Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of what has been called the worst vehicle accidents in Inyo County history. Representatives from the California Highway Patrol said a full report of the accident is due by the end of August.
According to the preliminary report, at approximately 8 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 9, 2010, an SUV from Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego traveling southbound on U.S. 395 flipped in the median, burst into flames and went head-on into a northbound van from California Baptist University. The crash left 15 injured and killed four, three at the scene and one months later due to injuries. Both vehicles held student athletes, many freshmen in college or newly graduated from high school.
Almost one year to the day of the accident, one survivor of the fiery crash, Derek Thomas, has been released from the Grossman Burn Center after an extensive stay and exhaustive procedures.
According to a press release from Northern Inyo Hospital, where the victims were initially taken the night of the crash, “The event was a unique and positive experience for all of the first responders, because they seldom receive follow-up on how a patient is recovering, and because few people expected such a good outcome from burns as extensive as Derek received.”
And, 14 of the 15 injured students from California Baptist University will be in Bishop on Monday, Aug. 15 to meet the first responders. The students, members of the cross-country team, will be returning from high-altitude training in Mammoth. The students never made it to Mammoth last year.
Thomas, now 19 years old, was in the SUV from Cathedral Catholic High School from San Diego. According to the NIH press release, Thomas was “severely burned on 84 percent of his body, which required 33 surgeries, and 25 other procedures to allow him to be transferred to a local hospital in San Diego. Derek received over 450 units of blood, and spent 143 days in the Intensive Care Unit.”
Thomas was initially transported by ambulance to Northern Inyo Hospital, and shortly thereafter was flown out to a burn center, where he remained for almost a year.
Thomas was able to walk on his own accord out of the burn center for transfer to a local hospital on July 19.
Andrew Stevens, Northern Inyo Hospital Emergency Room manager and a registered nurse who assisted in preparing Thomas for evacuation to the burn center, said he didn’t expect Thomas to live through the night.
The local air ambulance service, Sierra Life Flight, who flew the injured from Bishop to specialized hospital centers the night of the accident, flew six of the first responders down to see Thomas at his release from the burn center.
The first person on the scene of the accident last year was Shane Scott, an Inyo County Sheriff’s Department investigator. Scott was one of the people who pulled Derek out of the burning vehicle. Scott has received recognition from the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, state legislators and the California Peace Officer’s Association.
On June 19, Scott was presented with the extremely rare and prestigious Sheriff’s Medal of Valor and the Sheriff’s Life Saving Award for his actions the night of Aug. 9, 2010. According to the initial crash report from the CHP, Scott had pulled Thomas from the burning, rolled-over SUV and tried to pull a second victim from the vehicle, until the intense heat of the fire became too much for him.
Also seeing Thomas out of the burn center were Dave Calloway and Lloyd Wilson, both emergency medical technicians from the Big Pine Fire Department, which transferred Thomas and another critically burned patient to the hospital the night of Aug. 9.
Stevens, and Cindy Knight, both registered nurses, were also present at Thomas’ departure from the burn center. Stevens had assisted Knight in stabilizing Thomas and getting him ready for transfer to the Burn Center from Northern Inyo Hospital.
Also in attendance was Lisa Erwin, RN, the flight nurse who cared for Thomas during the hour-long trip to the Grossman Burn Center.
Gary Thompson, the pilot for Sierra Life Flight who flew the group down to the event on June 19, was the pilot who flew Thomas the evening of the accident.
Stevens said it was “truly amazing” to see Thomas, someone so badly injured, and to see them come out of it. Stevens added this wasn’t the first time he’d seen a patient after an ER visit, but the first that the chances of the patient’s survival were so slim.
“He’s a really amazing kid,” Stevens added. “He has indomitable spirit.”
Dr. Peter Grossman of the Grossman Burn Center said by phone Thursday that Thomas’ burns were considered “catastrophic,” covering 85 percent of his body. Grossman added the burns were also quite deep, “destroying the function of his skin cells.”
Thomas’ entire body was traumatized, as the burns “stressed out” other organs, Grossman said.
Grossman added Thomas was lucky in that he did not suffer any other significant injuries in the crash.
However, Thomas needed extensive skin grafts and he had very little of his own skin left to be used for grafting. Grossman explained that nearly every form of grafting was incorporated, including using “biological skin substitutes” to cloning Thomas’ own skin. Grossman said that nothing would work except the slow harvesting of human cadaver skin for grafting along with excellent nursing and bedside care. Thomas was in an induced coma for four months to relieve him from the excruciatingly painful procedures.
When asked if Thomas was the worst burn victim Grossman had ever seen, he replied he’d been asked that question many times in the last few months. Grossman answered, “He’s among the most remarkable recoveries I have seen.” Grossman added that, given the severity of depth of the burns, “He has been the most challenging, and in some ways the most rewarding patient we’ve ever seen.”
The doctor said he expects Thomas’ recovery to be challenging, both emotionally and physically, in the coming months and years. But, given the young man’s fortitude, “His opportunities in life are huge.
“Unfortunately, there is no eraser,” Grossman said. “He’s going to have to accept there is a permanent change from his pre-injury status and there will always be a barrier. The question is what will he make of it.”