JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
For nearly three years, San Antonio firefighter Brad Phipps has had to deal with both the physical and emotional scars from a fire that left him with burn injuries and in which one of his colleagues perished.
It’s been a long and difficult recovery for Phipps, but he is thankful to the physicians, therapists and nurses at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston who treated and helped him rehab from his injuries.
“They were amazing, they were kind and they were respectful,” Phipps said.
Phipps, 40, is set to retire from the San Antonio Fire Department at the end of March, after 15 years of service with the department.
Phipps visited with USAISR staff members at the Brooke Army Medical Center mall Feb. 6to help man a booth set up by USAISR Burn Center that provided information and promotional items to emphasize the importance of burn injury awareness and prevention to the community. The booth was set up during National Burn Awareness Week held Feb. 2-8.
On May 18, 2017, Phipps was among several firefighters who responded to a four-alarm fire at a strip mall complex in northwest San Antonio. Phipps, along with his colleague and partner Scott Deem, entered the burning building, a gym, to search for people possibly trapped inside.
After a while, both firefighters tried to leave the burning building but were overcome by fire and became separated. Phipps said he was in the building for approximately 20 minutes, passing out from the heat before fire crews rescued him by dragging him out.
Unfortunately, Deem, a six-year firefighter for the San Antonio Fire Department, did not make it out alive. He was 31 years old. Investigators determined the cause of the fire as arson, which resulted in the arrest of the gym’s owner, who admitted to setting the building on fire.
Phipps was taken to the USAISR Burn Center intensive care unit with burn injuries covering 32 percent of his body, including his hands, arms, legs and back. While a patient in the burn center ICU, he was in a coma for about three weeks.
“When I woke up from the coma, I really wasn’t sure what had happened,” Phipps said. “It took a while for me to grasp what had actually happened. It was hard on me to learn that my partner (Deem) had passed away.”
He was kept in the USAISR Burn Center ICU until August 2017. After Phipps was released from the ICU, he started his outpatient rehabilitation and physical therapy, a long process that lasted for two years.
“My rehab started the day after I was released from here,” Phipps said. “I came back here five days a week to the USAISR Burn Rehabilitation Unit. That lasted for about nine months going five days a week and then it dropped to three days a week.”
He said his biggest challenge while in rehab was learning how to walk again.
Phipps said going through rehabilitation was difficult at times, but the encouragement and support he received from the physicians, nurses and therapists at USAISR helped him get through it.
“There were numerous days that I didn’t want to do it or give up,” he said. “But luckily the people here kept pushing me and pushing me and everyday it got better.”
While at USAISR Burn Center, Phipps said he received about 20 visitors a day, from family members to firefighters he worked with to burn survivors, who endured what he was going through and gave him hope and encouragement as he recovered from his injuries.
“I was lucky enough to have a few individuals come and speak to me when I was in the ICU,” said Phipps, referring to the burn survivors who came and spoke to him. “It really helped me get a grasp of what to expect in the future. We had a fireman who came in from West, Texas (a scene of a fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 that killed 15 people). He was being treated in Galveston, but he still came and talked to me. Then I had some Soldiers that were here at USAISR who were burn survivors and they came in and talked to me as well.”
Phipps said what the burn survivors told him gave him insight as to what his life as a burn survivor would be like.
“It helped you stay motivated knowing it’s going to get better,” he said. “They let me know what to expect in the future, like yes, you’re going to have surgeries when you get out, your life is going to be different.”
In addition, Phipps said having the support of his family, which includes his wife Tina and two sons, who visited him often, was vital for his recovery.
“It probably hit them harder than me since I was in a coma,” said Phipps about what his family had to endure during his recovery. “I don’t remember the pain and all that stuff they had to go through, but not knowing whether I was going to make it or not. I know it put a toll on them.”
Phipps said while in rehab he found time to talk to burn survivors in the Burn Center ICU. He said the advice he gives his fellow burn survivors is this: listen to what the physicians, therapists and nurses tell you to do.
“By not doing anything, you’re going to make your situation worse,” Phipps said. “You have to stay moving, stay positive and you will pull through it.”
Brent Sabatino, USAISR Burn Center intensive care unit nurse, said burn survivors such as Phipps who talk to and interact with other burn survivors help make the recovery process better for the patients.
“I feel that survivors recover best, psychologically, when they have peer support amongst themselves, as a group,” Sabatino said. “Conversation with someone who has gone through what you have and can relate to each other’s situation better than someone who hasn’t.”
Phipps said he wanted to use the time he was at the booth to interact with community members about his experience of being a burn survivor and to spread the word about burn awareness and prevention.
“Burn injuries change people’s lives forever,” he said. “Once a burn victim, you’re always a burn victim. I want to let them know to be careful around anything that can burn and if you do get burned, what some of the treatments are like. Anything that I can do to help people that are burned. They need the help and encouragement.”
Helping to promote burn awareness and prevention at BAMC also gave Phipps the opportunity to visit and talk to the USAISR staff members who helped with his recovery and rehabilitation.
“I am able to say thanks to a lot of the individuals that helped me,” Phipps said.
Sabatino said several burn survivors besides Phipps came to the USAISR booth during National Burn Awareness Week.
“Inviting burn survivors to participate in National Burn Awareness Week, I feel is essential part of their recovery process,” Sabatino said. “Many survivors have told me they do not leave their houses. Social activities are sometimes hard for them to attend or participate due to the public’s reaction when they see a burn survivor with visible scars.
“This event gives them a chance to interact with the public, let (the public) ask them questions or let (the burn survivor) tell their story, if they would like. Mr. Phipps was able to tell his story and help make the public aware that this could happen to anybody at any time and that he made it.”