law helped me with the dress­ing from the time we left the hos­pi­tal.

Billy Jack would scream out in pain ev­ery time I did the dress­ing changes for the first six months. We would both be cry­ing by the time it was fin­ished, as I couldn’t bear to see him suf­fer­ing so much.

For nearly four years, Billy Jack had to un­dergo ther­apy in­clud­ing mas­sages to keep his mus­cles in shape and skin sup­ple as skin grafts can go hard. He also had a to­tal of 120 op­er­a­tions in­clud­ing re­con­struc­tive surgery to in­crease limb mo­bil­ity and func­tion.

Ini­tially I had to drive him for the ther­apy ses­sions. But a year af­ter his ac­ci­dent, he started driv­ing on his own, which was a huge mile­stone and con­fi­dence booster for Billy Jack. It was another step to­wards in­de­pen­dence and for Car­ney it meant be­ing able to see a very small glimpse of “Daddy” again.

In De­cem­ber 2009 we moved to a cooler cli­mate in North Carolina so it would help his body stay cool and help the skin grafts heal quicker. Liv­ing with his scars is not easy though. When­ever we go to a su­per­mar­ket peo­ple stare at him. “It’s hard when lit­tle kids scream when they see me up close,’’ he tells me. But that has not stopped him from go­ing out. “I’ve got to learn to live with it,’’ he says.

“The day Car­ney squeezed my hand and said, ‘You still look real good,’ that was one of the best days of my life,’’ he of­ten says.

Last year we wrote a book about our story called Dead Man Breath­ing and set up the Billy Jack McDaniel Non Profit, a char­ity ded­i­cated to ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about the im­por­tance of per­sonal and work­place safety and to help other burn vic­tims.

We are ad­vo­cates for the burn com­mu­nity, pro­vid­ing med­i­cal sup­plies for burns, as well as med­i­cal, le­gal and coun­selling re­sources to those who need it. Jack also speaks to cor­po­ra­tions and in­dus­tries to pro­mote safety. We help any­body we can as long as we are fi­nan­cially able to do so, but we are in des­per­ate need of funds at the mo­ment.

This tragedy will not de­fine who we are or have con­trol over us. It made us bet­ter, and we are shar­ing it with oth­ers to give the next per­son a ray of hope for their chal­lenge.

We only hope that no­body will ever have to un­dergo what we have.

A’leta, 35, lives in Ban­ner Elk, North Carolina

Billy Jack de­fied the medics, thanks to the love and sup­port of his fam­ily

The fam­ily has been on a long road to re­cov­ery, but they are able to smile again

The young cou­ple pic­tured in hap­pier times, top. Their love, de­vo­tion and sense of fam­ily has kept them strong, and their daugh­ter Car­ney, pic­tured with Billy Jack, is a credit to them

Billy Jack with his daugh­ter Car­ney. The day she told him, ‘You still look real good’ is one of the best days of his life

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