Burn Survivor and Firefighter Finds the Good in a Bad Situation

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By Kathy J. Edwards, PhD

For some burn survivors, returning to the scene of their accident is a traumatic experience. For Detroit firefighter John Bynum, who was injured on the job, returning to the scene was one of the turning points in his emotional recovery.

Before he went back to the scene of the house fire where he was trapped in a basement when the floor collapsed, John kept reliving the experience in his memory and wondering what he could have done to prevent his injury. Often he thought to himself, “it couldn’t have been that bad.”

Once he saw the remains of the house, he had a better understanding of what happened. “I was surprised to see that it looked a lot worse than I expected it to,” John explains. “It helped me to realize how blessed I was.”

John Bynum was injured on April 11, 2001. He had been on the job only a month when his fire crew responded to the scene of a house fire in a four family dwelling. John entered the first floor of the house and began spraying water on the flames. All of a sudden the floor collapsed and dropped him into the basement, near the origin of the fire. When he fell the buckle on his helmet came loose and his helmet fell off. He got steam burns on his head, neck, and extremities due to the radiant heat.

As he fell through the floor, John’s hose shut off and he was no longer able to douse the flames. He was unable to climb out of the basement because of the way he fell and the weight of his gear.

Fortunately John was wearing a passive alert safety system that emitted a siren. His partner found him and helped pull him up the stairs. John walked out of the burning house with assistance from fellow firefighters. His partner suffered third degree burns to his wrist during the rescue.

John was treated at Detroit Receiving Hospital for second and third degree burns to about 30 percent of his body surface area. Bynum was in great shape because he had just graduated from the fire academy. Doctors credit his high level of physical fitness as one of the factors that helped save his life. 

John sharing his story with a fellow firefighter.

Finding the Positives Through Prevention

While Bynum was in the hospital, one of the instructors from the fire academy asked if he would be willing to make a videotape about his accident as a training and prevention tool for others at the academy. John agreed. “If I can prevent even one person from going through an injury like this, it’s worth it to make the video,” John said.

The themes Bynum and his instructors want to share with new recruits are to make sure safety equipment is worn properly and to emphasize the importance of physical conditioning. 

Bynum returned to the scene about six months later, when he had regained some strength in his physical recovery. In addition to the fact that it was a poignant moment for him personally, he was accompanied by a video crew and the camera was rolling. Although he didn’t know what to expect, John found that looking at the scene of his accident helped him understand his memories and what happened on that day. the experience of going to the scene to make the video turned out to be a helpful step on the road to recovery. “Working on the video gave me an opportunity to make something positive out of my experience,” John reflects. “It made me realize I had survived and thrived in a difficult situation.” 

Connecting with the Burn Community

Just a few weeks after he was released from the hospital, in June 2001, John attended the World Burn Congress in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was another turning point in coming to terms with his accident. “Before I attended the World Burn Congress the doctors were telling me it would take months or years to recover from my injury, but I had a hard time understanding that,” John explains. He reasoned that he was young and healthy, and it had never taken him very long to heal from injuries in the past.

“When I met other burn survivors at the World Burn Congress, it helped me put everything in perspective,” John said. “I met people at all stages of the recovery process. that really helped.” John stopped being so hard on himself when he learned how long it took others to make a physical and emotional recovery.

John was impressed at the camaraderie that exists between burn survivors. He had felt that sense of community with other firefighters who were very supportive of him after his injury. But he didn’t expect to feel it with other burn survivors – until he attended WBC. “I was impressed by the genuine kindness of people at World Burn Congress,” John said. “How can I feel sorry for myself, when so many other people have come through this.” John feels the people he met at WBC are some of the most positive and uplifting people he’s ever been around. 

At WBC John met members of the Burn support group at Detroit Receiving Hospital. He became actively involved in the group. John encourages other burn survivors to find a support group and get involved. “Realize you’re not the only one going through this. Others have done it, too. they’ve survived and thrived.” 

Adjusting, Adapting, Moving On

John also had a lot of support from his family and from his coworkers. He was living alone at the time of his accident. For a while he moved in with his younger sister, who helped take care of him after he got out of the hospital. It was very hard to go from being independent to having someone else take care of his basic needs.

John’s two children, 6-year-old John Bynum IV, and Ebony, 9, were supposed to spend the summer with their dad. their plans were postponed because of his accident; although he was able to have them visit beginning in mid-June. John notes that both of his children are more protective of their dad. One day as they were driving in the car, John Iv said, “Dad you’re different than me.” When his dad asked what he meant, the 6-year-old said, “you’re burnt and I’m not.”  Since his injury, the children have never been afraid to hug their dad, and in many ways the injury has brought them closer together.

One of the toughest things about the injury is that it took John away from his goal of working as a firefighter. John recalls that on the first day after the accident he talked to the Detroit Fire Chief and asked, “Will I be able to go back to work? Will I get my badge?” John loves the job he was doing and he has the desire to go back to it.

He has visited the fire station a few times. He had dinner with the guys at the station and admits, “I’ve been tempted to chase a few engines now and then.” His coworkers have encouraged him to take the time he needs to heal.

Meanwhile, as John waits for the release form from his doctor that will allow him to go back to the career he loves, he thinks about ways to share his experiences with other burn survivors and firefighters, to increase understanding and awareness between the two groups. 


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Spring 2003. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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