A Newlywed Couple Faces the Challenge of a Lifetime
By Maureen Kalil
Mitch Dryer remembers the evening of April 22, 2007. That Friday he and his fellow firefighters attended the annual public safety dinner that honors law enforcement and fire service personnel in Oneida, New York.
None of them could have guessed what they would face just a little more than 24 hours later.
Report of a Fire
The call came into their station at 3:30 am on Sunday. A fire was reported at a local bowling alley. Mitch, then 33, was part of a five-man crew of initial responders who raced to the scene. They were eventually joined by five other departments.
Once inside, Mitch and a co-worker found heavy smoke and, searching for the source, began pulling ceiling tiles down.
“I remember the ceiling collapsing and not feeling injured but helpless to escape,” recalls Mitch, who found himself pinned under burning debris.
“I remember the sensation of being burned,” he says, “and thinking that I was going to die.”
The other firefighters quickly responded to dig out their trapped colleague, while keeping the fire at bay.
“Thank God for the guys that worked so hard to save my life,” says Mitch. “They are the real heroes.”
The 2-year veteran of the department not only suffered third- and fourth-degree burns over 20 percent of his body, all on the right side, but also had sustained a number of orthopedic injuries, including fractures to his vertebra, ribs, and right arm.
Mitch recalls being conscious in the ambulance and the emergency room at Oneida Healthcare Center where he was taken before being flown to Clark Burn Center at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
“They had to tube me in the helicopter,” says Mitch, “then I was put in an induced coma for 2 weeks.” Mitch was hospitalized for a total of 59 days.
The Road to Becoming a Firefighter
Mitch, whose father had been a volunteer firefighter, remembers accompanying his dad in parades and on calls. “I guess you can say that is how the seed was planted,” he explains.
However, his road to firefighting took a detour when he attended the College at Brockport, State University Of New York. Mitch earned a degree in recreation management, after which he worked at local YMCAs.
But in September 2003 Mitch, at age 30, joined the New York Air National Guard and pursued firefighter training. After completing fire school in July 2004, Mitch served at Hancock Air Field as a security augmentee until he was hired as an Oneida city firefighter the following year.
While working for the fire department, Mitch remained in the Guard and in September 2006, the senior Airman with the 174th Fighter Wing’s civil engineering squadron deployed to Ali Air Base in Nasiriyah in south central Iraq for 4 months.
“While there,” says Mitch, “we were responsible for medical emergencies, flight line emergencies, fires and auto accidents, as well as HazMat. Towards the end of the deployment our unit trained with several local Iraqi firefighters.” Mitch returned from Iraq in January 2007. Just 3 months later he found himself at the City Lanes fire.
A Knock at the Door
Aimee Dryer remembers the morning of April 22 well. Married just 8 months, the newlywed had gone to sleep the previous night angry that her husband hadn’t called from the station to say goodnight. Hours later she awoke to the sound of the deputy fire chief at the door.
“I remember being taken to the hospital,” says Aimee. When she spotted the chaplain there, Aimee assumed Mitch had died and started to cry. She soon learned that he had survived, but was in critical condition.
“I remember looking at him and seeing his beautiful face and not even noticing the burns,” recalls Aimee. “I gave him a kiss on his forehead and told him that I loved him very much.”
That was the last time Aimee was able to speak with her husband for almost 3 weeks. Soon after, Mitch was put into a medically induced coma.
What followed was a day Aimee recalls as a “blur,” signing papers and meeting with doctors, family, and friends.
“I remember not wanting to leave him,” says Aimee, “so they let me stay in his room, which was a hundred degrees. I sat in an uncomfortable chair and cried most of the night.”
One of the things that helped her get through the next few weeks was the willingness of the nurses and doctors to keep her informed of everything that was happening and involving her in Mitch’s care, including baths and dressing changes.
“Some people asked me how I could see him like that,” says Aimee, but she explains that she just saw him as the person she fell in love with and married. “I didn’t see the burns and I guess deep down I just wanted to know and feel what he was going through,” she adds.
Aimee encourages other caregivers not be afraid to ask questions or to be a part of their loved ones care. “It’s important for people to understand what is happening and know what type of care they are getting,” she says.
Aimee admits that it was especially difficult for her while Mitch was in a coma—not to be able to talk to him, tell him that she was there, and that she loved him. But overall Aimee feels that she is “a very strong person by nature” who handled the ordeal very well.
“I didn’t cry in front of anyone because I felt I needed to be the strong one—for his family and friends. I would save my time for my hotel room,” she recalls.
Aimee also credits the support of Mitch’s family and friends with helping her cope.
“I was so overwhelmed at the number of people who came to see him everyday—hundreds in the beginning,” she says. She describes the love and support the couple received, as well as the number of cards and donations, coming from as far as California and Florida, as “truly amazing.”
A Difficult Decision
As doctors discussed the possibility of amputating Mitch’s arm, Aimee hoped she wouldn’t have to be the one to decide. “Deep down I knew what he would have wanted,” says Aimee, “but I did not want to make that decision on my own.” Fortunately, Mitch awoke from his coma before that was necessary.
“I was told because of the extent of my injuries that I would not regain full use and they would have to fuse my right elbow. They were also concerned that the nerve damage was so great that I would not have the use of my hand,” says Mitch who agreed to the surgery.
“I knew it was the best decision for him and making it together as a family was the most important and most difficult decision we have had to make,” says Aimee. “I knew the type of strong willed and strong headed person he was that he would learn to adapt—and quickly.”
It appears he has.
“He can do most everything on his own. He cooks, he cleans, he drives, he dresses himself, he does yard work,” Aimee reports. “I don’t help him with anything unless he asks. I want him to feel like he can do it on his own. It’s important for him to try.”
To other caregivers, Aimee gives the following advice, “Love unconditionally. Do not look at the burns as scars. What matters is what’s underneath—their minds and hearts are the most important thing.”
“Be there for them through everything,” she says, “one day at a time.”
A Challenging Recovery
Looking back at his physical recovery Mitch recalls some rough days.
“Relearning to walk was difficult,” he says. “I was so weak and lost so much weight that I couldn’t get out of bed without two people helping. Lonely nights after all the visitors went home were tough too.”
Mitch credits the strength of his wife, his family and friends, and his brothers at the Oneida and Syracuse Fire Departments and the 174th Fighter Wing with helping him through those days.
“It was also very special receiving cards and letters from people all over the USA. I also received a lot of strength from a young boy named Bradley who was battling cancer. He had been following my story in the newspaper and asked the nurses if he could meet me. I gladly said yes and still remain in touch with his family on Facebook,” says Mitch.
Burn Community Support
While still in the hospital Mitch also received visits from two burn survivors, one who, coincidentally, had been a classmate of Aimee’s, and another who was a member of Mitch’s National Guard unit.
But it wasn’t until October 2008 that Mitch and Aimee experienced the support of the larger burn community. At the urging of one of the nurses at the burn center the Dryers traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, for the Phoenix Society’s Annual World Burn Congress.
Aimee describes their first WBC as “an amazing experience.”
“We didn’t know what to expect when we got there and seeing the people with the burns and talking to them, making friends with them was so rewarding,” she explains. “It’s like we found a whole new extended family. Burn survivors are a truly amazing and uplifting group of people and I am so happy we have found them and the Phoenix Society. It helped our healing and made us realize what a truly wonderful society it is.”
The couple returned to WBC in 2009.
The Heroes in the Story
A little over a year after the group of Oneida firefighters had attended the city’s last public service awards dinner, Mitch and his buddies found themselves again at the Kallet Civic Center for the annual event. Among the honorees this time were five of Mitch’s fellow firefighters who were awarded the City’s Medal of Valor for their role in rescuing their comrade. Mitch, who was the first Oneida firefighter to be critically injured on the job in more than 40 years, was named the city’s 2007 Firefighter of the Year and in recognition of the critical role Aimee played in her husband’s recovery, she received an engraved plaque from Oneida’s mayor for being a “firefighter’s hero.”
Helping Other Survivors
Mitch, who retired from the Oneida Fire Department in March 2009, has volunteered for the last 2 years at Our Special Camp, a burn camp program based in Rochester, New York. This fall Mitch traveled to Washington, DC, as the camp’s firefighter-counselor representative to the International Association of Fire Fighters Burn Foundation International Burn Camp.
“I had never seen D.C. that way before. It was a lot of fun,” says Mitch of the week he spent touring the nation’s capital with young burn survivors and counselors from more than 40 other camps. “The people were terrific and they helped me realize we are part of a bigger community.”
Their New Life Together
“He is an amazing person,” Aimee says of her husband, “and I thank God everyday that He saved him.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” she explains, “and we truly feel that God wasn’t ready for Mitch... he was meant to do bigger and better things.”
On December 31, Aimee Dryer gave birth to twins 13 weeks early. Son Daniel Nathan, weighed in at 1 lb 12 oz and daughter Emeri Sophia at 1 lb 15 oz at birth. Mitch and Aimee hope to bring them home in March from the neonatal intensive care unit at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, where they have visited them everyday.
“Just one more thing,” Aimee says, “that makes us both stronger people.”