Central Washington burn victim getting stronger

  • Thu Jan 2nd, 2014 1:34pm
  • News

By Rick Steigmeyer Wenatchee World

MALAGA — Bruce Spencer says he puts on his super hero suit each morning and gets stronger every day.

He’ll always have scars from the tractor fire that scorched 35 percent of his body with second- and third-degree burns last summer. His outlook on life has also changed for life. For the better, he said.

“I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. I’ve been helped by so many people,” said Spencer, owner of Spencer Fruit Organics in Malaga.

Spencer, 56, was burning weeds Aug. 20 at the farm with a tractor and sprayer attached to a 250-gallon propane tank when a tree branch caught on the gas line and broke the valve. He heard the hiss of the escaping propane and jumped off the tractor and ran, not fast or far enough. The explosion left him with serious burns over his arms, legs and head.

Friends drove him to Central Washington Hospital and he was airlifted to the burn unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He stayed at Harborview for a month, undergoing painful daily scrapings and scrubbings to ward off infections and undergoing two surgeries for skin grafts on his arms.

“I have a great appreciation for morphine. I can’t imagine getting through that without it. The scrapping and scrubbing was pretty awful,” he said. He returned home in September and spent the next month in bed. He’s up and about now, doing small chores around the farm, but staying clear of anything too physical that might cause his skin grafts to tear. He wears special pressure garments for burn victims — what he call his super hero suit — which allow his skin to heal with minimal scarring.

“I’ll have lasting scars, but my face looks pretty good. I’m so grateful that I’m not scary to look at,” he said. The biggest problem now is waiting for nerves to repair themselves. He takes the same medications used to treat people who suffer from epileptic seizures to calm his nerves, which really fire up at night when he is inactive.

“I think I’ve had seven nights in the last four months when I could sleep in the same bed as my wife,” he said with a laugh. “My nerves are still in chaos.”

Spencer said the care he received at Harborview saved his life. The support he received from the community, friends and family was unbelievable. An online donation drive set up by friends — donations can still be made at brucespencer.org — brought in close to $20,000, which paid for most of his medical co-pays and kept the farm going. Significant donations came from people he barely knew. One $1,000 donation came from India and people he has never met.

“It left us at zero, which is a good place to start,” he said. His wife Grace, son Dustin and close friend Jeff Berman managed the farm and worked with interns and employees through the harvest period. That was no small task, he said. Spencer Fruit sells more than 140 varieties of soft fruit, apple and vegetables at five farmers markets. All the fruit have their own distinct harvest times. The farm also makes a selection of fruit wines, teas and juices. Friends and family were able to keep up sales at four of the markets and earn about half of what the farm normally makes.

Spencer said his tight skin grafts don’t allow him to prune and he’s still terrified of being around a tractor, but his goal is to be back to full strength and picking peaches this summer.

“It’s definitely been a life-changing event,” he said. “The support I’ve received from the community has been unbelievable. We have such an easy life in this part of the world. Sometimes we have to suffer to see how good we have it and bring out good in others.”