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Burn survivors return to thank UPMC staffers at annual event

Barbara Morgan was burned from the chest up when she tried unsuccessfully to rescue her son from a house fire four years ago.

Still bearing the scars of those wounds, she and about 75 other burn victims and their families returned to UPMC Mercy, Uptown, on Sunday to thank the staff who helped heal them and to inspire each other.

"I thank all the doctors and nurses for all the wonderful care they gave me," said Morgan, 69, of Amsterdam, Ohio. "Every year, they're amazed more and more how well I'm doing and my attitude. I've never been down."

This marked the 18th annual Burn Survivor Sunday at Mercy's Gertrude P. and Donald C.W. Birmingham Trauma and Burn Center.

Dr. Jenny Ziembicki, burn center director, said burns are about the most severe of injuries. They can require 20 to 30 skin grafts. The daily changing of the dressings requires an hour of painful treatment. Aside from the physical injury, she said, many burn victims suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Nevertheless, Ziembicki said, "Most of them realize it changes them in a better way. They become more accepting of others, more compassionate."

Morgan recalls stumbling out of the bedroom door while she was trying to rescue her son, a paraplegic. Her partner, Ed Raffle, carried her to the entrance of the house before he, too, passed out, and a passer-by saved them.

She spent 100 days in the burn unit and still bears facial scars, the remnants of third-degree burns. Half of her left arm was amputated, and she can barely twitch two fingers on her right hand.

Now she wants everyone to know that burn victims can survive physically and mentally.

"Your life isn't over," she said.

Dakota Heckathorne, 12, of Polk in Venango County was a toddler when he knocked over a cup of piping hot coffee. He suffered third-degree burns on his neck and chest.

Those scars are faintly visible today, but they stand out in the eyes of other children.

"The kids know," said his mother, Michelle Heckathorne, 43. "Seventh-graders are nasty little creatures."

Charlie Bracken, 13, of Ford City was just 4 years old when he poured gasoline from a milk jug on a trash fire. The gas exploded, and his father carried the boy, his face whitened, across the driveway.

"We didn't even recognize him," recalls his grandmother, Susan Porter, 55, of Ford City.

His mother, Laurie Bracken, 29, of Ford City has mixed feelings about going to the reunion.

"To me, it's bad memories. That was my baby," she said. "It's good for him to see other people the same thing happened to, and they're still going on."

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