The Pete Dern story: Communicating love through one spot of unburned skin

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- For two minutes and 26 seconds, Fresno fire captain Pete Dern was caught in a torture chamber of black smoke and blistering heat.

His protective gear began melting into his skin.

When he finally arrived at the emergency room at CRMC, his body had sustained second and third-degree burns. The burns penetrated the skin and bore through numerous muscles and tendons.

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"Mr. Dern had a very very bad injury. He had a burn that involved about 70% of his total body surface area. We know that burns more than 30% of the body area are very serious. The size of the burn area Mr. Dern had incurred - his chance of survival was significantly low," says his surgeon Dr. Bill Dominic.

Dominic is the medical director of the Leon S. Peters Burn Center. Despite the prognosis, Dr. Dominic worked under the belief Pete Dern would survive. Pete's wife, Kelly, believed the same thing.

"Honestly, I had no doubt in my mind he was going to be okay. I figured a couple of weeks in the hospital and he'll be fine. I had no idea. When you don't have that kind of experience with burns or anything like that, you have no idea. I had a lot to learn," she says.

Kelly Dern stayed by Pete's side every day he was in the hospital - a total of 165 days. 165 days during which Pete Dern would wonder how he would navigate the future.

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Besides the physical trauma, burn injuries leave patients with emotional trauma.

"Patients that have been burned have to deal with longstanding pain. They have to deal with a very significant change in their body image, their self-identity. They look different than they did before. They're going to have to look at how they're going to deal with their scars, how they're going to interact in public, how their family, their loved ones are going to respond to them," says Dr. Dominic.

Pete couldn't see his wife or feel her touch for weeks because of his burns. Still, Kelly Dern was able to communicate her love.

"It was interesting because I couldn't touch him anywhere except he had a little spot where he didn't have any burns or anything. When I'd come in I'd lay my hand right there and I could watch his blood pressure go down and his breathing go down so he knew that I was there."

Pete says:
"I always knew I was going to survive, I just didn't know how I would function or what I would look like. I knew I was messed up and she still loved me, so I figured it was true love."

The Leon S. Peter's Burn Center has been treating patients since 1974.

It is the only 24-hour comprehensive burn center between Los Angeles and Sacramento.

And if the Center was more than just minutes away from the fire site, Captain Dern's fate might have been much different.
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