Life-changing work

Bruce Cairns arrives at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center each day with one primary concern: He wants to shut it down.

“My mission here is to put us out of business,” he said.

Cairns, medical director of the 21-bed center at UNC Hospitals and John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery, would love to see the day when there are no burn injuries.

Until then, the center serves as a hospital-within-a-hospital where burn survivors of all ages are cared for by a cadre of staff: burn surgeons, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, rehabilitation counselors, physical therapists, aftercare specialists and other disciplines who treat burns and help survivors and families adapt to new realities.

Students from UNC and surrounding schools volunteer and intern at the center to get an education they can get nowhere else, and Special Forces at Fort Bragg are trained to address wounds they may see in combat.

Staff partner with firefighters throughout the U.S., circulate smoke alarms and present on fire safety and burn prevention to anyone who will listen. Researchers break new scientific ground on smoke inhalation, immunology and spray-on skin, and computer scientists discover new ways to monitor patients.

That such a comprehensive center of healing, teaching and learning exists at Carolina is no coincidence, Cairns said.

“If you take the priorities of this institution and align yourself with them, everything else will fall into place,” he said. “We have to make a difference. The University requires that of us.”

‘One big family’

Burns leave the visible marks of a tragic, life-changing event, and their healing requires many resources. Caring for these patients is not for everyone, but for some, it is everything.

When Anita Fields was a student at Carolina’s School of Nursing in the 1980s, she did not predict a lifelong career with burn survivors. Fields, now program manager for burn aftercare, has been at the center for more than 25 years.

“You don’t expect to hear anyone say, ‘When I grow up, I want to work at the burn center,’” she said.

But it’s a place where signs of healing abound – a woman laughing with her occupational therapist as she waves a bandaged palm back and forth, a child playing with a therapist who can see past scars, a social worker who understands the emotional pain that will outlast the physical, group photos from camps that nurture survivors and parents at every stage of recovery.

There’s a waitlist of nurses who want to work there, Fields said. Some leave and come back. Some, like Fields, never leave. “The burn center is one big family,” she said.

The patients know that, too. “Burns is a field where patients can tell immediately if you’re really here for them,” said Cairns. “When it pulls you in, you’re all in.”

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Published November 19, 2012