"Optimizing Combat Casualty Care"
Maj. Erik Johnson was a Burn Center patient in 1997 and recently reported to be the Chief of Burn Rehabilitation.

Maj. Erik Johnson was a Burn Center patient in 1997 and recently reported to be the Chief of Burn Rehabilitation. Photo by Steven Galvan

Burn Center patient returns for duty

By Steven Galvan, Public Affairs Officer
U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research
2 OCT 2013

It is a common catchphrase among the staff at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR) Burn Center: “Once an ISR Burn Center patient, always an ISR Burn Center patient.” That’s because the majority of burn patients will require surgical procedures and rehabilitation months, even years, after being discharged as inpatients. Those procedures and rehab, if elected by the patient, will be conducted at the Burn Center located at the San Antonio Military Medical Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

A patient who was discharged from the Burn Center 16 years ago returned this summer; but this time instead of needing a surgical procedure or rehab, he has returned to work with military and civilian burn patients.

Maj. Erik S. Johnson took charge of the Burn Center’s Occupational Therapy section in July. The last time he was in the rehab area in 1997, he was a patient. Now he gets to fulfill a goal that he has had since earning a master’s degree in occupational therapy in 2005—to work with USAISR Burn Center patients.

“I’ve been trying to get back to the Burn Center since,” he said.

Johnson stated that as a patient, he was impressed with the care and compassion that he received from the rehab staff, and he knew immediately that he wanted to change careers. With several skin grafts and months of rehab, he was able to overcome his injuries and scars to pursue his passion—baseball.

“I thought I would never play baseball or sports again,” he said.

Stationed in Wurzburg, Germany as veterinarian technician (91T) animal care specialist, Johnson was admitted to the Burn Center as a private in August 1997 with 25 percent of his body burned. His arms, legs and face were burned after his car’s front tire had a blowout, causing him to lose control and strike a traffic sign on the side of the road that punctured the gas tank engulfing it in flames as it rolled over several times.

“When the car stopped rolling over, we were upside down and both side windows were crushed. There was no way to get out,” said Johnson. “I knew for sure that I was going to die. As a Christian, I had made peace with God and was in a peaceful state-of-mind and ready to die. Then I saw that I was able to escape through the back window.”

Johnson was able to break away from his seatbelt and get away from the inferno while hearing the passenger, his first sergeant, struggle to unfasten his seatbelt. As fate would have it, three American Soldiers on TDY from San Antonio were driving behind him and were able to pull over and assist with getting the first sergeant out of the blazing car.

After spending a week in an induced-coma at two separate German burn centers, Johnson and his first sergeant were medically evacuated to San Antonio by the USAISR Burn Flight Team. During the flight to the states, the first sergeant had some medical complications causing an emergency stop at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., and was rushed to Walter Reed General Hospital, where he died a few days later.

Johnson made it to the Burn Center, where his first surgical procedure was a skin graft performed by then Capt. (Dr.) Leopoldo Cancio, now a colonel at the Burn Center. For the next 5 days after the surgery, Johnson laid in a crucifix position to allow the skin grafts and donor sites to begin the healing process. The daily painful but necessary physical therapy would follow for the next several months. It was during this time that his therapist made a big impact on him. That’s when he realized that this is what he wanted to do because of its importance to burn patients’ rehab.

“You have to start early rigorous rehab to train those skin grafts in order to get range of motion, function, and prevent scar contracture,” he said.

The rehab paid off for him. In March 1998, 7 months after the accident, Johnson tried out for, and was selected to play for a semi-professional team at Lackland Air Force Base. In 2000, Johnson not only played in the semi-pro world series, but he also applied for and was accepted to the Green to Gold program which is designed to offer enlisted Soldiers the opportunity to earn a college degree and a commission in the Army. For the next 5 years, Johnson continued playing semi-pro baseball while attending school in Arkansas.

After an internship at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, tours at Fort Gordon, Ga. and Las Vegas, and a 13-month deployment to Afghanistan, Johnson is back at the Burn Center.

“This is incredible,” he said. “I’m excited to be here. This is a way for me to give back. It would be a big loss for me if I didn’t make it back.”

Johnson believes that his personal experience in burn rehab can make a difference in patients who are going through what he did years ago.

“The most important thing is that you have to get to personally know that patient,” Johnson said. “You have to know what’s important to them and what they want to be able to do. I want to be a positive influence and help them get to where they want to be.”

Another thing that Johnson also hopes for is that he can influence one of his patients to want have the job that he has.

“I’ve had patient tell me that they want to do what I do,” he said. “The biggest compliment that a therapist can get is to have a patient want your job.”