Nate McCoy: Determination to Win Pays Off
By Maureen C. Kalil
As soon as Nate McCoy, of Perry Hall, Maryland, hangs up his 2009 calendar, you can be sure that August 26-29 will be marked off. World Burn Congress, he says, is the first vacation time he blocks out each year. But before August 17, 1996, Nate could never have imagined that a meeting of the burn community would become such a central part of his life.
On that day Nate was at work, operating a reactor vessel used in food manufacturing to heat oils. The vessel, which had been pressurized, seemed to go through its normal cool-down after which it should have been safe to open; a computer indicated the temperature was down to a safe 90 degrees. However, when the operators began to open the lid, excess pressure forced it the rest of the way, releasing 100 pounds of more-than-400-degree oil into the air. Nate recalls it “drenching” him.
“My only saving grace,” he says, “was the fact that I was wearing a gas mask which prevented me from ingesting the oil and ultimately saved my life.” The oil soaked Nate’s clothing, continuing to burn him, but fortunately Nate instinctively removed what he was wearing and found refuge in an emergency shower on the production floor until medical help arrived. By doing so, Nate believes he saved his right arm from amputation, “as it was suspected to be fourth-degree burns.”
Nate, then 39 years old, was admitted to the Baltimore Regional (now Johns Hopkins) Burn Center. It was determined there that he had third-degree burns over 49% of his body, including his scalp, face, ears, neck, back, arms, and extending to about 6 inches below each knee. Nate’s wife, Desimoune, remembers getting the call from the hospital that her husband had been admitted. They didn’t explain what his injuries were or what kind of accident he had been in, but she sensed immediately it was serious since Nate hadn’t called her himself. Desi quickly phoned her mother-in-law and the two women rushed to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. Desi remembers initially feeling “angry” after learning what had happened. “But as I sat there,” she says, “I immediately decided that everything was going to be alright. I felt a strange calming in my spirit and knew it was going to take some time and I also knew that the Lord was going to take care of us.”
Over the next 3 months, as an inpatient, Nate enduredmultiple surgeries and skin grafts. Looking back, he credits Desi,his then-teenaged children, Damon and Natoshia, his immediatefamily, as well as the families from his church as being his“biggest heroes.”
“I especially feel blessed by the outpouring from my coworkers,” adds Nate, “for which I will be forever grateful.” He also fondly remembers the “incredible” staff of the burn center, including the janitor and night nurses who supplied him with books on tape and the latest movies on video.
Immediately upon his discharge Nate returned to the burn center every other day for physical and occupational therapy where he would learn to walk again and improve those motor skills that had been impaired by his decreased range of motion.
A towering 6-feet, 6-inches tall, Nate says he could never have imagined that he would need to be carried up and down stairs or that he would have to sit when showering. Nor could he have imagined being unable to feed himself, reach over his head, mow his yard, or even just socialize. Desi remembers that getting her husband to be comfortable again around family and friends was one of her greatest challenges.
During his first 2 months back at home, Nate also had twice-a-day visits from nurses, who not only changed his dressings, but who also encouraged his emotional recovery by sharing their other patients’ “stories of triumph.”
After completing a month of outpatient rehab at the burn center, Nate spent 8 hours a day for the next 8 months in a work-hardening program, which would prepare him for an eventual return to his job. To supplement his efforts there, he also had a personal trainer develop a strengthening program he could follow in his home gym and, determined to regain his strength, he walked daily. His determination paid off when 13 months after his injury, Nate returned to work at McCormick & Company. Initially there for just 2 hours a day, he gradually increased his schedule by 2-hour increments until he was once again working a full 8 hours. Nate credits his coworkers with being “completely supportive” of his efforts, adding that they were amazed to see him back.
Nate faced innumerable challenges during his physical recovery, including a 65-pound weight loss, day after day of sleeplessness, and the incredible itching that Nate terms “a story all by itself.” He underwent several additional surgeries over the next 4 years, but Nate cites “acceptance” as his biggest hurdle. “It was only after I asked, ‘Why not me?’ that I began to recover,” he explained.
While attending a support group at the burn center, Nate heard about World Burn Congress (WBC). There he picked up a copy of Burn Support News, where he learned more. After sharing the information with his wife, Nate says she insisted he attend, although it meant not being together for their 16th wedding anniversary. “I am still grateful to this day for her unselfishness,” he adds.
So less than 2 years after his injury, in June 1998, Nate traveled to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for his first WBC. “I went to Edmonton, BC, with a laundry list of things for which I was going to obtain answers so that I could fix me up,” recalls Nate.
“What I found,” he explains, “was a wonderful world of super human beings who had overcome adversity in so many facets of life that it left me feeling ashamed and guilty of my personal agenda. Yes, I suffered and paid a terrible price, but there were so many others who lost more than I had but were living life again, in many instances better than before their injuries. I was introduced to a community of folk (WBC organization, volunteers, supporters, members, families, and friends) who embraced me (physically) and let me know they cared and I had never felt so welcomed anywhere or at any time in my life.”
“I returned home a changed man,” says Nate, “in that my new mission was to refocus my energy on living life. I realized that the foundation of my new existence had to be built on giving back to the community at large. As I refocused my energies, my physical and mental recovery accelerated at an amazing pace. I noticed the more I became involved in various volunteer activities, I stopped being impatient and my anxiety also seemed to disappear. ”
For the first few years, Desi decided not to accompany her husband to WBC, feeling that “it was something he needed to do by himself.” However, she eventually felt “left out of a very important part of his life and his healing process.” Desi finally joined Nate on what had become an annual trip in 2005. Since then she has not only served on a panel of burn survivor spouses, but she has also become an onsite volunteer.
It was at WBC that Nate first heard of the Phoenix Society’s Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery, or SOAR, program. Coincidentally, the burn center at which Nate was treated was participating in the SOAR pilot program. “It was the perfect avenue for me to give back and show my appreciation for all that was done for me,” says Nate, who then trained to become a SOAR volunteer, providing peer support to burn survivors and their families in his community.
Nate has also been involved in two different local fire prevention programs targeting juvenile fire setters, where he shares his perspective as a burn survivor with the young participants.
“Without Nate’s assistance and willingness to speak very openly and honestly with these children, the program would not be as successful as it has been,” says Carrie Cox, community outreach & education coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Burn Center, who coordinates one of those programs. “It is Nate’s story that really drives it home with many of the juveniles that come through the program,” she adds. “They generally feel very comfortable with him and open to ask any questions that they may have.”
For the past 10 years, Nate and Desi have also “given back” to the burn community as bronze-level donors to the Phoenix Society. However, this year Nate found a way to make an even more substantial financial contribution.
Nate’s employer, spice manufacturer McCormick & Company, each year presents community service awards to just 5 of its more than 7,500 employees to honor their volunteerism. The winners are awarded checks that they donate to the charity of their choosing. So with the same determination he applied to his rehab, Nate worked on learning what it would take to be a McCormick Community Service Award winner.
“I then began to leverage my activities and felt that I could measure up to anyone and take the grand prize of $25,000, as opposed to $5,000 for the next four runners-up.” And again, Nate’s hard work paid off. At McCormick’s 2008 Annual Shareholder Meeting, Nate, a production supervisor for the company’s Flavor Division, was awarded the 2008 Community Service Grand Prize Award for his work in the burn community. Nate then directed the check to the Phoenix Society because, he says, “they love and embrace so many people the world over.”
The McCoys both credit their faith with getting them through the challenges they faced after his injury. “With all that my husband has been through with his accident, he never once lost his faith in the Lord,” says Desi. And no matter what he had to do, be it surgery, therapy, etc., he never complained. He would always say, ‘Ain’t nothing to it, but to do it.’”
Nate did it.