A Man of Quiet Dignity
by Kathy J. Edwards, PhD
It’s hard to say what is the most remarkable thing about Tony Gonzalez. The fact that he survived a burn injury to 95% of his body surface area, or that he was taken to four different hospitals before rescue workers found one that could treat such a large injury, or that the life flight helicopter was grounded twice in a Wisconsin ice storm. Perhaps it’s the way his family was there for him every day during the ten months he was in the hospital. Or maybe it’s that he’s been to hell and back and still manages to smile – and find ways to help others.
Barry Bennett, the social worker at Loyola University Medical Center, says it best. “Tony is a person of quiet dignity. His presence is reassuring to other burn survivors and their families at support group meetings or during hospital visits.” Bennett works with Tony and his mother Marjorie Gonzalez in the SOAR program at Loyola where they serve as peer support volunteers.
Tony learned his lessons in dignity the hard way. After he was burned in a propane explosion February 20, 1997, the rescue helicopter took Tony on a circuitous route that landed him at the Regions Hospital Burn Center in Minneapolis. His family didn’t arrive until 24 hours later. At first they were told their son was seriously injured but they didn’t know where he was being taken. Hours later they found out he was in Minneapolis, but they were told not to drive up there because of the ice storm. Not knowing what had happened to their son, what condition he was in, was one of the hardest things for his parents Ernest and Marjorie Gonzalez. Even after they arrived at the hospital the next day they were told he had a zero percent chance of survival.
“Dr. Solem was amazed I was alive when they brought me in. He told my parents that people in my condition usually don't make it to the first hospital and here I was at my fourth. I think right there he realized I had a will of some kind to help me,” Tony explained.
Tony stayed at the Ramsey Burn Center at Region’s Hospital in Minnesota until November 19, 1997, almost nine months from the day he was admitted. Tony doesn’t remember much of the early days in the hospital because of the drugs he was given. His memories begin sometime mid-May when he started piecing together the story of what happened to him.
Marjorie helped fill in the details of that time in the hospital. One story his mother told him is how his family brought a cake to the hospital for his birthday, even though Tony was not yet able to eat. Everyone that walked by his room that day had a piece of cake and wished him a happy birthday. Some even sang to him. Tony recalls, “It was just a little thing, but those little things started to matter.”
"They Treated Me Like a Person"
For seven months Tony could do little but lie in his hospital bed, covered in gauze from head to toe, and perhaps watch TV. He couldn’t talk for eight months because of the trachea tube. His bandaged hands were “like footballs” that didn’t have the dexterity to point to an alphabet board. His face was covered in bandages so he couldn’t convey his feelings with facial expressions or move his lips.
Tony explains, “That was really frustrating, not being able to communicate. Not being able to express my feelings, I couldn’t tell them what hurt. I think that was the hardest part.” It was hard to do even simple things like tell someone to turn the TV up or down. Mostly he communicated with his eyes and with gestures – that is when his burns and skin grafts didn’t limit his mobility.
The thing that mattered the most to Tony is that the hospital staff treated him like a person at a time when he was completely helpless because of his injury. “As bandaged up and bed-ridden as I was, one thing they always did, they treated me like a person. They’d always come in and say ‘Hi Tony,’ and they would tell me what they were going to do.” Tony continues, “That meant a lot, then, as much as I was struggling to find out who I was. They made me feel like a person.”
Tony remarks thoughtfully, “You learn a lot about dignity lying in a hospital for nine months. you’re so exposed, so vulnerable. The thing that impressed me the most about the people at the hospital is that they treated me with dignity. It would have been easy for them to see me as just a lump in a bed because I couldn’t talk or communicate with them except through eye movements. Even so, they gradually learned to figure out what kind of person I was. How to read me. They went the extra mile.”
One of the things the hospital staff learned about Tony is that he has a wonderful sense of humor that he used to get him through the tough times. “At one point they brought me a mirror so I could see what I looked like,” Tony said. “Before that time I didn’t really know exactly what was injured. One of the nurses came up to me and said, ‘Tony, you know you lost your ears.’ I guess my response was Oh that’s Ok they were too big anyway.” Tony explains that the nurse just walked away because she didn’t know what to say. She told Marjorie about it later in the day and Marjorie had to explain that Tony was joking.
Tony’s sense of humor shines through as he tells of another thing that was very difficult—not being able to eat. He couldn’t eat solid food for about seven months because his throat was damaged from the trach tube. “You’re lying there watching TV, that’s all you can do. And you have Burger king Commercials, Taco Bell. I never realized how many fast food commercials there are on TV until I had my injury,” Tony jokes. The first time he was allowed to eat solid food he couldn’t digest it and he had to go back to a feeding tube. This was just one of many set backs Tony and his family had to endure during his recovery.
“When I first got to the hospital they told my parents it would be a roller coaster ride. It was.” Tony had the largest burn injury ever treated at the Region’s Hospital Burn Center. Almost 90% of his burns were third degree. He had very little of his own skin left for grafting. Tony’s father, Ernest explains, “The only places not burned were the inside of his arms, his ankle, his belt-line and the area around his eyes.”
Marjorie remembers that Dr. Solem, the director of the burn center, always had a “Plan B.” He would say, “Here’s what we’re planning to do with Tony but we’re not sure how it will work. If it doesn’t work we’ll try Plan B.” Dr. Solem remembers that Tony was a fighter, he had a good attitude, and “someone from Tony’s family was with him everyday at the hospital.”
Tony’s parents and three sibling, Lisa, Mark and Jason Gonzalez got to know the people at the burn center quite well. Tony jokes, “When you’re there that long you get close to people. In fact, I think they got tired of us, they wanted to kick us out.”
Tony's siblings flew up on weekends when they could. Lisa and Mark came from Chicago; Jason from Los Angeles. Their companies were good about letting them have time off to visit. But they each felt some anxiety, wanting to be with their younger brother more often. Their weekend visits were a big boost for Tony’s morale. “Every Thursday I would ask who’s coming up this week. I knew somebody would be there. That was a great help,” Tony explains.
From "I Can't" to "How Can I?"
For many months Tony felt helpless. He was dependent on other people for everything. The situation improved at about eight months when he started the slow, painful process of rehabilitation. Even his vocal chords were weak from disuse. He had to work with a speech therapist to relearn how to make sound with his voice box. He started out with basic vowel sounds, ooh, eee, ah. Once he regained strength in his voice he could put the sounds into words.
Tony was just about ready to start walking when he got an infection in his leg that set him back. That was one of the hardest setbacks to take. He started to develop the “I can’t” attitude. He wondered if he would ever walk again. Finally the infection healed and Tony was able to stand. A few days later he took his first steps. At first just three or four, then a quarter of the way down the hall, slowly building up to half the length of the hallway.
For three weeks he steadily improved, then his foot started hurting. At first the therapists told him that was normal since he was just starting to walk. Finally they took an x-ray and learned he had a stress fracture. Another setback. His foot was put in a cast and then he had to start the process all over again.
Tony explains “It was a gradual process, but slowly I moved from “I can’t” to “How am I gonna?” He was motivated to keep walking even through the pain of a broken foot. He began to see the possibility that there is life after a burn injury. He knew it wouldn’t be the same life, but he was motivated to try and make the most of it. Eventually he got to the point of saying “What else can I do?” Tony explains it as “the baby steps thing. First I learned to sit up in bed, then eat, then reach for a shoe. That’s how I did it.”
A "New Normal"
Before his injury Tony rode his bike about 100 miles per week. He played softball four times a week. His dream in life was to be a carpenter. He wanted to build houses with his own hands. Tony lost three fingers on each of his hands from his burn injury. “It was pretty devastating the first time I looked at my hands.” It took a long time to figure out a new direction in life, but in January 2000 Tony decided to go back to school and study to be an architect. “It’s the closest thing to my original goal—to build houses.”
Tony is working toward an AA degree in architecture and design at the College of Dupage in Illinois. After that he will pursue an MA in architecture. When he first started back to school it was hard to walk from the parking lot to class. By the time he got there he would be sweating. It was incredibly draining physically and mentally. Tony admits that every semester he wanted to give up, but he told himself, “I fought this long, why give up now?”
Tony can ride a bike again but he is more cautious. He can’t go the distances he used to because his body will overheat. He started playing softball again. Three years after his injury, Tony began driving again. He recalls that before he started to drive he “felt like a 15- year-old” having his parents drive him places.
One of the hardest things after Tony came home from the hospital was going out in public with a changed appearance. On one of his first trips he was wearing bandages and a mask. People stared and Tony recalls he didn’t handle it very well. The thing that helped most in overcoming the social hurdles was attending the World Burn Congress in Atlanta in 1999. “WBC was humbling and inspiring at the same time. I saw other people who had overcome big injuries, like Dwight Lunkley. They inspired me. I even saw people who seemed to have been injured worse than I was.” Marjorie says that Tony is more sure of himself after attending WBC.
At the World Burn Congress Tony met members of the support group at Loyola University Medical Center. He has been a part of their group ever since. That’s when he started giving back to other burn survivors.
Tony and Marjorie volunteered for the SOAR program at Loyola to help provide the peer support for others they wish they had received when Tony was injured. Tony recalls the first time he was called in to visit the family of a patient with a 90% burn injury. “It was an interesting role reversal to visit someone in the hospital. This time it was me putting on the gloves and the mask.” It helped him see the progress he’d made. After he visited with the patient’s wife she commented, “The most impressive thing about Tony is that he’s been through so much and he can still smile. His visit gave us a lot of hope.”
When Tony talks with new burn patients he explains, “It’s all about attitude. How much you want it, how much you believe in yourself.” He admits that after his injury everything about his life, his future was unknown. In his quiet, dignified way he explains, “I didn’t ask for this but I had to do it. And while I was doing it I was constantly discovering something new about myself, about adaptation and survival.”