I’d gotten the invite a few weeks prior but hadn’t made a decision to go to Mexico for the fourth of July until the day before. Funny how there are so many fork in the road decisions that allowed the events to unfold that evening to find me badly burned and racing to a clinic in Rosarito, Mexico.
A group of friends had rented a house in Las Gaviotas, a gringo beach community south of Rosarito for the Fourth of July weekend. We planned to surf, eat, drink and relax… the usual holiday weekend stuff. I’d brought a friend with me and we’d came down early to explore Tijuana and get dinner, meeting up with everyone around nine with plans to unpack and head out for food and drinks.
Before we left my friend Shirin took a quick shower and as we were on the way out to grab the taxi she mentioned that there was no hot water, that moment the catalyst… The group had been slow to get ready and we soon realized all the restaurants were closed but people were hungry. So we returned to the house and cooked up dinner.
While everyone else was enjoying themselves on the patio I started on my “Mr. Fix it” quest to figure out why we didn’t have hot water. Looking back it was pointless, no one needed a shower that night and the property manager should have been contacted to handle it. Still, me being the person who always wants to fix, help and correct issues I was focused on my new project.
After several unsuccessful attempts to light the water heater I’d given up, there was no gas going to it and I was tired of screwing around with it. I walked back into the house heading over to the patio to relax when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a gas key next to the fireplace. Perfect I thought, I can test the fire and if it works we know the house has gas.
I grabbed the lighter, turned my hat backwards (this hat saved my hair and the top of my head) and turned the gas key. I could hear the gas and thought to myself “ok, we’ve got gas… well we might as well enjoy the fire then”. I leaned in with the lighter and then it happened. BOOM! I don’t really remember this part, when I realized what had happened I was already 3 feet away from the fireplace and I was facing the other direction and I was on fire.
Instincts handle these situations for you before you realize what you are doing. I used my arms to put the fire out that was surrounding my head and right arm. It was fast, maybe a couple of seconds but that was all it took. I had no idea how bad it was and at first was just worried I’d lost my eyebrows. Everyone in the house and even the neighbors had seen the explosion, flames were still pouring out of the fireplace when I ran to the kitchen sink to get water onto my hand and face.
I couldn’t feel my lips, they felt torched and I was shaking. It started to set in that this was much more than a simple burn on my hand, as my friends shut off the gas to the fireplace and raced to check on me the severity of the situation started to set in on all of us. I didn’t really know what to do but since I had always been told to put water on burns and I was burned all over, I got down to my underwear and jumped in the shower to rinse myself and figure out what we should do.
My friends rallied to assist, all of us unsure where to go in Mexico or what shape I was in. A lot of what happened at this point I only know from hearing the story being told by others. I was standing in a cold shower letting water run down my face and arm in shock, I knew it was bad. I wasn’t sure exactly how bad and all I wanted to do was get back to the states as fast as possible. People were bringing burn creams to me, contacting security to get an ambulance looking for help and anything they could do to assist.
At this point ten minutes have passed and I’ve got only a few options, an ambulance to a hospital, drive ourselves to a local clinic or return to the states… As a man we don’t usually admit our own vanity, we’re not supposed to care about these things but when you look in mirror and see you’ve cooked layers of skin off your face that is about all you are thinking about, is the damage permanent? I wanted to get help and I wanted to go home.
It was pointless to let anyone ruin their weekend dealing with this when I knew my end goal was going home. Shirin packed our bags and we left to head north to the U.S. to seek medical attention. When we left Gaviotas she was driving, I’m not sure she should have been and when we got onto the main road the mix of being in a completely new country, witnessing the incident and the panic I was exhibiting towards getting to a hospital it was too much. She missed an important turn and I lost it, I wanted to drive. No one was going to get in my way of getting help and I didn’t trust anyone, in my mind I was the most capable person to handle this situation and it was time to do that.
We pulled over and traded seats; I felt like I’d drank 10 five hour energy drinks. The human body is an amazing thing. Adrenaline was on tap, I was alert and ready racing down the highway I turned on my phone. There were three people I had a feeling could help and I sent the same text to them each, hoping at midnight one of them was up and would know how to help. “Medical emergency in Mexico call me ASAP”.
Within seconds I saw my phone ringing and the name “Luis” showed up on the caller ID. I owe this man a lot, that night he helped me when there were very few who could. He knew Rosarito better than me and as I raced north we explained the situation to him. He knew of a great clinic 20 minutes away and told me exactly how to get there. The choice was that or a potential two hour wait to get across the border to a U.S. hospital. The decision was made for us at this point and I made way to the clinic.
When we exited the freeway initially I went the wrong way, it was easiest to continue down the road until it widened to make a quick U-turn but we managed to drive right into a police raid. We’re facing about six police cars surrounding a driveway to the right, we cannot see what is up this driveway but as I stopped to turn around I look over my shoulder to make the turn and we see a fleet of police cars and trucks racing down the road towards us. We froze and waited, wondering if we’d be stopped. The cars flew past us on both sides, bouncing up the curb and into the driveway.
Whatever we drove into was heavy, but it didn’t matter. They had passed and I turned around quickly and got the hell out of there. We were about 2 miles from the clinic and I didn’t care what was in our way. As we exited the street we’d gone down we saw several more police vehicles racing to get to where we had just been. Quads, trucks, bikes I’d never seen so many Mexican Police in one area or moving with that sense of urgency.
Once we arrived at the clinic I started to relax but we still didn’t know what to expect. Luis had called ahead for us, although to me this was a life changing emergency this was another Thursday night for a clinic. We entered and they led me straight to a bed, hooked me up to an I.V. and got to work.
Right about now is when the adrenaline vanished, I was in a hospital. We’d made it, I could let go and allow someone else help me. Quickly that wave of pain came over my face, lips and hand but it wasn’t a pain I was used to feeling. I was frozen at this point, I didn’t want to move, speak or do anything. My lips were badly burned, it hurt to speak. My body was aching and I just laid there in an awake but frozen coma.
Eventually I was bandaged up, the nurse assured me I’d be fine and asked me what I wanted to do. We could stay the night or leave. It was 3:30AM on Friday; we wouldn’t have a better time to get back into the U.S. again all weekend. I wanted to get home, we had a bill of $261.00 to settle. I left my belongings inside and walked out to my truck to retrieve my emergency cash I kept hidden behind a door speaker. We paid up and headed north to get home.
Approaching the border I started to look at my situation, my entire face was bandaged up and we expected a lot of questions when we entered. I had the receipts from the clinic prepared to explain what happened. Crazy as it sounds while I was completely bandaged and you couldn’t see my face, I had the easiest time entering the U.S I’ve ever had. They didn’t ask a single question.
Once we crossed over I felt relieved to be back in the states, I knew the medical care I’d received was good and I was exhausted mentally and physically. We drove home to rest and I would deal with getting second opinions the next day, we were wrecked and I was in that strange place your mind goes when you know you’re fucked up and now all you can do is sit back and wait for the body to do its thing.
I was warned with the burns that they look worse before they get better. It takes 72 hours to really know what is going to happen as the burn evolves during that time to show the true damage. I didn’t sleep much as you’d probably expect, when I woke up we had to change all the dressings on my face and it was my first chance to take a look at what I’d managed to do to myself.
While it could have been much worse, when you look at your face you cannot pretend you aren’t scared. It’s terrifying to think you could permanently disfigure your own face. I made it down to the UCSD Burn Center to have everything looked at to calm my nerves and appease my mother. I was seen almost instantly and there was concern about my lips, ear and neck but their focus was primarily on my right hand.
The burn had evolved and was blistering badly; I was amazed how slowly the burns on my hands were reacting. I could remember reaching into my pocket at the border with my right hand and now I couldn’t even bend my fingers. They had to remove the blisters and scrub away the dead skin on my fingers, it sounds and looks worse than it really is.
Thankfully they gave reassuring news on my face, they felt confident if I treated it well and hibernated from the sun I should make close to a full recovery. My right hand would need more attention and care as it was still losing skin and with the lack of blood flow things happen much slower with your hands.
The timing of the injury wasn’t great, I looked like I’d blown my face up with fireworks but it wasn’t that different from the real story anyhow. While the fire shouldn’t have blown up in my face I was responsible for my injury, there was no reason to be fussing around with a fireplace or trying to solve the hot water problem. It was my habit of being “Mr. Fixit”.
I’ve joked about the whole experience; making light of it is my way of coping with it. It was scary and the fact that I didn’t let anyone help me and drove myself to the clinic is another part of the experience that has me wondering. Is that me being a control freak or someone on survival mode? I guess it doesn’t matter, I had one thing on my mind and until I was in a hospital bed nothing would get in my way.
It’s been just over two weeks since the accident and my face looks about as normal as it’ll get. We’ve nicknamed what happened the “propane scrub” its delivered fresh new skin to half my face and it looks amazing. Staying out the sun is posing a challenge and will really determine the level of bleaching and visible marks my face will have so I am taking it seriously. My hand is still losing skin, growing skin and getting closer to looking normal. It’s likely there will be some scaring but it’s fully functional that is what really matters.
Emotionally it’s been a weird experience, the outpouring of love and support from friends and family made things better instantly. It helped make those first few days a lot better, thank you so much. I now have a healthy fear of fire which I was probably too casual around in the past. Lighting a BBQ now has me on edge. That moment when I hear the POOF from gas and fire meeting each other I can instantly see myself in flames….
Purposely I went back to Mexico last weekend to ride quads and get back on the horse so to speak it was important to get back to living the life I normally live, feel those fears and still the things I want to do regardless.