JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
"Where is your husband deployed to?"
"Korea. Just a couple more months."
"Well, we're your family here."
Her smile is infectious and she directs it at everyone who comes into the room, nurses, doctors, technicians: her family here. Retired U.S. Army Capt. Katie Blanchard is thousands of miles from her home on what she jokingly calls the "useless animal farm" in Olympia, Washington, where she lives with her husband, their three sons and lots of rescued animals that "don't pay their rent."
"We told them [her sons] early on what had happened to me and that's difficult for them to comprehend: why people would ever hurt another person, especially their mom," Blanchard said. "They like to make up stories about me being a dragon or the dragon lady, some kind of superhero theme, usually. They like to tell people that I have superpowers and that I'm different but it's because I'm a superhero.
"It's hard for them if I can't go out and play because I can't be out in the sun; or when I'm recovering and I can't do everything that ‘normal’ moms do.
"When this happened," Blanchard gestures to her burn scars, "my family and I agreed we wanted to be with Soldiers and to continue care here [in San Antonio]. We knew they had great burn care here."
She has lost count, but she believes she is close to her 200th surgery in the three years since a workplace violence incident left third degree burns on her face, head, arms, neck, back and chest.
"I have surgeries about every other month now," Blanchard said.
Col. (Dr.) Chad M. Hivnor, 59th Medical Specialty Squadron chief of laser medicine, and his team have been with her through many of them. The surgery he performs with fractionated carbon dioxide lasers, is a burn treatment technique he pioneered at the start of the Iraq War.
Hivnor describes the treatment as a "breaking up" of old scar tissue, allowing newer, healthier scar tissue to form. The goal, which has been evidentially proven in hundreds of seriously burned war veterans, is to improve her range of motion, pain and the skin's appearance.
The procedure is offered in less than a handful of facilities and is virtually exclusive to the Defense Department. In between Blanchard's treatments here, Hivnor collaborates with her doctors back at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to continue her care.
"Capt. Blanchard came in all the way from Washington state and that's not abnormal," Hivnor said. "People come here from all over the country. There are few places that have an OR and do this, that have the technology, number one, but also the knowledge, number two. We've been doing this for 12 years. That's a lot different than someone picking it up and giving it a try."
The procedure requires three doctors and three lasers working simultaneously for two hours on the burns across her body.
As she emerged from surgery and woke from the anesthesia in pain from the laser burns, she turned toward Hivnor's calming voice and reached for the comfort of his hand. Her hand grasping his shook, her feet clenched, she whispered "it burns," over and over.
Hivnor only took his hand away to gently smooth ice-water soaked cloths and Vaseline over her skin.
"It's very painful for a burn patient to have CO2 surgery and the recovery period is really difficult," Blanchard said. "Having someone there that you know and you trust, makes a world of difference."
While her husband is deployed, Blanchard's nurse, Lamona Whaley, acts as her caretaker. When Blanchard has recovered enough to be discharged, Whaley takes her to the Fisher House to rest. As Blanchard gets dressed, Whaley and her chat about what she might want for dinner.
Before she leaves, Hivnor checks on her one more time.
"You have my cell phone number. If the pain gets too much, if you don't want to be alone, if you need anything at all - call me.
"My wife and I have seven children, we'll put them to work waiting on you hand and foot."