Local doctors and firefighters travel to Zambia to treat burn victims

BY ANNA THEODOSIS | MAY 01, 2012 6:30 AM

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Jason Heard knew the pain Zambian children went through as burn victims and wanted to help.

"I watched a presentation about Dr. [Barbara] Latenser's trip to Zambia about children who were burned," said Heard, a University of Iowa graduate who will attend medical school in the fall. "I was burned as a child, so I really wanted to help."


Heard, now 21, suffered burns on 70 percent of his body after a can of gasoline exploded in his hand while fueling bonfire in May 2003. He said 40 percent of those burns were classified as second- and third-degree.

Today, Heard will travel to Zambia as part of a 12-person team including doctors and firefighters, both local and from across the nation, to continue an International Outreach Program sponsored by the American Burn Association.

This will be Heard's third trip to the African country with Latenser, a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics surgeon and burn-treatment clinical professor who started the missions in 2001.

"I wanted to go to Zambia to help kids who were burned like me so they can have a life like me," Heard said.

The team will travel to St. Francis Hospital in Katete, Zambia, where they will assist local doctors and nurses, treat burn victims, and educate locals about fire safety.

In Zambia, a burn covering 20 percent or more of a person's body can be considered lethal.

During her past seven visits to Zambia Latenser said she performed an average of 15 surgeries a day. In the United States, Latenser said she performs an average of 10 per week.

Most burns, Latenser said, are related to cooking or brush fires and often involve children.


This year the team will follow up with patients to see what they retained from preventative programs the team launched last year.

"These are little kids. What we did several years previously and just finished last year is seeing how these kids are getting burned," she said. "It's pretty much related to cooking."

The firefighters on the team will focus on teaching lessons on fire prevention.

"I said we can really make a difference here in teaching these kids how to stay away from fire and stop drop and roll and respect fire," said Iowa Fire Marshal Ray Reynolds.

Reynolds said Latenser persuaded him to go on the trip.

"We both really share a passion of preventing people from suffering from burn injuries," he said. "One day in passing she said, 'Well, why don't you go to Africa with me?' "

Reynolds said he committed to assembling an expert team, and he will be joined by Brian Seymour, the fire chief of the Indianola Fire Department, Mark McCurdy, the deputy fire chief of the Indianola Fire Department, Jody Miller, a lieutenant in the Indianola Fire Department, Jerry Eslick, the district chief of the West Des Moines Fire Department, Steve Knorrek, fire marshal of the Bettendorf fire department, and Tony Burke of the International Association of Firefighters Burn Foundation.

Heard said the team conducted surveys last year and found several deficiencies in burn-prevention education.

"This time, we're going to resurvey the same 500 students to see if they retained the information we gave them last year," he said.

This year, the team will also expand its education to adults.

Making a difference

Many people asked Reynolds why he was going on the trip.

"One of the things I said is that people die from fire that is completely preventable," he said. "I cannot think of a more horrific way to die or be injured than by fire. When you think of kids, it's just not acceptable. I think we have a moral obligation and a human obligation [to help prevent it]."

Seymour said making a difference is one of the reasons why he wanted to go on the trip.

"Anybody that's in the fire service is in the fire service to make a difference," he said. "If we can go over there and make a difference in their lives — that's kind of what's in the heart of every firefighter."

Latenser said she can see the effect previous trips have made.

"We know we've made some difference," she said. "They now have a 12-bed burn center; clearly that's a move forward."

Right now, officials are working on giving more power to Zambian health and government officials to oversee more of the operation.

"Sustainability is the long-term goal," she said.

Seymour said his first trip to Zambia would be a learning experience.

"We want to try to help those by the experiences we've had in the past," he said. "We understand how painful burns can be. If we can keep people from getting hurt, if we can keep kids from dying because of the injuries the receive from fire, even if we get help one kid or one family, that's enough for me. That's a success in my mind."

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