The Pete Dern story: Navigating a new normal

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- No one knows about the uncertainty of life more than Fresno Fire Captain Pete Dern.

One minute he was on top of a roof fighting a garage fire, the next minute he was fighting for his life.

Severe burns left him with a permanent disability. So the once healthy and strong firefighter, husband and father is trying to navigate a new normal.

It's been a long four years of surgeries, recovery and more surgeries. And therapy - agonizingly painful hand calisthenics to help manipulate his thumb and improve dexterity.

Right now, Pete Dern says he's taking a break from any more medical procedures. He wants to focus on his wife Kelly and his daughter Mckenzie.

"I want to be the father and husband I was -- for all the things you do when you're a good dad and a good husband. I want to do those again.

He and Kelly now take walks, and they talk and enjoy the simple things in life.

"Stop and look at the sunset, look at the sunrise. Just be happy you're alive every day," Kelly says.

Pete and Kelly's roles in the marriage have reversed. Kelly quit her job as a teacher while Pete was in the hospital to care for her husband full-time. She and Pete are so grateful to their family friends and the entire community for donating time and finances so she could stay at home.

"There were a lot of wonderful people, a lot of blessing, a lot of prayers that got us through," she says.

Adds Pete:

"I still get hugs from random people I don't know in the grocery store who say, 'Ah, you're alive', and it feels good. I appreciate all that."

As a family, the Derns have gotten involved with Champ Camp, a week-long camp for young burn survivors where they can just be kids.

"The funny thing is I'm supposed to be the counselor but those kids are helping me because I can't tie my shoes. They're amazing. I'm learning. I'm learning about dealing with burns from them. Because some of them have been burnt for their whole lives, I'm the rookie in the camp now," he says.

Pete's colleagues at the fire department hope his future plans include coming back to teach young firefighters.

"Pete still has his place here. The gear may be gone, but his locker is still here. He was a part of this station, he's a part of this family and this is one of our small ways to pay homage for everything he did for us. And we keep a place for him," says firefighter Wiley Erikson.

Pete has remained close to his firefighter friends. He says they will always be part of his family.

Whether he will return to duty in some fashion is undecided.

"Maybe perseverance is what I can teach - not as exciting as teaching helicopter flying or rescue skills, but it's something. Now if only I could learn patience, I'd be set," he says.

Pete Dern is the very definition of perseverance - fighting against impossible odds to get to where he is today.

But he wants to make sure that everyone knows how much he appreciates all of those who helped him, worked on him physically, prayed for him and his family and supported them in any way. "The list of people is extensive and I don't want to leave anyone out," he says.

Thank you to the Fresno Fire Department and the Leon S. Peters Burn Center. Without their help, this story never would have been possible.

Other stories in this series:

The Pete Dern Story: The day life changed

The Pete Dern Story: Pete's hands

The Pete Dern Story: Going to Bora Bora

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