The Newly Expanded Firefighters Regional Burn Center Sets the Stage for Future Growth

“Expansion.” “Growth.” “Progress.” These are just a few of the words that best describe the transformation currently happening at Regional One Health’s Firefighters Regional Burn Center.

Deep in the halls of Regional Medical Center, within the building named the Turner Tower Complex, an array of architects and construction workers have been designing and assembling what will become one of the finest burn facilities in the country. With an anticipated completion date in early spring, the newly renovated burn center will include additional operating and recovery rooms, outpatient office space, hydrotherapy, a wound care clinic, newly renovated intensive care and step-down units, and a six-bed inpatient burn-rehabilitation acute-care center − the first of its kind in the nation.

As the medical director of the burn center, William Hickerson, M.D., F.A.C.S., is the driving force behind all the change taking place.

“This expansion project couldn’t come at a better time for the community,” Dr. Hickerson explains. “Many burn centers across the nation have closed and the numbers of those who need our help are increasing. Add to that a shortage of surgeons specialized in burn care and the fact that over 50 percent of all burns nationwide occur in the Southeast, and it’s no wonder why we are nearly always operating at full capacity.”

The declining number of burn care surgeons combined with the high rate of burn injuries in our region often results in every bed in the burn center being full with patients transported from as far away as Alabama, Georgia or East Tennessee.

Burn Patients Face Long Medical Journey Toward Healing

Severe burn injuries are among the most debilitating for patients and their families. Severely burned patients suffer extreme pain; their bodies lose the ability to regulate temperature and fluid levels; and they are highly vulnerable to infection because their skin, which functions as the body’s protective layer, has been stripped away. Because of the severity and expense of medical care required for a burn injury, survivors often suffer the long-term consequences of disfigurement and permanent disability as well as economic hardship. Some gravely injured patients no longer have arm strength to hold their children or grandchildren, can no longer grasp a fork to eat a meal and are unable to keep working in their professions.

“The economic impact of providing top-notch, integrated care for one burn patient on a healthcare system can be significant,” explains Reginald Coopwood, M.D., President and CEO of Regional One Health. “Burn patients require more staff contact, averaging almost 20 hours out of each day. These patients have more critical care days at the hospital than any other patient type – an average of one day for every percent of their skin that has been injured.”

Burn centers require specialized features and medical equipment, including individually temperature-controlled rooms, mattresses with circulating air, and warming devices for beds, as burn patients feel the cold more quickly.

Costing an average of $10,000 per day, with the majority of burn patients residing for an average of 50 days, severe burn injuries are considered among the most challenging for hospitals to handle from a resource perspective.

Recent Grants and Continued Philanthropic Support Ease Growing Pains

Without the $600,500 from Regional One Health Foundation, a recent $3 million grant from the Plough Foundation and the $1.8 million allocated from Regional Medical Center, the Firefighters Regional Burn Center would not be able to accomplish its goals of increasing capacity to meet growing patient demands, investing in updated and innovative technology, and expanding advanced education and training for medical residents and nurses.

“The grant from the Plough Foundation along with other funding from Regional One Health Foundation is enabling us to meet the ever-growing needs of the Mid-South region by literally doubling our size to improve efficiency, quality of care and expanded lines of service for burn patients,” said Dr. Hickerson. “This investment paves the way for us to expand our reconstructive and rehabilitation services, which will allow the patients for whom we are already caring to receive their follow-up treatment here as well, a previously outsourced service. Having the additional operating and recovery rooms will grant us a critical capability we have not yet had – to quickly see patients when they arrive as emergent cases while also performing scheduled reconstructive plastic surgeries.”

The Firefighters Regional Burn Center is also expanding its medical staff. Michael Van Vliet, M.D., joined Regional Medical Center’s medical team in November as the burn center’s second burn surgeon, following his fellowship in burn surgery and critical care at the University of Southern California/Los Angeles County Hospital. He will also serve as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center.

“Dr. Van Vliet is joining us at the right time, as we expect the number of patients to double with our expansion,” says Dr. Hickerson. “Due to our anticipated growth, we are actually looking to hire another surgeon over the next two and a half years.”

Founded in 1985, the Firefighters Regional Burn Center treats roughly 500 patients annually, and has been operating at capacity over the last several years.

Inpatients undergo comprehensive therapy from the initial emergency treatment to reconstructive plastic surgery and physical rehabilitation, allowing survivors to return to healthy, productive lives. Outpatients visit the burn center regularly for treatment and rehabilitation following inpatient treatment.

The project is only a portion of Regional One Health’s long-term plan to elevate its facilities to a level proportionate with the world-class care its physicians and nurses provide on a daily basis. In July 2013, Regional Medical Center’s Board of Directors approved $32.4 million in capital improvements for the Turner Tower Complex. The Plough Foundation’s $3 million grant will help offset a portion of the planned project cost.

The current project will also provide additional jobs in physical and rehabilitation therapy, nursing, operating and recovery room staff, anesthesiology and technical fields, among others. According to the Memphis Business Journal, local Memphis hospitals accounted for almost 26,000 healthcare jobs and generated $3.6 billion in total net revenue in 2012.

The Firefighters Regional Burn Center was recently acknowledged as the only burn facility in Tennessee to be certified by the American Burn Association, rendering it one of only 65 centers across the globe with this designation. In addition, the burn center was also certified by the American College of Surgeons.

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One Young Patient’s Road to Recovery

Stewart Nichols is all smiles at her check-up appointment with Dr. Hickerson, not one year after he first treated her severe second- and third-degree burns.

» Read Stewart’s full story of recovery now