Jan 24, 2015
DISCLAIMER: This story contains graphic photos.
GEORGETOWN, Ohio - Kilee Brookbank wakes up early. No alarm needed. Her nerves have the best of her on this big day.
Getting dressed for school would normally have taken a couple minutes. But today, her first day back, it takes 10 minutes to put on her pink, zip-up hoodie and black yoga pants. That's because they need to be delicately pulled on over the tan medical dressings that protect her healing skin.
Less than three months ago, Kilee's house exploded with her alone inside and she was badly burned. In those months, the 16-year-old soccer player and honor student has fought to regain her teen-age life and last week met her latest challenge: going back to school.
The high school junior throws her pink backpack into the back seat of her cousin's car and gingerly sits down in the front seat. She's anxious to see her friends, but wonders:
"Will they stare?"
"Will they treat me differently?"
"Will they understand?"
She's ready to start a new semester and catch up on her grades. She's already come a long way since Nov. 10.
After an exhausting day at school, the easygoing teen kicked off her boots, let her dogs outside in the unseasonably warm weather, and turned on the T.V.
A smell permeated the house.
A sewage-like odor that lingered.
"Enough," she thought, and retrieved a lighter from the kitchen and headed to the bathroom to light a cinnamon mocha-scented candle.
A scorching flash erupted in her face, blowing her to the ground.
Digger, her blonde terrier, frantically barked in her face until she got up. She was on fire, but walked out of the house, through shattered glass and broken doors, across the lawn, 30 feet to her neighbors' back porch.
"Get this off, help me!" she pleaded to the neighbors, Carol and Stanley Jennings.
Stanley ripped off her shirt and patted her blazing body, scorching his hands.
"My hair's on fire," she yelled.
Carol poured cool water over her head, drenching but soothing the singed teen.
With that, Carol sprinted back inside to call 911.
"This is an emergency. I need someone at 324 Free Soil Road. A little girl is on fire back here... She's still burning…" Carol pleaded with the operator as Stanley yelled in the background.
"There's an explosion in the house?"
"The little girl is still burning."
"Listen to me, do you see her?"
"Yes, she's on the back porch screaming."
"Her hands, they're melting off of her…"
"The ambulance is coming right?" Carol begged.
"The ambulance is already on the way."
"OK, then I'm going to call her parents, thank you."
After hanging up with the 911 dispatcher, Carol found Kilee's stepfather, Wade Highlander, kneeling beside her.
"Station 75, Station 70, Squad 270, respond 324 Free Soil Road for a house explosion, teenage girl on fire," was blasted over the speaker at the fire house.
I was shocked and to this day, I'm still surprised that somebody survived that. I don't know if it was in God's hands that day or what, but I still can't believe it. It's a miracle that she's walking and talking today.
- Georgetown Fire Chief Joe Rockey, one of the first on the scene
With blaring sirens echoing throughout the small farm town, fire trucks started arriving and 26 firefighters began taking on the explosive blaze enveloped by a cloud of thick black smoke. The fire was venting outward, over the propane tank on the side of the house. A firefighter shimmies up, and reaching around the tank, turned the valve off.
"It felt normal," she would say later. "My body felt the same, kind of numb. My hands felt different. I remember it was really hot, but it didn't hurt."
Kilee's flowing, brown hair was singed, as were her eyebrows. Her once fluttering eyelashes, gone.
Aside from her hair, Lori, her mother, thought, "her burns don't appear that bad…"
She was wrong.
Within minutes, an ambulance with three paramedics on board swept her away, sirens lit and blaring, and headed toward a helipad a few miles away with Lori in tow. On the drive there, they covered Kilee's burns, placed an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth, hooked her up to monitors and plunged an IV into her foot so her burns would not be aggravated.
The ambulance came to a halt at the helipad lot, the back door popped open and her stretcher's wheels unfolded onto the pavement. They rolled her to the medical helicopter, hoisted her inside, but it was cramped with no room for mom.
"I love you and I'll meet you at the hospital," the frenzied mom reassured Kilee.
Her dad, Jason Brookbank, got a call from his best friend in Georgetown.
"Where are your kids? Something's going on, I can see it from my house," he relayed.
Jason, 40, called Lori to get the news and raced from Hillsboro to meet his daughter at Children's Hospital in Cincinnati. He knew she was burnt and hurt, but didn't yet know the severity of her injuries.
Kilee needed a 20-minute flight to Children's.
Once there, she was placed on a bed where 20 nurses and doctors surrounded her, asking her what hurt. There began her long journey back, a journey that still continues.
She smiled up at her father in the hospital. "OK, OK dad," she said calmly.
By the time Lori and Wade met Kilee at Children's at 5:30 p.m., her wounds were much more visible and the severity of them began to sink in.
After 20 minutes of questions, poking and prodding, she was transferred to Shriner's Hospital down the street, with Jason riding alongside her in the ambulance.
Joanne Frazel, 23, Kilee's primary nurse, was one of the first to greet the young patient. A team of nurses, whom she would work with for the duration of her stay, assembled immediately to help her.
She is burned. Badly.
Her arms. Hands. Stomach. Legs. Butt. Back. Feet.
Forty-five percent of her body is burned. Twenty percent are third degree (the worst) and 25 percent are second degree.
Her arms and hands looked like porcelain, cold and white. Her eyes swollen beyond recognition.
For two hours, her family waited, and the waiting room piled up with family and friends.
"You quickly realize there is no better place for her to be," Lori said about Shriners.
Frazel shaved off what's left of Kilee's hair to make sure her scalp isn't burned. Kilee didn't complain a peep. Her caregiver scrubbed her tender, charred skin to see how severe the burns were.
The entire circumference of her arms were damaged by third-degree burns. Because the burns in her arms and hands are so deep, Dr. Richard Kagan wasn't sure he could save the hands. At the very least, he feared she would lose her fingertips.
He assessed the injuries to her hands and arms, burned all the way through both layers of the dermis and epidermis and into the fat. There is not much of a protective layer of fat between the skin and tendons under it. The tendons and joints were in immediate danger from deeper burns, he explained to Kilee. But they hurt less because the damage was so deep, the nerves were damaged.
To prevent long-term damage to the muscles of her arms, Kagan cut open her arms, releasing pressure and restoring blood flow and oxygen, allowing the swelling to go down.
Kagan told her family, lingering in the waiting room, that the burns on her neck and face were not serious enough to need skin grafting. However, her hands, arms, legs, ankles, back and butt would.
"No matter how independent they may be before the burn injury, an injury like this that nobody ever expected to have happen to them, and the suddenness of it and the extensiveness of it ... it's a lot to cope with," Kagan said.
She underwent four procedures while at Shriners, including surgically removing damaged tissue, cleaning and skin grafting.
While the palms of hands were saved, the tops of her hands and fingers needed to be grafted.
Those burns were wrapped and kept wet every two hours with an antibiotic solution before her first grafting in order to prepare the wound bed to accept the graft and keep it free from infection.
"It was definitely one of the hardest things to witness, to see my child go through that. She was in so much pain," Lori said.
Her first skin graft was on her hands, arms and abdomen, using skin from unaffected areas: her upper back and thighs.
Once the skin on her thighs and back were replenished, her doctor moved onto the second phase of her surgeries.
Knowing more of what to expect, Kilee underwent a similar cleaning, receiving her second skin graft on her butt, calf, ankles and lower back.
Just after a week of laying in bed, after the first skin grafts were completed, Kilee took one of her biggest steps: her first step out of her bed. The triumph was bittersweet because her legs and ankles were still so painful and her feet swollen.
"You really could see her progress every single day," Lori said. "She was hurting so bad she couldn't see the changes. She just wanted the pain to go away and go home."
After two weeks in Shriners, Kilee took her next push forward, seeing something she hadn't seen since the day of the explosion: her own reflection. She was leery of seeing what her face looked like, but took a moment to ponder her image and looked at Frazel and simply said, "OK."
Thanksgiving was spent at Shriners together with nearly 50 family members, giving thanks for Kilee and her ongoing recovery.
To be released from the hospital, she had to face a list of goals that were posted in plain sight inside her room as quiet encouragement. Determined to be home for Christmas, she began checking them off one by one.
To check off that final task, Kilee chose to go to the mall, to buy shoes. Kilee walked into the mall on her own, noticeably dressed with medical wrappings on her hands and arms. The stares and double takes were predictable, but Kilee shrugged them off with one goal, maybe two, in mind: shoes and home.
She was desperately searching to replace the hospital shoes she had on her feet for weeks: black, bulky, open-toed, one-size-fits-all, thick plastic-soled, canvas shoes with two Velcro straps across the top.
She left the mall a new girl, with a new pair of moccasins that would stretch on her feet, which were still swollen.
After 38 days, Kilee left Shriners a week early to go home. But she still had an enormous amount of physical therapy to tackle from home and at Shriners three days a week.
"I'm very encouraged," Kagan said. "She's got great internal drive that pre-existed the burn and is still there and may even be greater now. I think she's an achiever."
Over the next month, the family enjoyed Christmas together at the home they're renting just across the street from what's left of their charred home.
"It felt so good to be home," Kilee said.
Donning a black toboggan cloaking her short hair, Kilee sat down for her therapy appointment at Shriners. Her arms are stiff, and while most teens use their fingers to text multiple friends simultaneously, Kilee struggled to pick up toothpicks and place them into a small square of white Styrofoam.
With a pile of wooden toothpicks placed on the table like a smaller version of pickup sticks, Regan Krimm, her occupational therapist, talked soothingly, as Kilee slowly, but purposefully, wrapped her fingertips, pushing through her tan medical glove, around one toothpick at a time and slid them into the Styrofoam, which she is steadying with her other hand encased in a purple medical wrap protecting a skin wound on one finger.
After placing 15 toothpicks, Krimm told Kilee to pull each one back out of the Styrofoam, which is stubbornly holding tightly to each as she tried to obtain a good grip.
Standing, Kilee grabbed ahold of a red medicine ball with both hands. Smiling, she swung her arms up and to one side and down and then up to the other side. After several swipes back and forth, the two moved to another table, where Kilee gripped a plastic clip, opened it and placed it onto a wooden bar. It was a struggle as she leaned into the movement, her face wrinkled and her tongue pressed out between her lips in determination. She got it. A smile and relieved laughter.
The sun is peeking through the clouds, over the horizon, and starting to shine as Kilee makes her way from the car to the ominous double doors leading into her next step to recovery. It's her first day back to school.
After two and a half months, this is the biggest step in her recovery. She's walking into a world where they remember her differently.
"She's very popular, but not outgoing," her mother said. "She's very bright, beautiful, very confident and very mature for her age. I realize how brave and strong she is."
Kilee's uncertainties of change, the fear of stares and the whispers subside once she swings open the door.
Students greet her with smiles, her friends hug her and she welcomes the warm reception that teachers extend to her. Walking passed "Pray for Kilee" signs adorning her school portrait and a banner that says: "Welcome back Kilee!" she makes her way down the hall.
Planted in the gymnasium for a morning assembly, situated between her cousin Loren Gast and her friend Lexi Conley, she looks up and says, "It feels good."
I guess I'm just lucky. It makes you stronger. You don't take anything for granted. It's life changing. I know there's worse things that can happen.
- Kilee Brookbank
WCPO Insider reporter and photojournalist Jessica Noll followed Kilee Brookbank and her family's journey over the course of three months, interviewing Kilee and her family, first responders, neighbors and those responsible for Kilee's recovery efforts at Shriners Hospital in Cincinnati.
Photos by Jessica Noll
Video by Lanny Brannock
Additional photos provided by the Georgetown Fire Department, Shriners Hospital and the Brookbank/Highlander family.