The Pete Dern Story: Pete's hands

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Captain Pete Dern has spent most of his life using his hands from working with asphalt during Fresno summers as a teen, to flying helicopters with the U.S. Army and the National Guard. He spent 25 years fighting fires with the Fresno Fire Department.

Pete Dern has always been a hands-on guy. In his spare time, he would often volunteer to help a fellow firefighter build a fence or pour concrete. In 2005, he traveled to Louisiana to help rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina.

When Kelly first met Pete over 30 years ago, she says Pete's hands were part of the physical attraction. They got acquainted at Shaver Lake while camping with friends. They both admit they were smitten immediately.

"What first attracted me was his eyes, his smile, and his strong hands," Kelly said. "And he's asked me a few times since the accident 'Has that changed? How do you feel about me? You know, because I don't have my strong hands.' I said, 'Heck no! You still have your eyes and your great smile."

On March 29, 2015 Pete's ability to help others with his hands came to an end.

His surgeon at the Leon S. Peters Burn Center in downtown Fresno saw Pete's injuries as catastrophic.

"Mr. Dern's burns to his hands were very serious. I mean they were deep all the way through the skin and really involving the tendons that control mobility of the fingers," said Dr. Bill Dominic. "We thought there was a pretty good chance that he would require amputations of the fingers or even possibly the whole hand."

As Pete was lying in the hospital unconscious, Kelly feared having to make the decision to amputate. Thankfully she didn't have to.

"We can still kind of hold hands. And that was the one thing that was really scary. Dr. Dominic and I talked a lot about the hands. I said, 'save his life and save his hands,'" she said. "And Dr. Dominic was really up front with me and said, 'I don't know if we're going to be able to do that' cause they were really bad."

Dr. Dominic was able to save Pete's hands. But they don't work like they used to. What were fingers are now molded together with mobility only in the thumbs.

"I think the hardest part just emotionally is losing my independence if that makes any sense," Pete said. "Without the use of my hands, I have to rely on my wife to do everything.

Liz Harrison: "Like what?"

"Personal things. Shaving. Getting dressed. Going to the bathroom," he said.

"What's hard for me is seeing his frustration because I know what he used to be able to do and he just can't do that anymore and it's really hard," Kelly said. "But the alternative? Oh yeah! I'd much rather have him here! Definitely!"

Pete Dern spent five and a half months at the Leon S. Peters Burn Center at Community Regional Medical Center. He's had 87 surgeries and he's spent many months in therapy.

Wednesday night on Action News at 6, we'll hear about the physical and emotional journey Pete has endured getting to where he is today.

PART ONE: The Pete Dern Story: The day life changed
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