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New peer support group for burn survivors established at USAISR Burn Center

By David DeKunder | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | April 26, 2019


The U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston has joined a nationwide program that is providing peer support to burn patients going through their recovery and rehabilitation process.

In March, the USAISR Burn Center became one of 76 hospitals and burn centers across the U.S. and Canada who are members of the Phoenix SOAR – Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery – program. The program is under the direction of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, a nonprofit organization that helps people affected by a burn injury.

The SOAR program connects burn patients and their family members to burn survivors – peer supporters – who share their experiences about their injuries and going through the recovery and rehabilitation process in peer group meetings, or during one-on-one visits with the patients at the USAISR Burn Center.

Capt. Loc Lam, USAISR Burn Center chief of psychiatry service and SOAR program coordinator, said having a sustaining peer support program for burn survivors and their families is a priority of his and that of Dr. Leopoldo Cancio, USAISR Burn Center director.

“We had been lacking this burn support network for multiple years,” Lam said. “I believe that the amount of interest and the amount of people showing up at meetings speaks volumes of that need.”

Since it started in March, the SOAR program has been well received by burn patients and their family members at the USAISR Burn Center. During the first month of the program, an average of 13 burn patients attended the weekly group meetings, including over 80 peer supporting encounters, in which burn survivors would go visit patients at the burn center in providing support.

Lam said he and the peer supporters receive training through the program on evidence-based techniques and resources utilized for helping and supporting burn patients and their families.

He said the objective of the program is to help burn patients, who have gone through surgeries and rehabilitation sessions, to better transition back into their community.

“The Burn Center saves lives on a daily basis,” Lam said. “It’s the role of the SOAR program to provide a network of burn survivors so no burn survivors have to recover alone.”

Staff Sgt. Christopher Guerrero, a U.S. Marine Corps aviation mechanic, and Cpl. Blake DeLeon, a U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman, are peer supporters in the Phoenix SOAR program. Guerrero and DeLeon are currently being treated at the out-patient burn clinic at the USAISR Burn Center.

Both Marines were transported to the Burn Center in 2017 for non-combat burn injuries. Guerrero was injured while doing maintenance on an aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, when a hydraulic leak caused a fire that covered him in fuel, causing burns to 80 percent of his body. DeLeon incurred third degree burns, covering 70 percent of his body, during an accident involving an outdoor fire at his residence in Washington State.

Guerrero said as a peer supporter he tries to provide hope and encouragement to burn patients, who are going through a recovery process that can be both physically, emotionally and mentally difficult.

“The love and appreciation I had received as an in-patient from staff and my leadership, I felt the need to give back,” Guerrero said. “I’m a pay it forward type of person. I felt if I can make one person take a terrible situation and make the most out of it, then I feel like my burns are worth it.”

As a burn survivor and peer supporter, Guerrero said he wants to be an example to burn patients that they can move forward with their lives despite their injuries.

“I’ve gone through the process and here I am,” he said. “I’m thriving and succeeding and you shouldn’t let this terrible situation keep you down. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

DeLeon said sharing his experiences as a burn survivor to burn patients is helping him get through his recovery process.

“You want to help out other people who have been through the same situation as we have,” DeLeon said. “It helps me open myself up more. It helps me be more comfortable telling my story. I feel like it helps me out way more than I thought it would.

“I didn’t know how to deal with some of the things (as a burn patient), I was in depression,” DeLeon added. “It’s very hard to deal with that type of stuff. The training that we did for SOAR to become peer supporters allowed us to learn - how to get ideas from other burn survivors and how to deal with certain situations in talking to people.”

Burn patients are not the only ones peer supporters in the SOAR program provide support to. The peer support group has held question and answer sessions for caregivers at the USAISR Burn Center, including nurses, physicians and rehabilitation therapists. In these instances, Guerrero said he and DeLeon share what they experienced as burn patients to the caregivers so they can better understand what their patients are going through.

“We’re there to give insight and guidance,” Guerrero said. “Everyone can have a Q&A with each other and share stories and experiences, and help them become better caregivers.”

In its short time at the USAISR Burn Center, Lam said the program is already having a positive impact on the lives of both peer supporters, burn patients, family members and USAISR Burn Center clinicians.

“One of our occupational therapists said it gave her a sense of meaningfulness, reminding her what she does makes a drastically, positive impact on people’s lives,” Lam said. “I noticed a difference already that more people are becoming more motivated in their treatment after speaking to the SOAR folks. They gain a sense of hope that there is life after their burn injury.”

The SOAR group meets Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the 4 East Family Room at the USAISR Burn Center, located inside Brooke Army Medical Center. For information about the SOAR program, call 210-916-9173.

Information on the Phoenix Society can be found at http://www.Phoenix-society.org/.