I am grateful to be alive.
“I am grateful to have support.
I’m angry that it happened.
I’m sad at the things lost.
I’m happy for the things discovered.”
– Robert Strawder, Burn Survivor
“I woke up in an inferno in my room and after trying to alert roommates to the situation I succumbed to the smoke and heat and passed out, my last thought being that, this is it I guess.” Robert Strawder recounted the night a fire ripped through his home, just weeks before the holiday season. Robert suffered burns over 75% of his body and has spent years on his journey of recovery- physically, mentally and emotionally.
It was 4:00am on December 1, 2011, when Robert Strawder, age 35, still wiping the sleep from his eyes, awoke to an unusually warm room and the sight of his 12 feet long curtains ablaze. He quickly jumped out of bed and swung open his bedroom door to feel intense heat and the vision of nothing but red and orange glowing through black smoke. His first instinct was to get out of his third story apartment unit, but as he rushed toward the front door, he realized that his roommates were home and unaware of the danger.
Robert began banging on the doors of his roommates’ rooms, screaming “fire, fire!” One of his roommates quickly opened up her bedroom door to Robert yelling, “The house is on fire!” Her response was, “You are on fire!” Robert realized that is hair was on fire and he ran toward the stairway out of the apartment building. Robert made it out to the landing and looked back at an arc of fire coming from his apartment unit. He laid down unable to continue running, his breath slowing. Robert passed out.
The fire department quickly responded and transported Robert to the local burn unit in San Francisco. When he arrived at the hospital, the staff at the burn center was uncertain if Robert would survive, due to the severity of his injuries.
Robert awoke in a daze of medications and a room full of friends. Robert looked down at his body to see the bandages, feeding tube and wires connecting him to monitors. It was January 20, 2012, and Robert had spent nearly seven weeks at the Bothin Burn Center in a medically-induced coma, recovering from the third-degree burns covering 75% of his body, his scorched lungs from smoke inhalation. Robert underwent 14 surgeries and skin grafts while in the coma.
Robert spent another three weeks in the burn center, in immense pain and learning how to eat, walk and recognize his own body.
“It took so much energy to just stand up,” Robert recalled. One of his nurses recognized his passion for dancing and encouraged him not to just think about walking again but to think about dancing again. Robert was determined. During his first attempt at walking, Robert took three steps and then needed to take a nap. But when he finally got the strength and stamina to walk out of his hospital room, Robert was high-fived by all of the nurses in the hallway!
Robert was discharged from the burn center on February 14, 2012 to a rehabilitation center where he spent an additional two weeks gaining physical strength and independence. He was released from the center on February 28th, his 36th birthday. Robert lived with his brother for several months until he was able to move back to San Francisco and return to work.
“All of your life you try so hard to be an individual and special, but when you go through a burn injury, you don’t want to be alone.”
Robert frequented the burn center, with his ongoing follow-up appointments for medication adjustments and new pressure garment fittings to reduce scarring from his burn injuries. He would often see a representative from the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation (AARBF) at the burn center. One day, before another routine pressure garment fitting, Robert decided to check out a support group facilitated by AARBF at the hospital.
“It’s the itching,” was Robert’s opening line as he spoke for the first time at the support group, about the severe itching from his burn injured skin. This one statement resulted in head nods and responses from nearly every burn survivor in the room. Robert could not believe that there were others like him; there were others who were experiencing what he was experiencing and who were willing to talk about it. As his body began to physically heal, he was able to deal more with the emotional trauma and stress that he was experiencing. Robert was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, the loss of a relationship, strained friendships, anger, nightmares, and a severely scarred body. While he was in a coma, he had missed Christmas, New Year, birthdays and a funeral. The tragedy and loss were overwhelming, but as Robert continued to attend the monthly support group, he was humbled by other people’s stories and the power of the group.
In addition to the monthly support groups, Robert attended AARBF’s “The Getaway” Family Camp, where he experienced his first time swimming since his accident. He enjoyed meeting other burn survivors and finding strength in their stories, while sharing his own. He also was awarded a “World Burn Congress” scholarship from AARBF, and was able to attend this national conference with nearly 1,000 burn survivors and burn care professionals.
“The healing process isn’t linear and it isn’t a constant incline, but it is all part of our story.”
Robert has found new meaning in the holiday season. On December 1st Robert celebrates his “Burniversary” in which he observes the date of his burn injury by visiting the fire house and burn center that saved his life. He brings treats and hugs for all of the firefighters, nurses and staff that are on duty that day. And on January 20th Robert celebrates his “Wake Up Day,” to commemorate the day that he woke up from his seven-week coma. This day is often celebrated with music, friends and plenty of dancing. Robert then completes his seven-week long commemoration, by attending support group at the end of the month in January to debrief and process his journey.