Recovering from Burns: Diana Tenney and Jerry LaPerriere find hope at Mass General

From a traumatic accident comes a new purpose

01/Oct/2012

Diana Tenney and her fiancé, Jerry LaPerriere, were enjoying a spring day doing yard work outside their New Bedford, Mass., home. After trimming a tree, they placed the branches in their outdoor fireplace. It was something they had done before. But that day, March 7, 2010, forever changed their lives.

Diana Tenney and her fiancé, Jerry LaPerriere.

To keep the fire going, they poured gasoline on the tree limbs. The fumes began building, and when they added more accelerant to the fire, the fumes exploded.

Diana was standing near the fireplace. Her clothing caught fire and, within seconds, flames had spread up her body. “Stop, drop and roll,” Jerry yelled. Diana couldn’t because the ground around her was on fire. The flames rose up around her head.

Thoughts raced through Diana’s mind. She worried about the nearby propane tank on the grill. Would there be an explosion? Would Jerry be hurt?

Jerry frantically tried to extinguish the flames surrounding Diana, without success. The couple did not have a hose or fire extinguisher nearby.

“I tried to put her out,” Jerry said. “But as soon as I touched her, it was like putting my hand in a fireplace.” The skin immediately melted off both of Jerry’s hands. His pants caught fire, burning one of his legs.

Jerry called 911 and led Diana out of the backyard. A neighbor arrived with a hose, sprayed water on the fire and saved Diana’s life.

As Diana sat on the driveway with her fiancé waiting for emergency medics to arrive, she said, “My life is over.”

“No,” Jerry replied. “You have to live because I can’t live without you.”

Diana was airlifted to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she spent six months in the Sumner M. Redstone Burn Center. For four of those months, she received care in the center’s burn intensive care unit, where the most serious cases are treated. She had sustained second- and third-degree burns over 90 percent of her body, including her face.

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A few decades ago, Diana would not have survived the accident. But today, as a result of the research done at Mass General and the innovative care provided by the staff of the burn center, patients like Diana have more than a 90 percent chance of living.

Jerry sustained second- and third-degree burns to his hands and less serious burns on one of his legs. He spent seven days at Mass General and needed skin grafts.

The recovery for a serious burn survivor can be a long road. Although Diana’s health was tenuous at times, through it all, she remained in relatively stable condition. But like many burn patients, she experienced multiple skin infections and endured countless surgical procedures. Shawn Fagan, MD, Jeremy Goverman, MD, and Colleen Ryan, MD, along with the burn center’s dedicated nurses and therapists cared for Diana.

“Jeremy Goverman, Colleen Ryan, and Shawn Fagan are my heroes,” Jerry says. “I wouldn’t trust Diana to anybody else.”

Six months after she arrived at Mass General, Diana was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. There, she spent seven months in intense therapy. She gained the strength to use her arms again and re-learned how to walk. She also continued to receive care so her burns would heal.

The burn center partners with Spaulding. Mass General physicians travel between the two institutions to treat patients. That saves time for patients and helps them avoid the discomfort of traveling between the medical and rehabilitation setting. Dr. Goverman treated Diana in her room once a week, much like a home visit.

After 419 days at Mass General and Spaulding, Diana went home. Jerry says her strong will and fighter’s mentality got her through. The accident began Diana and Jerry’s relationship with the physicians, nurses and support staff at the Sumner M. Redstone Burn Center and its component, the Lester and Nancy Fraser Outpatient Burn Center. That relationship goes on as Diana continues to recover and will for a lifetime.

Each year, the Fraser Outpatient Burn Center treats more than 2,000 individuals. The Fraser center’s approach to care is built on relationships, as most thermal injuries and associated skin conditions require long-term treatment. A team of physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, a psychiatrist and specialized burn therapists care for patients.

Although Diana has returned home, she still faces multiple surgical procedures to treat her scars and enable her to regain more independence.

But in the meantime, she is enjoying life. “I am gardening again,” Diana says. “I’ve been housecleaning and cooking and doing all the things that I did before. And I am actually serving on a patient and family advisory committee at Spaulding now.”

Jerry adds, “Well, Diana is the boss at home again, so obviously she’s doing OK.”

Last year, Diana attended the World Burn Congress in Cincinnati, Ohio, along with more than 800 other burn survivors. She watched children run around. To Diana, their outlook on life seemed so rosy. “They don’t know that they’re burned,” Diana explains. “I forget that I’m burned all the time. So I decided I would not let my burns prevent me from living. Why should I sit in a house and not go out and socialize and not be with my friends? Why did I fight so hard to stay here if that’s what I was going to do?”

Diana and Jerry are passionate about making people aware of the dangers of fire accelerants. To help others, they are also raising funds to speed the progress of burn research. Without the innovations of the past several decades, Diana would not be alive. The couple has created the Diana Tenney Burn Research Fund at Mass General.

“I just know that more things can be accomplished through research to make it easier for someone to survive a burn and to be able to enjoy life,” Diana explains.