UNC Health Talk

Collin Peterjohn: A Profound Opportunity for a Second Chance

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Hero. Miracle. Profound.

Collin Peterjohn hears those words a lot lately. The 25-year-old from Charlotte even lets himself use “miracle” to describe his recovery from the Jan. 22 fire that left him, his mother and 14-year-old brother homeless.

“To me, he’s a hero,” said Gayle Peterjohn of her oldest child who she said has always put other’s needs before his own. “He woke Ethan and me up with a scream that no parent should ever hear. He saved us, but unfortunately, he got hurt.”

“It’s a miracle and a blessing that I’m still here,” said Collin, who sustained second- and third-degree burns on his arms and hands and serious inhalation injury to his lungs. “It just wasn’t my time. I know I’ve been given a second chance.”

“The smoke inhalation injuries to his lungs were profound,” said Samuel W. Jones, MD, FACS, associate director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals and assistant professor of surgery in the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “And so was his recovery.”

Collin is part of a small subset of burn patients who have to go on an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine so their damaged lungs can rest and heal while the machine takes over breathing.

“Fortunately, he’s at one of the premier burn centers in the country where we know how to take care of skin burns as well as inhalation injuries,” said Dr. Jones. “But we also know when to call in ECMO experts — specifically Dr. Anthony Charles who is the director of adult ECMO at UNC — when our best efforts supporting patients on a ventilator is not enough. It’s rather unique that our burn center has access to ECMO for our patients.”

For five days, ECMO breathed for Collin under the watchful eyes of all.

“No one likes the odds of going on the ECMO circuit, but if you don’t go on it, you don’t live,” Dr. Jones said. “We can never be sure how a patient is going to respond, and once a patient comes off ECMO there’s lots more work to do.”

Collin rallied on ECMO and the burn center resumed management of his oxygenation and ventilation and began to prepare for the skin grafts needed on his hands.
“His second- and third-degree burns were removed and the first few grafts were actually pigskin to help optimize his wounds so that the autografting of skin from his leg would have a better chance to take,” said Dr. Jones. “The grafted skin is well incorporated and with therapy he has regained function. By our standards, he’s doing very well and surpassing our expectations.”

But Collin remembers nothing about the ECMO or the surgeries because he was medically sedated for two months so he would not feel the intense pain of his injuries and the treatment of them.

“When I woke up I thought I had been out about a day or maybe two, but I was surprised to learn I had been out for two months,” Collin recalled. “It is surreal to think that the world was going on and I knew nothing about it.”

He feels caught up on all that he missed by being in contact with friends and family from throughout the country who have been in touch, visited and prayed for his recovery.

“It’s God and all the prayers that have helped me through,” Collin said.

“God, prayers and the ECMO,” Gayle added.

When not at Collin’s side or in Charlotte seeking new housing, Gayle stayed at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes away from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers. Collin joined her there on April 4 when he was released from UNC Hospitals.

“Everybody here is going through something that’s difficult so we naturally relate to each other,” Collin said. “It’s a togetherness you won’t find other places.”

Once settled back in Charlotte, Collin plans to get back to attending church regularly and to enroll in paramedic training. “I’ve really seen how precious life is, and while we are here we ought to do as much good as we can,” he said.

Collin and Gayle agree the fire was a wake-up call to pay attention to what really matters.

“The last conversation I had with my dad before the fire ended in an argument, and I don’t even remember what it was over,” Collin said. “It’s very scary to know that I wouldn’t have had a chance to make peace and say good-bye.”

“The things we lost in the fire are not that important,” Gayle said. “It’s just stuff. It can all be replaced, but people can’t be. Collin got a second chance at life, and come to think of it, the fire has given all of us a second chance now.”