It is rather like a life preserver, something we don't really think about until we need it. But now a catastrophe of epic proportions serves to put the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in our consciousness again. The center is treating some of the victims of Haiti's earthquake, and will likely treat others, perhaps many others. It has been in the forefront in North Carolina before, after disasters with names requiring only quick reference: Hamlet chicken plant, Pope Air Force Base/Fort Bragg aircraft accident, ConAgra.
Because the center, which is part of UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, and other burn centers typically go about their work quietly, it's easy to lose sight of the scope of their work.
The Chapel Hill center is one of 14 such places in the Southeast, and only one of five that operate under guidelines drawn by the American Burn Association. And in recent years, the number of burn centers has declined, which makes those still operating all the more important.
Just ask the first three patients who came to Chapel Hill as a result of severe injuries received in the Haiti earthquake. One was working at a chemical plant. Another was filling up his car at a gas station. Another was cooking in an outdoor market. The earthquake was two weeks ago, but until Tuesday and arrival in Chapel Hill, their wounds were not really being treated. That means that they were getting worse.
The experience gave those at the burn center a unique perspective on the earthquake's severity, but in the end, it sounds as if their conclusions were pretty much the same as everyone else's. Said Dr. Bruce Cairns, the center's director, "It's very difficult, if not impossible, for us to comprehend."
And in the case of these patients, language was a problem in addition to the complexity of the injuries.
The center opened in 1981, after John Stackhouse, the owner of a Goldsboro electrical contracting firm, gave money. He'd had several workers suffer burns in the 1960s and was surprised there wasn't a burn center. Volunteer firefighters raised funds. So did the Rural Electric Association. The Goldsboro Jaycees sold jelly, and that idea was taken hold of statewide by other Jaycee chapters.
In addition to providing emergency treatment, the center helps educate emergency workers all over the state. It produces valuable research about burn treatment.
But it is in caring for patients, one by one, that the center's work is most rewarding. As one of the patients from Haiti was being helped, doctors and nurses saw that he could understand some English. He called the people helping him angels of mercy. That sounds about right.