From Tragedy to Triumph: A Family Overcomes The OddsMar 21, 2016 01:28PM ● By Ryan Frisch
"It wasn’t a premonition, exactly, but I just knew something was wrong.”
Jean Hall watched as a Life Flight helicopter skimmed slow and low over her West Fresno backyard and lumbered into a threatening late September sky.
“The kids were in the backyard, playing,” she recalled. “We watched for the longest time -- it seemed to take forever to finally fade out of sight.”
The chopper was flying to Mendota, 40 miles west of Fresno. Somehow, Jean Hall already knew that.
“Twenty minutes later, the phone rang,” Jean said. “It was Dave Righthouse, Brian’s boss at the Mendota biomass power plant.”
The message was heart-stopping and direct: “Jean, there’s been an accident. You need to get to the hospital.”
“I was awake and talking the whole time,” Brian Hall recalled of being airlifted through a violent thunderstorm to the emergency room at University Medical Center.
“I asked them not to intubate me or put me to sleep until my wife got there. I knew I was badly burned and might not wake up,” he said. “I just wanted to say good bye; that seemed really important to me at the time.”
But the burn unit trauma team could not delay; there was immediate and painful work to be done. Brian was put into a deep sleep. He wouldn’t awaken for nearly five weeks. Jean Hall arrived a few minutes later.
An ocean of orange
The AES Mendota co-generation plant burned agricultural waste to produce electric power. On the afternoon of Sept. 20, 2005, the plant’s biomass boiler had been shut down for two days because a huge wad of molten slag was stuck inside one of two 100-foot tall cyclone separators. A subcontractor, North American Industrial Services, was called in to clear the obstruction with dynamite. Such a procedure had been used successfully at a similar plant in Woodland but never at the facility in Mendota. Everyone agreed that it was a dangerous yet necessary option because all other efforts had failed.
Brian Hall, the AES fuel yard and safety team leader, was stationed about 50 feet above the ground on a metal catwalk hard against the separator. Several employees were deployed with fire hoses at strategic locations around the behemoth machine. The carefully controlled dynamite blast successfully dislodged a 2,000-degree clog, but the force of the explosion unexpectedly blew molten material out of the container. As it mixed with outside air, a fireball of superheated gas and flames exploded, hitting the ground then splashing upwards.
“I remember the shock of seeing an ocean of orange through the grating below my feet. It was rushing up toward me,” Brian recalled. He described the heat as “incredible.”
He knew he was completely exposed and in terrible trouble. Several of his co- workers shouted at him – “Run! Run!!” – but he couldn’t hear them above the roar.
“There was this enormous ‘whoosh’ sound and unbearable pain for a few seconds, then incredibly almost no pain, at all,” Brian said. “That’s apparently when the deepest burns destroyed a lot of nerve endings.
“Somehow, I made it to the stairway and stumbled down. The rubber heels of my work boots melted and started sticking to the stairs but I kept going. My shirt was burned away, only the collar remained. My hardhat and safety glasses actually melted onto my head.”
Halfway down the stairs, he noticed skin dripping off his hands and arms.
“They were no longer hands, actually – more like charred claws,” he said.
His denim jeans would withstand the initial fireball, but spray from the fire hoses soaked them and scalded both legs due to the intense residual heat.
Several people who witnessed the accident were astonished that Brian managed to survive the fireball and get to the ground at all.
“I recall shuffling to an open area and then sort of sinking to my knees. One of my men approached me with a fire hose. I shouted, ‘No! NO! Don’t do that!’” he said. “I was afraid the spray would wash away more skin. Jimmy Smith, my co- worker and good friend, was closest to me. He called 911.”
Brian looked around at the small circle of men waiting with him for the emergency crew to arrive. “The look in their eyes said it all,” he recalled. “There was absolutely nothing that anyone could do for me at that point. Absolutely nothing.”
The long night
“When I finally got to the ER, Brian was already in a coma,” Jean Hall recalled. “All of his personal items were in a plastic bag hanging from the gurney. There was his singed skin all over the bag, as well.
“He was not yet bandaged, so I could see that his burns were awful. His face, neck, hands, arms and torso were already beginning to swell terribly.”
That’s when Jean Hall learned her first lesson about those who are frightfully burned.
“We had to perform what’s called an escharotomy right away,” said Dr. William Dominic, one of the nation’s premier emergency burn surgeons. “Full thickness circumferential burns like Brian’s form a tough, inelastic mass of tissue which must be relieved, and quickly.”
Burnt tissue, called eschar, continues to press inward on healthy muscle and tissue, in effect choking off blood vessels and lymphatic structures. If poor blood flow, known as schemia, persists longer than six hours, irreversible damage can be done to underlying muscle and connective tissue.
“One of the first nurses on duty that night was named Mike, a navy vet. We hit it off because we’re both Navy,” Brian recalled. “He told me all about the procedure many weeks later, when I finally woke up.”
As a fierce thunderstorm bounced around the Central Valley that evening, Brian’s arms were raised above his head. His wrists were secured to stanchions attached to the ceiling of the green-tiled, 1940s-era operating theatre. Then, like a side of beef, he was partially lifted to a semi-upright position while doctors used a No. 10 surgical scalpel to draw long and deep slits from palm to armpit, then from armpit to pelvis. It was done to save his life.
“This was a very critical burn,” Dr. Dominic recalled. “Even for a young, healthy person, which he was, there was no assurance that he would survive even the first night.” The surgeon estimated that Hall’s chances of survival were “probably no more than 50-50.”
No atheists in a foxhole
“That night, while Brian was in surgery, one of the ER nurses asked, ‘Jean, is there anything we can do for you? Anything at all?’” Jean Hall recalled. “And I just said, can we pray? I don’t think they’re even allowed to do that, but there we were, a frightened little circle holding hands in the hospital corridor – Dave Righthouse, Brian’s boss and me, and two nurses.
“And this nurse prayed out loud, ‘Tonight I come to you Lord, and ask for the strength and wisdom and everything I’ll need to take care of Brian so that we can have him back.’”
“People would say to me, ‘You are so strong, how do you cope?’” Jean recalled of the first weeks and months of Brian’s recovery. “Well, I have faith, very strong faith.”
The daughter of a North Dakota Lutheran minister, she has always been close to her church.
“The day after the accident I sent out an email note to a bunch of people. It said, ‘It’s with a heavy heart that I am writing to let you know that Brian’s been burned very badly, he’s in the hospital at UMC and it’s too early to tell if he’s gonna be able to pull through it.’
“I think I got 70 replies in the first hour!” she said. “The next day it went viral with hundreds of people offering condolences and prayers and support. It was pretty amazing.”
Brian Hall, whose faith had never been as strong as his wife’s, nearly died on the operating table that first night and on two other occasions. But each time he refused to quit. Through endless days of deep sleep and delirious dreams, he re-formed his own relationship with God.
“You know the old saying, ‘There are no atheists in a foxhole?’ That’s doubly true for patients in a burn unit,” he said.
“One profound, very lucid dream I had ended with me flying over a green field, ending on top of a mountain. I was holding hands with someone, whom I now believe was God. On the other side of the mountain was Brandon, our son. He is autistic and naturally requires special care. And Brandon turned to me and said, ‘I’m OK, Dad.’ Since that dream, I’ve never again questioned whether he’s gonna be OK.”
We have something here
A couple of days after the accident, family friends Jimmy and Rhonda Smith went to the Hall’s home and insisted that Jean talk with a lawyer. Through a process of referrals and suggestions she found herself in the office of Fresno attorney Rick Watters.
“In early October she came in here and she looked like a shell-shocked Afghanistan war victim and she needed my help,” Watters recalled of his first meeting with Jean. “I didn’t meet Brian until three or four months later but I decided almost immediately that I could help this family.”
A few days later Watters called Jean to report that he had done preliminary research on the case and there was solid reason to believe that “this is going to be a really big case. We have something here.”
A little more than two years later they would discover exactly how big.
The deepest burns
For roughly 35 days, Brian Hall slept through a series of complex surgeries to save his life and repair his gravely damaged body. Jean Hall, on the other hand, barely slept at all during those first dreadful weeks. The journal she began out of despair on the first night grew each day as she recorded her hopes and fears, frustration and anger, small victories and crushing defeats. She was Brian’s constant companion through countless reconstructive surgeries and grafts, always there to assist and reassure, to soothe the excruciating pain of the simplest bandage change or bathroom trip.
Early on, Brian contracted sepsis, the great mystery disease of hospitals everywhere but predictable in his case “because in burn patients, every aspect of the immune system is compromised or destroyed – including the body’s first line of defense against infection, which is the skin,” Dr. Dominic, the surgeon, explained.
Brian fought pneumonia twice. In mid-November he underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured intestine. The first operation to repair it failed, as did an emergency ileostomy. A third operation stabilized the situation but supporting abdominal tissue was so badly damaged by the fire that doctors had to use mesh to hold Brian’s gut together. For 10 months, Brian was forced to accept what he considered the indignity of an ileostomy bag.
Five-year-old Brandon was first to jump up on Brian’s bed when the children were finally permitted into the intensive care burn unit. It was around Halloween 2005. For weeks, Jean had pleaded with hospital staff to allow Brian, who was emerging from his medically-induced coma, to see his children.
Brandon, autistic but irrepressible, and Amber, wise beyond her 7 years, had been forewarned that “Daddy looks a little different” and must be handled with care. So, Amber, dressed in scrubs and booties, marched up to her dad who was swaddled head to toe in gleaming white bandages and announced, “Hi, Daddy. It’s Amber. Don’t worry; it’s only skin.”
From “The Dream Team” to a nightmare
Early in 2006, after 135 days in the burn unit and 70 pounds lighter, Brian Hall was discharged from the UMC burn unit to begin rehabilitation at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington.
It was to be the darkest period in the Hall family’s long journey.
Sandra Yovino, a registered nurse and the director of burn services at the Leon S. Peters Burn Center at Community Medical Centers, said that the transition from around-the-clock care to rehabilitation at a different facility is the most difficult adjustment most burn patients will ever face.
“When a patient is in our care, we throw all of our resources into their treatment and recovery, 24/7,” she said, noting how members of the Burn Unit staff at CRMC – the surgeons, nurses and specialists in nutrition, physical therapy, occupational therapy and emotional and family support – have collectively been referred to as “The Dream Team.”
“We even have a special team that just changes dressings and bandages because that is so painful and so critical and requires infinite skill,” she said. “We treat not only the physical burns, but also the broken hearts and minds and spirits of severely injured burn victims and their families.”
When a patient leaves the Fresno burn unit they are walking into a whole different world.
“Harborview is a huge medical complex and because of that the staff sometimes seemed distant and impersonal, more like a big bureaucracy than a health care facility,” Brian Hall said diplomatically. “
“While in the hospital, I’d wake up each day and realize I was looking at eight hours of pain. I was slipping into a depression,” he continued. “After I was released from the hospital, Jean would take the kids to the beach or somewhere for a couple hours of respite. I would use that ‘alone time’ to scream and rage and beat the walls with my ruined fists.
“The doctors weren’t telling me much. We all hated it. There were a couple of times in there that I seriously contemplated suicide.
It was Jean who pulled the family through. She kept track of medications and scheduled treatments, while dealing with doctors, nurses, hospital staff, insurance, and caring for the children in a rented home in a strange city. The stress and strain and emotional toll on Jean was enormous and unrelenting.
A marriage in trouble
On April 26, 2006, after just four months of treatment at Harborview, the Halls decided to move back to Fresno where Brian underwent many more surgeries to repair his still badly damaged hands and skin.
The trauma of the accident and what followed had exacted a terrible toll on more than Brian’s body.
“By December of 2006, I’d had enough,” Jean confessed. “I was deeply depressed. I couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted out. Our marriage was broken, just plain broken.
“The emotional and physical strain on both of us was just unbearable.”
As luck would have it, they found Dr. Judith Knapp, a Fresno psychologist, perhaps the only person in the world who, at that moment, might be able to help heal their relationship.
“In January, we said ‘let’s give it a try,’” Jean recalled of their decision to try to save their marriage. “I told her, ‘We are so broken, I don’t know how to fix our lives.’
“But she did. Over the course of the next 12 months, Judith Knapp helped to heal our marriage.”
The largest personal injury award in the history of the Eastern District
In October 2007, nearly two years after the accident, the Hall’s lawsuit against North American Industrial Services, the dynamite subcontractor, was heard in U.S. District Court with Judge Oliver Wanger presiding. Attorney Rick Watters explained why he initially sued for only $7-million in damages.
“The company’s insurer, AIG, had covered them for only $7 million. We made a ‘Limit Demand,’ meaning a demand for their entire $7 million policy,” he said. “They turned it down and offered to settle for $1 million before the trial started. We said no. The trial got underway and lasted five weeks. Close to the end, they offered $2 million to settle. We said no.”
The jury awarded Brian and Jean Hall $27.5-million – the largest award in the history of the Eastern District of California. It would also be the largest award of Watters’ career, which spans 93 jury trials. The amount was reduced twice, first by Judge Wanger and then during the settlement phase.
Rick Watter’s only advice to the Halls when he gave them the check: “Pay it forward.”
Less than three months after the Halls collected their award from AIG, the company went bankrupt. Soon after, the U.S. and world economies began to unravel, catalyzing this country’s deepest recession since the 1930s.
A normal childhood
After the settlement, the Halls moved back to Vancouver, Washington where Brian had worked prior to accepting the job in Fresno. They purchased a house on five acres across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Brian is able to travel easily to medical centers in the vicinity for routine check-ups and procedures while still commuting to Fresno several times a year for continuing medical treatment with Dr. Dominic and Dr. Randi Galli, who has performed more than a dozen operations on Brian’s right hand.
Ten years after the industrial accident that could easily have ended his life, Brian has regained much of what was taken from him by that 2,000-degree flash from hell. At age 52, he is thankful that he can walk, talk, think and feel. He has undergone at least 60 surgeries. He no longer has a gall bladder, one kidney or a complete intestine. His gut is trussed by a surgical mesh. His aorta contains six stents. Most of his skin started out somewhere else on his body.
He will always experience pain, which cannot be extinguished. But there is much to be grateful for, including a loving wife who gave 10 years of her life to help him heal while raising two beautiful children.
Amber, now 17, will finish her senior year at Camas High School and then attend a university somewhere on the east coast.
“My parents’ greatest accomplishment was making sure that we kids still had a normal childhood,” she said. “Looking back, I don’t feel that we were deprived of anything, or traumatized. We have a lot of great memories.”
Fifteen-year-old Brandon will attend the Maplebrook School in Amenia, New York this fall. The school recruits kids like Brandon who are challenged in certain ways and helps equip them for life in the wider world. The Halls have rented a house a half-mile from the school. Jean and Brian will take turns living near their son while he is at the school. •
Bud Elliott retired in May 2014 from a broadcast journalism career that spanned 49 years, including 27 years at KSEE¬TV in Fresno. He is currently a freelance writer.