Burned fire capt. leaves hospital to start rehab at home

Fresno Bee

FRESNO, Calif. — It was time for Fresno Fire Capt. Pete Dern to go home.

After 164 days recovering from burn injuries at Community Regional Medical Center’s Leon S. Peters Burn Center, the day had come for Dern to leave the downtown Fresno hospital. But before he walked between a line of firefighters in blue uniforms who had assembled for his send-off, he had a few people to thank.

“I want to thank God for collecting me out of there and giving me a second chance at life and putting everyone in place who helped along the way,” he said.

Members of his firefighting crew who rescued him from a house fire on March 29, he affectionately called "studs." The firefighters broke through a garage door to get their captain, who had fallen through the roof of the home into an inferno.

Dern suffered second- and third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body. He was engulfed in flames for more than a minute and 30 seconds. His firefighting gear provided some protection, but it was not fireproof.

As Dern stood by a podium, bandages hinted at the extent of his burns: white gauze around his head, bandages on both legs and arms, a bandage around his right hand and a thick, protective glove over his left hand.

Dern, though, wore a grin and waved, giving assurance to the crowd gathered to wish him well.

He told those assembled that he had had doubts about his recovery. He wasn’t sure he would walk again, but now, he said: "I’ll be running here in a few months, I hope."

Firefighters took turns staying by his side at the hospital. Wednesday, about 100 came from departments throughout the central San Joaquin Valley and farther to salute his discharge from the hospital.

Fresno firefighter James Perkins brought wife, Chandel, and his two children, Brooke, 4, and Wyatt, 2. “Pete is as good as they get,” Perkins said of his colleague. “My whole family wanted to see Pete get out of the hospital and support him.”

Since his injury, the public also has rallied to support Dern.

A video that captured the fire captain engulfed by flames went viral, and people from the central San Joaquin Valley and across the nation began fundraising drives for the family and for the burn center.

Dern said: “Thanks to all the fire guys and to all of the community of Fresno.”

He credited his wife, Kelly Dern, for being by his side from his first day at the hospital. She’s now his new therapist, he teased.

He gave thanks to everyone who had a role in his care, from the American Ambulance crew who brought him to Community Regional Medical Center’s emergency department to Dr. William Dominic, the burn center’s medical director.

Dominic led the team in “a long patch-up process,” Dern said. In the past five months, he’s had 20 surgeries and more dressing changes than anyone can count. More than 50 nurses have been a part of his care, as well as physical, occupational and respiratory therapists. “I’ll never forget you guys,” he said. “Everybody had their own little sliver of fixing me, and it took a lot of people to fix me.”

In an interview after seeing Dern safely on his way home, Sandra Yovino, the burn center nursing director, said the fire captain is “now part of the burn community and burn family.”

As of Wednesday, Dern begins a new chapter in his life, she said. His recovery will continue at home, but he will return twice a week to the burn rehabilitation center at the hospital. He also will need more surgeries, especially on his hands.

Dern’s determination to recover has been almost unmatched, Yovino said. In 27 years at the burn center, which had 700 patients this past year, maybe three other burn survivors showed his drive, she said.

Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis said the captain has “true grit.”

Donis said Dern’s firefighting injury was “a moment of crisis” for the department, which was on the brink of losing one of its own. “It really rocked us on our heels.”

But when it became clear that he was going to recover, the department heaved a sigh of relief and focused on helping him heal. “He’s just been surrounded by love. Fire department love,” she said.

Minutes earlier, looking out at the double line of firefighters standing in the sun, fire engines behind them, Dern had thanked firefighters for being there for him for the past five months. “The whole Valley just came together,” he said. “The whole fire family.”

Then, he said, it was time to leave. “If it’s OK with you guys, I’m going to go home and take a little break.”

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