By Marcy Stamper
Firefighter Daniel Lyon is about halfway through his initial treatment for the severe burns he sustained in the Twisp River Fire, according to his father, Dan Lyon.
Based on physicians’ projections for the healing process from this type of injury, Daniel could be released from Harborview Medical Center in about six weeks. He will continue with extensive rehabilitation and physical therapy, said Dan.
Daniel, age 25, has had eight surgeries since the Aug. 19 accident. The first four surgeries were to remove dead tissue, a process known as debridement that prevents infection and helps promote healing.
The following four surgeries grafted Daniel’s own skin onto areas that were critically burned. The next surgery, to graft skin onto his arms and fingers, should be the last major graft, said Dan. “We hope for great progress after that,” he said.
One of the first grafts surgeons performed was for Daniel’s legs, which are now healing. His eighth operation, on Sept. 22, concentrated on grafts for his face. Daniel remains in Harborview’s intensive care unit.
“We’re still hoping and praying for miracles — and we’ve had some,” said Dan.
Although Daniel has been heavily sedated, he has been more conscious in the past few weeks and, as his lungs heal, he can talk in a whisper. During the first month, Daniel didn’t know who or where he was. But doctors ask every morning, and 75 percent of the time Daniel knows who he is and that he’s in the hospital, said Dan.
Severe burns are so painful that without the sedation Daniel would not be able to endure them, said Dan. The sedatives also help him not remember the accident, which is important at this stage of recovery, said Dan.
While sometimes Daniel asks for more painkillers, he often describes the pain as “tolerable.” “He doesn’t like the medications because they make you so loopy,” said Dan.
Finding skin for the grafts has been difficult because the burns were so extensive, covering 60 percent of Daniel’s body. Daniel’s feet and ankles, which were protected by his boots, were the one area to escape injury. His helmet protected his head and his sunglasses protected his eyes and eyelids, which suffered only minor burns. Daniel’s vision is still blurry, but doctors do not see any permanent eye damage, said Dan.
Daniel’s hands were so badly burned that surgeons had to remove the fingertips on all but one of his fingers last week, said Dan. He will also require surgery to repair damaged tendons.
“The goal is to get him out of here and start rehab,” which will be possible once Daniel’s wounds are sufficiently healed and he is able to feed himself, walk and take care of other basic needs, said Dan. The next phase of recovery will include one to two years of intensive physical therapy and follow-up surgeries.
“It’s quite a long process, a long road. But we’re gaining, so we’re happy,” said Dan.
Physicians have explained that Daniel will most likely have a lifetime of related conditions that could necessitate more grafts as his skin stretches, said Dan.
Doctors are not able to make predictions about the extent of Daniel’s recovery, which can depend on the individual. “One person may say it’s not possible to do something, but others will figure out a way,” said Dan.
Daniel was the only one of four firefighters to survive the accident in the fast-moving fire on Woods Canyon Road. Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac and Rick Wheeler were killed when the fire burned over their engine, which had apparently gone off the steep, winding road.
Emergency responders found Daniel some distance from the engine. He was airlifted to Harborview that afternoon. It appears the firefighters had gotten into the engine to escape the fire after the wind shifted 180 degrees about two and a half hours after the fire started, according to the preliminary investigation into the incident.
Three firefighters with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, who were higher on the road, sustained less-serious burns in the fire. The accident and cause of the fire are still under investigation.
Daniel remembers he was in a fire, but has no recollection or idea of how badly he was burned, said Dan. He also doesn’t know that his fellow firefighters died. Daniel hasn’t asked about that, but they expect those questions will come soon, so they have been working with psychologists about how to handle them, said Dan.
Daniel’s job with the U.S. Forest Service was his first as a firefighter. He received his firefighting training this spring and moved to the Methow Valley for the summer from Puyallup.
Daniel had just finished his classes at the reserve police academy a few months before joining the Forest Service firefighting crew. He was a reserve officer — a volunteer position — with the police force in Milton, near Tacoma. “It’s been his goal to be a first responder. It’s his calling,” said Dan.
The Lyon family spent many vacations camping and hiking in the Methow. Dan and Barb, Daniel’s mother, now live in Montana, but the Forest Service has arranged for them to stay in an apartment in Seattle so they are near Harborview. Dan said the Forest Service had been cordial and supportive and described the agency liaison as “a true angel.”
Because of the danger of infection, Daniel is still not able to have visitors other than his family, but many people, including Gov. Jay Inslee, have stopped by to pay their respects, said Dan.
Dan and Barb have been reading Daniel the thousands of letters that have poured in from around the country. “But Daniel has no idea of how many people are praying for him and sending thoughts,” said Dan. “He’s going to be overwhelmed by that.”
Right now, sending thoughts and letters is the most helpful thing people can do for Daniel, since he cannot watch movies or TV or wear earphones yet.
“Tell the community we appreciate their thoughts and well wishes. Daniel is going to appreciate them,” he said.
Dan has visited the accident site, where a spontaneous memorial has grown as a tribute to the firefighters. He said he’d like to help erect a permanent memorial to them.
Letters and cards can be sent to Daniel Lyon, care of Harborview Medical Center, Medic One, 325 Ninth Ave., Room 2 CT99, Box 359727, Seattle, WA 98104.