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Victims, families 'hanging in'
Imperial Sugar refinery explosion patients face long road of rehab ahead
04.17 burn center-mullins
Joseph M. Still Burn Center medical director Dr. Fred Mullins listens to a question during a news conference Tuesday morning. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

AUGUSTA — Jenny Purnell isn’t ready for her husband Justin to come home — not yet at least, not until he’s ready.

Justin Purnell is in the rehabilitation unit at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, having been released from the Joseph M. Still Burn Center there for his next round of treatment. Purnell was one of nearly 40 people hurt in the Feb. 7 explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth.

“I want him to stay here as long as he can,” she said Tuesday, “just to encourage him to work harder.”

Twenty victims from the blast were taken to the Still Burn Center originally, including Purnell, Paul Seckinger, Troy Bacon and Kelly Fields. Five, including Fields, died as a result of their injuries.

Four, including Seckinger, are still in the burn unit and three are in critical condition. Two — including Purnell — are at the hospital’s rehab unit, and nine have been discharged.

“Some are a little ahead, and one is a little behind,” Dr. Fred Mullins said of the remaining patients’ recoveries.

“Overall, they are hanging in and doing quite well.”

Justin Purnell, who suffered burns over 60 percent of his body, was moved to rehab last Wednesday.

“Words cannot explain it,” Jenny Purnell said of her reaction to her husband’s move to rehab. “You don’t know how fast it’s coming. When it’s here, it’s like we’ve got a bigger step.  He’s still got a long way to go, but that was a big step.”

Doctors have not set a timetable for Purnell in rehab.

“It’s hard to gauge,” Dr. Mullins, the medical director of the Still Burn Center, said. “If you lay in bed for a couple of months, you become very debilitated. You’ve basically got to retrain yourself and build up your muscle strength.”

Karen Seckinger, Paul’s mother, said her son’s skin grafts are taking well and his doctor has a few spots he wants to touch up.

“He’s coming along well for the extent of the burns he had,” she said.

Paul Seckinger remains on a ventilator and had been in a medically-induced coma for weeks — which is not out of the ordinary for severe burn patients —but he has been awake and he was allowed to sit in a chair Tuesday.

“That’s like a big move,” Karen Seckinger said.

She said when she went into see him Tuesday morning, he was wide awake. She had to talk to him from the door because nurses had him unwrapped.

“I told him everything was all right,” she said, “that he was going to be all right.”

A special visitor sneaks in
Under the suggestion of his doctor, Karen Seckinger escorted Paul’s daughter Morgan into his room not long ago to see him. By hospital rules, Morgan is too young to go into the ICU to see her father, and the Ebenezer Elementary School student had not seen her dad since the accident, but the doctor thought it would help.

They spent about four minutes together, Karen Seckinger said.

“Not long, but it was good,” she said. “His doctor said he has little girls of his own and he said, ‘I think that would be the best medicine if he could put his eyes on her.’ I think it did him a lot of good, and it did her a lot of good. I think it did them both a lot of good.”

Paul Seckinger was “very sleepy,” Karen said, when they walked in. “He opened his eyes, and then he opened them really wide. And then he smiled and picked his hand up and waved.”

Since Seckinger was flown to the burn center, his mother — a teacher at Springfield Elementary — has been home twice, trying to reinforce and comfort her granddaughter.

“After having her world turned upside down, she’s held up well,” she said.

Communicating with Paul has become easier, now that he is awake, though the family has tried to tell him not to try to talk. His lungs also need to heal.

“We reassure him he’s going to be fine, that she’s fine, his family’s fine and his dogs and chickens are being taken care of,” Karen Seckinger said.

Paul has tried to talk over the ventilator, and he startled his nurse one night.

“The nurse said it really scared him because he was working in there and he heard someone say, “I’m hot,” and he knew it was just the two of them in there,” Karen Seckinger said.

Paul first started trying to talk again a little over a week ago, and he has said,“I love you.”

“And we keep telling him, ‘don’t talk because it’s not good for you to talk with the ventilator in,’” his mother said.

“He’s going to have plenty of time to talk. And I’m sure he’s going to have plenty to say.”

Burns can lead to other problems
The skin surface areas that were burned on the Imperial Sugar patients were large, and doctors are waiting for more skin to be grown.

“Not only did they have skin burns, but they had lung burns,” Dr. Mullins said. “With burns to the lungs, there’s no way to skin graft those. You have to let those heal.”

Lung injuries such as those suffered by the Imperial Sugar victims increase mortality rates by as much as 50 percent, Dr. Mullins said.

The burns also mean immune systems don’t work as well, leading to infections. A body loses its ability to regulate its temperature and bleeding also is a concern because the blood doesn’t clot as it normally does.

The skin being grown and used for the grafts is as thin as onion paper, Dr. Mullins noted.

“It’s something if you hold up in a breeze, it would blow apart,” he said.

At work in rehab
Jenny Purnell doesn’t hang around during her husband’s rehab work — “I don’t stay up there when he’s working because I don’t want to be a distraction,” she said — but she hung around a little longer Monday to watch him put clothespins on a metal rod.

“He’s doing very well. He’s doing everything he’s supposed to up there,” she said. “He does exercises with his hands and his legs. I think they work him from head to toe and he seems pretty determined to make everything work like it did before.”

Said Dr. Mullins: “It can take several months or years for that skin to be pliant enough to move. I think Jenny’s going to keep him busy.”

He’s also had a chance to visit his friend Seckinger — the two often hunt and fish together — at the burn center.

“He’s in pretty good spirits,” Jenny Purnell said of her husband. “When he was in the burn unit, my dad wheeled him around to see Paul for the first time. Paul waved at him. I wheeled him back down there (Monday). That was the first time I’ve seen Paul awake. Paul was smiling and lifting up his arms. It was neat to get a reaction out of him.”

Purnell has talked about the sugar refinery with his wife, but the families have no plans for them to return to work.

“We think they should just hunt and fish for a while,” Karen Seckinger said. “They like that.”

Now, Purnell is waiting for his friend to get better and get into rehab with him.

“I just want him to go upstairs and play with me,” Jenny said her husband told her. “I said, ‘we all do.’”