New Friends, New Support Systems, A New Outlook on Life
By Meg Hammett
Alex Trevino remembers feeling the cold around his body when coworkers threw him into a snow bank seconds after being burned by intense flames.
It was around 9:30 a.m. on February 3, 2009. Twenty-two-year-old Trevino and 3 of his colleagues were working as subcontractors in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, power plant. Ironically, they were building scaffolding to make the power plant’s fire-suppression area accessible. Trevino and his co-workers were working inside the coal dust collector, an extremely confined space, using ordinary metal maintenance tools. Tragically, the resulting sparks, when combined with coal dust landing on a boiler light, caused an explosion.
Dealing With the Aftermath
Trevino doesn’t remember pain, but distinctly remembers the sound of his own screams. He was the most severely injured of the group, sustaining second- and third-degree burns over 76% of his body. Most of his face was affected and he would end up losing an ear.
“Pretty much my whole body is scarred, except my ankles,” explains Trevino. “I got hairy ankles. It’s pretty funny.”
Trevino’s father, Jose, was also on the construction site that day. When he came running to inquire about the fire and look for his son, he didn’t even recognize him. Trevino’s co-workers had to break the news to his father that it was his son who was burned.
“He was pacing back and forth going, ‘Where’s Alex? Where’s Alex?’” says Trevino. “I tried to call out to him, but my vocal cords were too burned.”
Paramedics arrived shortly afterward. Trevino vividly remembers being sedated in the ambulance. He would later learn that because his throat was so badly burned, he was put into a medically induced coma to prevent suffocation.
Trevino spent 77 days in the hospital, a fairly quick recovery given his condition, according to hospital staff. He endured double vision for the first 2 weeks and had to learn to adjust to the pain in the tendons of his fingers. The inability to do anything for himself was especially difficult for a young man who had been a hard worker.
Trevino remembers looking in the mirror with disgust as he saw his purple skin and the staples everywhere. He wore compression garments and used a trachea ventilator, making it difficult to even move because of the machines and wires. Friends and family visited him, but he mostly remembers the visits by his primary caregiver and friend, Melissa.
“She would take me for rides in a wheelchair,” he says. “That was pretty cool. She would also make me sit up in a normal chair when I wanted to lie in bed all day. She made me stay up and be awake and move around. At the time, I hated her for it.”
Visitors also included his almost-5-year-old daughter Carina and his 2-year-old son Alex Junior, who were both initially apprehensive and nervous around their bandaged father. He understood their hesitation, knowing he looked completely different. He remembers it being difficult to hug them and share ordinary activities with them, but his children eventually warmed up to their dad. His relationship with his wife, however, became more strained.
“It drove a stake between us,” he said of his injury. “Whatever issues we had were amplified by a million.” Trevino admits that before his injury he had been a workaholic, traveling all over the state for his job and spending only a few hours at home each night to wash clothes or pay bills. He cites getting burned and the recovery afterwards as the final straw that drove the couple apart and ultimately resulted in their divorce.
Mapping out a Future
Trevino worked hard to regain his life after returning home from the hospital despite being told to take it easy. Everyday activities were a challenge, but Trevino was determined. One afternoon he really wanted to go bike riding, so he threw caution to the wind and took off. Eight blocks later, laughing but undiscouraged, he had to call someone to pick him up.
Since a return to construction work or manual labor was now out of the question, Trevino turned to another interest – tattoos. With his brother-in-law, he set up a tattoo shop in the Historic Third Ward of Milwaukee.
“I do all the stuff nobody really cares about, like making sure taxes and insurance are paid, and people are paid,” explains Trevino. The shop’s website is being developed, business is slowly increasing, and there are plans to set up a second branch of “Ink 101” inside Milwaukee’s Harley Davidson store.
Offering Support and Hope
Alex also volunteers as a trained peer supporter in the Phoenix Society’s Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery (SOAR) Program at Columbia Saint Mary’s Hospital, where he participates in peer meetings. He believes the support program is crucial to recovery, noting that group members become a family. There he feels he is able give support, hope, and real answers to adult burn survivors.
Trevino also spent last summer as a volunteer camp counselor at Wisconsin Alliance for Fire Safety (WAFS) Burn Camp in Easy Troy, Wisconsin. He enjoyed working with the children, and it made him realize how lucky he and the children were to have not only survived their burns, but to be functioning as well. “As a burn survivor, the kids come up to you and open up instantly,” Trevino said. “No questions asked. They look at my scars and tell their stories. There’s a back and forth. It’s pretty cool stuff being able to relate to kids on a personal level.” He plans to attend again, time permitting.
Because of this experience, Alex Trevino has new friends, new support systems, a new outlook on life, and advice for fellow burn survivors.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” he advises other burn survivors. “You have so many resources. There are so many people that can help you. There’s no easy way around [recovery]. Hard work is what it’s going to take. I’ve realized the only person that’s going to stop you is you.”
Meg Hammett lives in Northern Virginia and works in Maryland as a writer/editor for Cabezon Group, a contractor that supports FEMA’s firefighter grants. She is also a longtime volunteer counselor for Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp, a children’s summer camp for burn survivors, where she also met her husband, a burn survivor. Meg has a bachelors degree in English and a masters degree in Publication Design (writing and graphic design).