My son survived

An Alberta mom shares the powerful story of a tragic propane explosion and how it changed her family forever.

By Karly Hribnak
My son survived

On August 31, 2012, we were all packed up and ready to go for a weekend of fly fishing, camping and family bonding—a fun send-off to summer with my side of the family. My husband, two sons and I left our home in Okotoks, Alberta, later than we’d planned. We arrived at the campsite just southwest of Calgary around 9 PM. The campfire was in full swing with 12 adults and children sitting around it.

After a late dinner of leftovers, we set up a small propane heater in my dad’s trailer where the four of us were going to sleep. I had reservations about the safety of using the heater, but it was supposed to dip just below freezing that night. So I declared we’d “just take the chill off ” and not have it on while we slept.

After joining everyone at the campfire, my nearly 13-year-old son, Ty, said he was chilly and wanted to change into something warmer. I reminded him where the lights were in the trailer and continued chatting with my step-sister.

What happened next is now a mix of fuzzy details and extreme clarity. It’s all so surreal.

Mid-conversation, my step-sister’s eyes got huge, looking at something over my shoulder. My husband, Jeff, screamed “What the h#&l?” and a sudden whooshing sound followed. Jeff turned in time to see a fireball, the size of a small car, come out of the trailer.

I turned to see what the commotion was and I heard Ty scream. (A scream no parent ever wants to hear.) I leapt from my chair and began running towards the trailer only to watch Ty and my dad come staggering out, both of them flaming, smoldering and peeling off burning clothes.

Jeff reached Ty first and was instantly pouring water on him, using jugs of water. My step-mom began pouring water on my dad and I looked up to see flames dancing in the trailer. 

Taking another jug, I rushed for the trailer. I knew that less than 15-feet away my one-year-old niece and three-year-old nephew were sleeping. Plus my 10-year-old son, Coltan, family and friends were nearby and at risk. 

When I got inside, the flames were about knee height, dancing around the heater and licking a nearby wall. After dousing the flames, I turned off the propane and returned to my dad and Ty. 

By this point, we had run out of water and Jeff was running to and from the nearby creek for more. Ty was cold, but he would feel the burns starting to sting as they continued through deeper layers of tissue. We had to get the heat out.

Both of Ty’s arms were badly burned. He had burns on his face—his eyebrows and eyelashes were gone. My dad had burns to his knees, face, back, arms and side. All I could smell was burnt hair, burnt flesh, burnt wood, burnt plastic, burnt fabrics. Just burnt.

Ty distinctly remembered what happened in the trailer. He had smelled propane, and pointed it out to my dad. Smelling nothing, my dad leaned over the heater to have a look while Ty continued to change. 

Not able to see anything, my dad pulled out his constant light source, his lighter, and unintentionally ignited the leaking propane. (We later found out from the investigation that a missing O-ring from the hose to the heater was the cause of the leak.)

I remember looking for Coltan, wanting to be sure he was safe. I found him calmly standing just outside the chaos, watching everything. I put my step-sister, who was near hysterics, in charge of him. Although, I think that was more for her benefit than his.

We were about 30 kilometres from a Wilderness Fire Station, 45 kilometres from the nearest major roadway and about 60 kilometres from the last available cell service. Help would not come to us, we would have to go to it.

My dad lost consciousness before we were able to get him into his truck, but Ty, while trembling and shaking and clearly badly burned, was still conscious and incredibly calm.

My step-mom, who had the most medical training, got into the backseat with Ty and my dad. Jeff was in the driver’s seat and I was on the passenger’s side. I turned around and focused on Ty.  He would begin to hyperventilate, so I would get him focused on his breathing. I would tell him to look at me: “Breathe in. And breathe out. That's it. And again, breathe in. And breathe out. We have to stay nice and calm. Breathe in....and breathe out. That's it. You're doing great."

Speeding ahead of us, on an ATV, in his underpants and socks, was my brother-in-law who had been woken up by the explosion.  He wanted to prepare the fire station for our arrival. Since it was all gravel road, our travel was excruciatingly slow.

My dad gained consciousness on the way. “I shouldn't have been so stupid, Ty said he smelled propane,” he kept saying. “What was I thinking?”  

“Shoulda, coulda, woulda, Dad,” I replied. “Let's deal with the here and now. Focus on breathing. Stay conscious. We need you.”

He was worried about Ty’s welfare, and I told him: “Let me be Ty's mom. I promise I will look after him. Trust me, I got Ty.”

Arriving at the station, the firemen took control, sending Jeff to talk to STARS (our helicopter ambulance service), putting my step-mom with my dad and me with Ty. They wanted them both into tepid baths to keep drawing out the heat. But only one bathtub was available. Because of the nature of my dad’s injuries, he went to the bathtub and Ty and I went up to the dorm room showers.

Directly across from the row of showers were mirrors. I wished with all my heart that I could cover them over. Every time Ty stepped out of his five-minute interval showers while we waited for paramedics, he was faced with looking at himself.

From his trembling, breathing patterns, the tone of his voice and the cold in his fingers and toes, I could tell he was in shock. But typical of him, he was cracking jokes about no longer needing a haircut since his hair was so singed and how his hand resembled a poorly cooked chicken breast.

Like in the truck, I kept reminding him to breathe slowly. To be honest those reminders were as much for me as they were for him.

The paramedics arrived and stabilized Ty and my dad, putting them into ambulances to meet STARS. We quickly returned to the campsite with the windows down (the burnt smell was horrific). Once there, Jeff and I grabbed Coltan, the dog and our car. We had contacted my mom from the satellite phone, asking her to meet Ty at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. We had a two-and-a-half-hour drive to get there, and I didn’t want him alone when he arrived.

We arrived shortly after Ty was moved from emergency to ICU. I was astounded to see the child on the stretcher in front of me. He looked nothing like my son. 

When I left him at the fire station, he was communicating, cracking jokes, covered in forming blisters but, all things considered, he was in good shape.  In two short hours, he had been intubated (his airway was swelling) and heavily sedated to keep him comfortable. He had also become incredibly swollen, and his skin was taking on a leather-like appearance. 

We were introduced to multiple doctors, residents, plastic surgeons and intensivists within the first hour. Having had no sleep in nearly 24 hours, it was an intense experience.

The next day, I left Ty with Jeff and hurried the two kilometres to the Foothills Hospital where my dad had been taken. He was in good shape, bandaged, coherent, stable and filled with guilt. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was to return to Ty and not come back until he was stable.

As I was leaving the Foothills I received a text message from Jeff saying, “Hurry Back, Cardiologist here.” 

In Ty’s room, I found four doctors, four nurses and an assortment of new tubes attached to Ty. His blood pressure was dangerously low and he wasn’t responding to any drugs. His heart was trying to compensate by beating at 172 beats per minute (a normal resting rate for children over 10 is 60 to 100 bpm).

Ty was eventually stabilized. But I became increasingly superstitious, refusing to allow the nurses to turn Ty to the right, refusing to pull out the single chair that converted into a bed, even fearing leaving the room for as much as a bathroom break because all those things had “caused” his blood pressure to crash before. 

The first night I pulled out the Hide-a-Bed, I woke up to his nurse coming in to check on him. It didn’t alarm me at first, but following her were two residents, an attending, multiple nurses and a crash cart.  After three stressful hours, they were finally able to stabilize his fluid levels and blood pressure. I vowed never to pull out the bed again.

Due to the incredible support of our family, friends and employer, Jeff and I were able to be at Ty’s side nearly 100 percent of the time, leaving only for showers, the bathroom or meals. My friend came and stayed at our house to care for Coltan, the dog and the cats. My mom brought us clean clothes and “grab-and-go” meals.

Tuesday, September 4, was one of my lowest days. We met the burn team and the plastic surgeon pulled us aside to tell us Ty had deep tissue, second- and third-degree burns over 22 percent of his body. He anticipated having to graft as much as 90 percent of his right arm, 60 percent of his face, chest, ears and neck and 40 percent of his left arm.

Then I watched the plastic surgeon literally peeling the dead, leathery skin from my son’s arms and face.  It was like watching him peel a banana. I handled it well, until the bandaging was replaced. While we were working, I was able to think and feel like a nurse’s assistant, opening packages, handing them scissors, tape and Polysporin.

But the moment the bandages were back on, I was his mom again and it all came crashing in on me. I realized the depth of the tissue damage and the depth of his injuries. I had to face that my son was forever changed, forever scarred, and our whole family was forever different. In that moment, I had no idea what all that was going to look like down the road. It was the first time I let myself cry. 

Thankfully, things started looking up a couple of days later. On Thursday, September 6, we celebrated when they scoped Ty’s throat and found no evidence of burn damage. They were able to transfer his ventilator to his nose, making lip reading more successful. This was also the first day that wasn’t reactionary. We were able to plan for and move forward in his recovery instead of reacting to something his body did in response to the burns. 

Friday, September 7, we celebrated again as he was successfully extubated. That first gravelly sound of his voice was one of the best sounds I have ever heard. He was giving the respiratory therapist what-for for not warning him that she was pulling the tube out. Not that I generally encourage such disrespect, but I welcomed any sign that my boy was going to pull through. 

On Saturday, September 8, we were able to say good-bye to the incredible ICU staff. Ty had such exquisite care with them that I was almost afraid to leave. But I knew that we were making a step towards home and I was still holding out hope that we could be home for his thirteenth birthday on September 23.

Once he was no longer sedated he was a determined young man. He wanted on his feet and walking.  The first time he stood up, I realized just how much he had grown in that week in ICU. He wasn’t just taller than me anymore; I now had to look up at him. The smile on his face for his first few steps will stay with me forever.

It was also the first time I could hug him. We had been afraid to hurt him, so we rubbed his belly.  A lot. We all did, even Coltan would rub his belly while he was in ICU. But when the physio had him standing, I gave him a big hug. What a glorious day.

On Tuesday, September 11, I paced. I paced before he went into surgery for his grafts at 1:16 PM, I paced the five and a half hours he was in surgery, I paced while he was in recovery, I even paced in his room once he returned. Then it was just a matter of waiting, hoping and praying that the grafts were successful. 

He had grafts to 60 percent of his right arm, only 10 percent of his left and none to his face—a far cry from the original predictions. His plastic surgeon was amazed with how well he had healed and wanted to take a more wait-and-see approach rather than unnecessarily grafting areas that could heal on their own.

And so we began the process of healing, recovery, therapy of both his mind and body.  Each day had triumphs and some had setbacks, but we chose to focus on the successes and each step forward, no matter how small. Losing his feeding tube and catheter were highlights for him for sure. Washing his hair on September 16 (also Jeff’s and my twelfth wedding anniversary) was one of my highlights. That’s also the day we took him outside for the first time.

On his birthday, we took him to visit my dad, on a day pass—a visit I’ll never forget. Ty and my dad had always been close and I was worried the accident would change their relationship and make them awkward with one another. But the look on both their faces reassured me that they would be just fine.

On September 25, 25 days after the accident and much earlier than initially expected, we were able to bring Ty home.  Such an amazing feeling to see him at home, in “his” chair, cuddling with his cat.

That first week he had his first shower, began to really face the emotional and psychological effects of his injuries and discovered just how weak he had become. He needed help to bathe, dress, make food and go to the bathroom. Going up and down our stairs would exhaust him and he would need to rest.

Six weeks after the explosion, Ty was back at school, my dad was released from hospital and we slowly started to find our groove again. I was even back at work.

I am constantly amazed at how my boys handled this. Ty could have been angry.  He could have cried “why me?” But he chose to just accept it and make the best of it and move on. He is determined that he will be back into his lacrosse gear, joining his many supportive teammates in time for the 2013 season. 

Coltan could have complained that neither Jeff nor I were home for the first 17 days, but he didn’t. We offered, but he insisted that he was ok and that Ty needed us more. Not many 10-year-olds are that compassionate or understanding. I see my boys as so much more capable than I did before. I know that whatever life throws at them, they can handle it. 

It's been hard to get over my own emotional scars. Ty's accident set him back to an infant-like state and sometimes it feels like letting him grow up again, but at an accelerated pace. During his first sleepover after the accident, I was just as anxious as his very first sleepover. The first day-trip quadding, I was a mess. But I refuse to let my fears harness them. They can get hurt anywhere and I swore when they were babies I would encourage them to take the world by the horns, but to do so safely.

In many ways, my role as a mother hasn’t changed. I still harp on Ty for dirty, balled-up socks in the couch cushions. I still ride him about his grades. It's still my job to guide him into adulthood and make sure he is a man of character. The only thing is, I now know the depth of his resiliency, his strength and his commitment to life. I know he is going to make it.

This article was originally published on Dec 31, 2012

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