On a chilly winter night in Toronto, Bob Johnstone leaned over his kitchen stove to reach for something. Flames from the burner caught his loose shirt and “went poof.” Soon he was engulfed in flames. Quick to react, he ran outside onto the deck and dove into the snow, rolling around until the flames were extinguished.
“I didn’t think it was serious,” recalls Bob, the mellow-voiced, long-time journalist and broadcaster, best known for hosting Today in History radio vignettes on CBC in the 1980s and ’90s. But with almost a quarter of his body burned, his life was now in severe danger. Bob was not a young man – almost 80, in fact – at the time of the accident.
He was rushed by ambulance to nearby Sunnybrook, where he was admitted to the Emergency Department (ED). Luckily for Bob, Sunnybrook is home of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre (RTBC), where the majority of the province’s burn victims are treated. The centre is named in honour of Dr. Ross Tilley, a highly skilled Canadian burn surgeon and a pioneer in the treatment of burns during the Second World War.
RTBC is the only burn program of its kind in Ontario, providing everything from admission to acute care, follow-up, rehabilitation and reconstructive surgery.
“People who come here have access to the best possible outcome because of our dedicated resources and dedicated space,” says Anne Hayward, a social worker in the RTBC. “The way we are set up, every member of the team is integral, from surgery to wound care, to therapy, to cleaning, to psychology, to teaching, to follow-up. All components contribute to the person’s care and recovery.”
When burn patients arrive at the hospital, the team springs into action. That night in the ED, Bob was put on a ventilator. He was prepped for surgery. Bob remembers being told that he could die. He consented to aggressive treatment, but not if it was deemed futile. At 79, with diabetes and a heart condition, as well as deep second- and third-degree burns to 24 per cent of his body, his chances of surviving were low.
Bob was given finely calibrated pain medication to keep him comfortable, and then he was sedated. The date was Jan. 4, 2009. “I woke up and my wife was holding my hand. I went back to sleep. I woke up and she was holding my hand again. The next time I woke up we started talking. I found out it was February 10.”
While Bob was in and out of consciousness he had several skin-graft operations. His burn ran along his right torso, from his belt to armpit, as well as across the top of his right shoulder, and on part of his neck. Doctors took skin from his legs to graft onto the damaged skin. (“They took some from my bum, too, but I haven’t seen that lately,” he jokes.)
“His injury was significant,” says clinical nurse specialist Judy Knighton, who remembers Bob fondly. “He did well to survive. This speaks to his determination and the ability of the team.”
He was in Sunnybrook for a month and then made a smooth transition to
St. John’s Rehab Hospital. He was a patient there until early March, and then moved home and continued therapy as an outpatient.
“I feel good,” he now says. Bob still does exercises such as the “wall crawl” (inching fingers up the wall) to prevent his grafted skin from becoming tight, but otherwise he has made a remarkable recovery. “You’ve got to keep fighting,” he says.
This veteran journalist is gushing in his praise for staff at the Ross Tilley Burn Centre. “The thing I recall is the kindness. I was minutes away from death. They not only saved my life, they saved the quality of it, too,” says Bob, who is now 81, and enjoying time with his wife, his two daughters and his two grandchildren.
The centre recently underwent an accreditation review by the American Burn Association, which is a step in verifying that a burn centre meets the association’s standards. RTBC will be the only hospital in Canada to achieve this standard for burn care.
But it’s individual kudos that have a personal impact on the centre’s staff.
For instance, Bob and his wife Maggie have been back to visit the staff at RTBC. “They want people to know how well they’re doing and that it mattered. It reinforces what we do and why,” says Ms. Hayward.
Ms. Knighton agrees seeing patients come back is gratifying. “Most of us who work here are passionate about the work we do. We get to know the families and patients very well. We get to see the benefit of our hard work and see people go on to live happy, productive lives,” she says. “Many burn survivors say they are like a phoenix, rising from the ashes to be more beautiful than before.”
Like many grateful patients, Bob has a desire to give back to Sunnybrook. While he donates to the Sunnybrook Foundation what he can, he says he’d love to do more. “The reason I buy lottery tickets is I hope to one day give them a million dollars.”
He sends the staff at RTBC a fruit basket every Jan. 4 and at Christmas time. “Words can’t express how I feel for those people. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t have some memory of them.”