Scott McKenzie Mesa

Twelve weeks after he was horribly burned, 11-year-old Scott McKenzie of Mesa returned to school and during a “re-entry ceremony” at Hermosa Vista Elementary, he got a knowing hug from Robert Gibson, a burn victim himself who now helps young burn victims get readjusted to normal life after prolonged hospital stays.

Scott McKenzie’s life changed forever on July 20. 

The 11-year-old Mesa boy, described by his parents as curious and active, was watching his dad repair a neighbor’s truck fuel tank in their driveway.  

Scott made his way to the back of the truck when things went awry. 

“We were finishing up and there were some fuel vapors that leaked out of the tank and were in the back of the truck,” said Charlie, Scott’s father. 

“When you weld, it creates heat,” he continued. “There was immediately a flash flame and it exploded the tank – it happened so quickly.”

In a matter of seconds, Scott’s clothes were on fire and his hair was gone.  

“I remember in the ambulance I felt super cold and I was terrified,” Scott recalled. “I thought my face was going to be weird.”

It wasn’t until staff at the Arizona Burn Center told Charlie and his wife Sandee their son needed to be sedated for several weeks, they realized the severity of his injuries.

Scott was suffering from third- and second-degree burns – which require medical attention and skin grafts – on 50 percent of his body.

Forty-two miraculous days later, Scott was back at home.

Last week, he was ready to head to school.

Scott joined his fifth-grade class on Oct. 14 at Hermosa Vista Elementary School for a “re-entry ceremony.”

The entire grade sat on the media center floor to listen to Scott and hospital staff tell his story.

“It has been proven by research that children supported in their return to school and that have an opportunity to answer questions are able to transition better into the school system and experience less bullying,” explained Lori Janik, Arizona Burn Foundation director of client care services.

The purpose of re-entries, Janik continued, is to not only provide a smooth transition for survivors but also to educate their peers about burns and fire safety.

Scott’s re-entry was coordinated by foundation social workers assisting Scott’s family with the social and emotional aspects of recovery, as well as Valleywise Health staff.

The volunteers prepared a slideshow documenting Scott’s recovery and incorporated interactive demonstrations.

Several of the students had opportunities to try on replicas of Scott’s bandages, garments and splints.

“We couldn’t have been happier,” said Sandee. “We felt like they educated the kids and they got to see what Scott looks like under the bandages, so they’re not so curious.”

“That way he’s not bombarded with questions at school,” she added.  

Scott was placed in a medically induced-coma for around two weeks following the fire to be given fluids and was monitored with a breathing tube.

Severe fluid loss is one of the greatest problems following major burn injuries, Charlie explained.

“There’s tons of fluid loss because the body’s response is to push the fluids to burned areas,” he said. “And a side effect of that is swelling, which can block breathing airways.”

“Burns are a progressive injury,” he continued. “Day 1 is different than day 3, which is different than day 5 – and they don’t fully know how severe the burn is until around 5-to-6 days into it.”

Scott remained in the intensive care unit for three-and-a-half weeks, and underwent daily dressing changes and grafting surgery.

Once moved to the upper floors, he began active physical and occupational therapies.

Re-learning how to walk was one of the many obstacles he faced.

“It’s crazy to see your child, who a month ago was playing flag-football, now needs a walker to get down the hall,” said Charlie.

During many hours of painful dressing changes and sleeping in uncomfortable splints, Scott told the East Valley Tribune, music therapy helped him get through tough times.  

“They have a music therapist and she comes in and plays music for you,” he said. “She comes in during the dressing changes and helps distract you.”  

For now, Scott will continue physical therapy twice a week and occupational therapy multiple times weekly. 

The biggest concern, his parents said, is bringing back the function of his hands.

“The night of the accident, the doctor told us to plan on a minimum of one day spent in the hospital for every one percent of his body burned,” said Charlie. “So, for a 50 percent burn, you can plan on 50 days.”

 “But we got out early and didn’t have any major complications,” she added. “We attribute that to answered prayers from people around the world.”

If there is one takeaway for Charlie and Sandee, it’s they want to encourage parents to educate themselves on fire safety. 

Every day, over 300 children from ages 0 to 19, are treated in emergency rooms for burn-related injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and two children die as a result of burn trauma.

Younger children are more likely to gain injuries from scald burns caused by hot liquids or steam, while older children are more likely to experience injuries from flame burns.

Some tips the CDC offers include maintaining smoke alarms on every floor in homes, as well as monthly tests to ensure they are working.

Safe cooking practices are also advised, such as never leaving food unattended on the stove.

The department encourages everyone to set their water heater thermostats to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or lower in case small children can’t get away from water that’s too hot.  

As for Scott, he said he is excited to be back with his friends in school and learn math. 

“We just couldn’t be prouder of him and his character,” said Sandee. “He’s a survivor and he’s going to be an ambassador for survivors.”

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