Burn Unit caught my eye because I thought it would be great research for a book Iím writing. I expected it to be frank, informative and sad -- and it was. However, author Barbara Ravage doesnít dwell on the grotesqueries of an inherently gruesome topic. She discusses the physical damage caused by flame, smoke, chemicals, electricity and scalding liquids because an understanding of the problem is crucial, but her main focus is on the history of burn treatment in general.
The Coconut Grove tragedy of the early 1940s became a starting point for modern studies on burns and smoke inhalation injuries. Ravage describes the simple way the fire began, the locked exits, the stampede of terrified people and the transportation of the dead, the dying and the injured to area hospitals. What happened to these patients -- to those who lived and those who died -- was documented in detail. Regulators studied the event with an eye to preventing such catastrophes in the future. Logistics planners evaluated techniques for dealing with mass casualties from the perspective of triage and transport. Scientists explored how the body reacts to burn and smoke inhalation. Doctors used this information to postulate the best techniques for treatment. All of this was down with the hope that something good might grow out of so much horror.
Ravage demonstrates modern-day burn treatment by presenting the stories of two victims, their families, the firemen who rescued them and the nurses and doctors who treated them. Dan OíShea (not his real name) and Tom Parent are the faces of those touched by fire. The author follows them through the first awful moments of their burn, describes the extensive nature of their injuries and explains the emotional impact on them and their families.
This technique works well in that it takes subject matter that might be dry and puts it in context of the human experience. On the other hand, academic knowledge of what fire can do to a human body is a lot easier to deal with in the abstract. Personally, I hope to never know it in any other way.
My own squeamishness impressed upon me the strength of character required to deal with the sights and sounds and smells of the burn ward. Ravage presents several people who dedicated their professional lives to caring for burn patients. What strikes me most is that these folks are so human themselves -- yet they are the ones who look at horrors others canít. In fact, they do more than look. They touch. They communicate. They comfort. They find veins through charred skin. They replace putrid dressings with fresh several times a day. Surely thatís the definition of heroism?
Barbara Ravageís book is a slim volume. Not everyone will want to know what she presents here. Itís brutal and raw and tragic. However, like a sine wave, if thereís a down, thereís also an up. These are the stories of doctors who were able to look at burns as problems to be solved. Itís a tale of pain and desperation countered by support and hope. Itís epic in nature -- because fire is a friend that can turn into an enemy in the blink of an eye. For that reason alone, Burn Unit is well worth the read.