Written on August 27, 2019
In the summer of 1999, the Bowers were a self-described “successful, middle class, loving family” living in southeast Texas. David was an assistant plant manager at an air separation facility and Carly was a stay-at-home mom who worked part-time as a church youth director. Their daughter Samantha was nearly 9 years old and their son Nathan was 2. The family was looking forward to a possible job transfer for David that would send them to Indiana, closer to much of their extended family.
But On August 20, 1999, everything was about to change for the Bower family. While 31-year-old David was at work, a high pressure oxygen pipe ruptured and engulfed him in a flash fire with temperatures up to 5,000 degrees.
“Nathan was down for his afternoon nap and I was working on a lesson for our youth group,” Carly recalls. “The phone rang. It was a nurse from our local hospital who told me my husband had just been in a serious accident at work and I needed to get to the hospital as soon as I could. My ‘perfect’ little world started to crumble out from underneath me.”
The prognosis for David was grim.
His daughter Samantha recalls, “I remember the look on the teacher’s face after she got off the phone, but all I could think about was how cool it was to get out of school early!” It wasn’t until Samantha saw her little brother and her father’s boss’s wife standing in the corner that she realized something was wrong.
Carly made it to the local hospital to see David before he was flown to the burn center in Galveston, but his injuries made him nearly unrecognizable. “Our time together was not what I’d seen in the movies,” remembers Carly, “it wasn’t eloquent or long winded. It was short and very to the point. We told each other we loved one another. Then David told me, ‘Everything is going to be ok...take care of the kids,’ then I was led outside of his room into the hallway.”
While trying to stay as strong as possible for Samantha, Carly explained to her daughter that her dad was in a very bad accident and had suffered severe burns. Carly focused on staying calm while her daughter asked her question after question, eventually leading to the toughest one. When all Samantha wanted was to see her dad, she asked her mom if he was going to survive. Carly had to be honest and tell her daughter she didn’t know.
David survived that night, then spent another 4 months in the intensive care unit at the burn center. Although he was intubated and heavily medicated, he was not placed in a medically induced coma. Therefore, unlike many burn patients, he was awake and coherent at times during his stay.
“I think this helped me process part of what was happening to me,” says David, “instead of not being able to see things at the worst.”
Despite the incredible support of family and friends, Carly, who stayed in Galveston to be with her husband, often felt overwhelmed. “There was a time when I felt like I had lost everything,” she says. “I had given up my job, I wasn’t living at home, our kids weren’t with us, my husband wasn’t the same anymore, and I thought I might lose him at any moment.” She wanted to fix things and reassure her kids, but in this situation she could not.
The family found ways to cope with the uncertainty. “We learned to take it one day at a time,” says Carly. “We realized the roller coaster ride you experience in a burn unit happens many times in one given day—so many highs and lows. One minute I’d be elated simply because David wiggled his toes on command; the next moment he was unresponsive and fighting off infection. We tried to keep our sense of humor through it all.”
Samantha’s early hospital experiences as a 9-year-old were equally difficult. Nathan, on the other hand, had been too young to really understand what was going on when David was injured. He couldn’t experience anxiety the way his older sister did. Instead, the toddler often got physically ill after his visits to the hospital. Carly explained he was unable to verbalize his feelings, but at times he acted them out.
Even as David made progress in his physical recovery, it was hard for him not to feel discouraged. After his grafts, David was supported by his physical therapist and father while he “walked” for the first time after his injury. It should have felt like an accomplishment, but instead David felt as if he was “doing nothing” since he was being so heavily assisted.
“Everybody else was so excited that I had been up and walked,” he says, “and I was devastated that I was so pathetic.”
Once David was released from the hospital, he was transferred to an inpatient rehab center closer to home, where he spent the next two months. That was followed by several more months of outpatient physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, hand therapy, and many trips over the next several years back to the hospital for additional surgeries.
"So much had to be done for me at that point,” says David, “I was not independent in any way. The kids and Carly were initially excited, but the change in schedule and responsibilities made it tough for everyone, and I couldn’t help.”
Carly was now the nurse, caretaker, wife, mom, chauffeur, scheduler, therapist and so much more.
David was slowly learning how to walk again, feed himself, and perform basic daily tasks. But the family faced more than physical and logistical challenges.
“I couldn’t sit still for very long or be in quiet spaces because the flashbacks would happen,” says Carly. “I would replay the phone call from the hospital; the diagnosis of a high mortality injury; the first time I saw David. The flashbacks and fear for my family’s safety were too intense to manage on my own, so I sought counseling.”
The entire Bowers family was feeling the impact of David’s burn.
“Not only did I become overprotective of my dad,” Samantha says, “I became overprotective of my family. I struggled with depression. I struggled with the question, ‘Why?’ Why did this happen to Dad? Why did my family have to go through this? Why weren’t people as understanding of ‘differences’ out in public? Why did Dad have to look different?”
Nearly six months after the incident, the family finally got a referral for professional counseling. David remembers being “starved” for information on what it meant to be burned. They didn’t know any other burn survivors and there were no support groups in their area.
“Luckily,” Carly says, “my mother came across a brochure for the Phoenix Society. We learned about an online chat group. This helped David initially and our family was beginning to realize we were not alone. We could learn from other families who had been affected by a burn injury.”
Just 11 months after the accident, Carly and David, who was wearing a full-body compression garment and required 3 hours of dressing changes each day, traveled to San Francisco for Phoenix World Burn Congress 2000.
“This event was exactly what the two of us needed!” says Carly. “We were overwhelmed with the sense of community we felt at the =Congress. For the first time in almost a year, we felt like other people understood what we were experiencing on a daily basis. Sure, we had family and friends who supported and helped us, but the people at Phoenix World Burn Congress knew firsthand what it was like to live the life of a burn injury 24/7. We fit in.”
Carly and David continued to attend Phoenix WBC each year.
Like Carly, David says Phoenix WBC helped them find the tools they needed to continue their recovery as a family—including how to answer questions from strangers and how to handle staring. They were inspired by other survivors, realizing their lives would return to normal. They could get past the therapy and surgeries.
After several years, David and Carly started making Phoenix WBC a family event, bringing Samantha and Nathan along to the yearly meetings.
“We feel like this helped them feel connected with other survivors,” says Carly, who recalls the kids also learned ways to cope and heal. Both kids, according to their mother, have grown into caring, responsible people who see the needs of others and are oblivious to most physical differences.
Because of their experience, David and Carly have also been proponents of family programming at Phoenix WBC, especially for the children and siblings of burn survivors.
“It’s always been our way of thinking that a burn injury impacts the entire family unit—not just the person with the physical scars,” Carly explains, “so we’ve been thrilled to help out with implementing the Phoenix UBelong program at Phoenix WBC.”
The couple encourages other families who have been affected by a burn injury to seek help early on.
“Find other burn survivors. Even if there’s not a support group in your area, you can connect with people from all over the world through Phoenix Society’s peer support chat. It helps to know you’re not the only one going through this crisis. Gain wisdom from those who have walked the path before you. Seek counseling if you need it. Take care of yourself, if you’re the caregiver; you can’t take care of anyone if you’re exhausted. Get outside help when necessary. You don’t have to do this on your own. Talk about it; sharing your story helps in the healing process. Laugh when you can.” - Carly Bower
In 2002, after most of David’s outpatient therapies were complete, the family decided to make the move to Indiana they had been hoping for years earlier. Although they had an incredibly supportive community of friends and co-workers in Texas, they needed a new beginning.
“A fresh start in a new place was a bit overwhelming some days,” Carly says. “How would people welcome us? Would we be included? Our fears subsided quickly as our new community welcomed our family with open arms. Once again, I think it helped that we weren’t wallowing in our misfortune—we were trying to take it in stride and make the best of it most days. Not every day was easy. It took work to put one foot in front of the other some days. David’s had well over 40 surgeries, many of which were in the first 8 years. We’ve found a new kind of normal. But through the years we’ve found our laughter through some occasional tears.”
The Bowers are now focused on finding ways to reach out to others in similar circumstances.
“It’s hard to have a pity party when you’re serving others,” says Carly. “We’ve tried to still find the joy in life that surrounds us each day—there’s plenty of it, we just need to acknowledge it. But it’s a choice to be joyful. Life is tough and there will always be painful moments, but if we make a conscious decision to find joy in the little things, our days will be much more rewarding for us and those around us.”
In 2009 the Bowers family received the Phoenix Society’s Janet Harman Award, which recognizes outstanding philanthropic or volunteer leadership in support of the Society.