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Originally published April 3, 2010 at 5:36 PM | Page modified April 3, 2010 at 8:45 PM

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Long, painful recovery awaits Anacortes blast survivors

If they have made it this far, the victims of the Anacortes refinery explosion will probably survive — but they have a long, painful recovery ahead, said Dr. Tam Pham, a burn-trauma specialist at the UW Medicine Burn Center at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

If they have made it this far, the victims of Friday's refinery explosion in Anacortes will probably survive — but they have a long, painful recovery ahead.

About one in every two severely burned patients does not survive the first 48 hours of trauma. But if a patient makes it through that critical period, he or she has a 96 percent chance of living, said Dr. Tam Pham, a surgeon and burn-trauma specialist at the UW Medicine Burn Center at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Two of the four patients airlifted to the hospital for treatment remained in critical condition Saturday. They are Matt Gumbel, 34, of Oak Harbor, and Lew Janz, 41, of Anacortes. The two others, Kathryn Powell, 28, of Burlington, and Donna Van Dreumel, 36, of Oak Harbor, died Friday at Harborview.

The patients were burned over more than half of their bodies.

Refinery workers who died at the scene of the explosion were Daniel J. Aldridge, 50, of Anacortes; Matthew C. Bowen, 31, of Arlington; and Darrin J. Hoines, 43, of Ferndale.

Pham spoke at a news conference Friday. He did not discuss the particulars of the patients' injuries, to protect their privacy. But he explained how patients with similar injuries are usually treated at Harborview and described the recovery process.

The treatment team — about 20 people per patient — focuses first on supporting vital functions as the body responds to the injury with massive swelling. Patients with severe burns require about 2 liters of fluid an hour just to avoid a collapse of bodily functions as blood rushes to the injured areas.

Within the first week, a surgeon must remove the burned tissue to stop the swelling and prevent infection.

Next, surgeons harvest skin from the patient to graft to the burned areas. Skin from any other source would be rejected.

For patients with very large burned areas, such as the victims of the refinery explosion, surgeons at Harborview may use an artificial skin, made of shark and bovine tissue, to provide a platform over which the body grows its own new skin. The lower, artificial layer eventually becomes integrated into the patient's own tissue.

The patients can expect a long hospitalization — several months at least — and follow-up treatment. Pain and itching are a torment as the skin heals.

Surgeons, physical therapists, psychologists, nurses and other specialists all are involved in the healing effort, but in the end it is the patients and their families with the most work ahead of them. "These are some of the most devastating injuries you can imagine," Pham said.

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Pham, 37, said he has seen some patients emerge from recovery as changed people, in some ways for the better. "It is such a challenge to the human spirit, it can uncover the potential in all of us," he said.

The burn center is one of the largest in the country, and more than 15,000 patients, including most all burn patients in Washington, have been treated there since the center opened in 1974.

Harborview, and the burn center, serve patients in the four-state area of Idaho, Washington, Montana and Alaska.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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