Weeks shy of his fourth birthday, Jules Walker Renney pulled up a chair to help his mother in the kitchen, teetered, lost his balance and grabbed a pot of scalding chicken soup.
“It happened so fast I couldn’t even get the words out to tell him to stop,” said mother Kate Walker of Nanaimo.
The scorching liquid poured over Jules’ head and torso, causing fourth-degree burns to 21 per cent of his little body. Anything over 10 per cent for a child is deemed critical to life-threatening.
He lay in silence, in shock. She was in shock, too. “It was just a suspension of reality,” said Walker. “I dissociated from the moment initially, which is a classic trauma response.”
Walker who lives in Nanaimo with husband Trev Renney and the couple’s older son, Marlow, are sharing the story of what happened March 19, 2019, to raise awareness of the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund, which has pledged to raise $1 million for the B.C. Children’s Hospital Foundation for a planned upgrade to the hospital’s burn-care suite.
Marlow, just six at the time, had been watching cartoons in the living room and recalls his mother carrying his brother out of a “cloud of steam.” Walker sustained second-degree burns from putting her hands under her son’s clothing to hold the fabric away from his “melting skin.”
Walker put her son under a cold shower, asking Marlow to take over so she could search for her cellphone.
Luckily, the family was then living on Prior Street in Vancouver, steps from No. 1 firehall, and paramedics happened to be in the area. Paramedics and firefighters poured bottle after bottle of sterile water over Jules to prevent the infection that can come with deep burns. “They were just smothering him in sterile water to the point that Jules said: ‘I can’t breathe’ and he started to shiver,” she said.
Walker jumped in the ambulance, where Jules was given pain medication. A firefighter and neighbour stayed to console Marlow, who was crying in his bedroom.
In hospital, Jules had at least two brushes with death and a mind-boggling amount of care, said Walker. “At one point, we had seven infectious-disease specialists in the room putting their heads together about what concoction of antibiotics to give him,” she said. Both burned areas of skin and newly grafted skin became infected.
It wasn’t until about six months later that a burn-unit nurse conveyed how close Jules had come to death.
“He absolutely fought for his life in those first few days, as all of his organs were at risk of going into failure,” said Walker. “He’s such a loving resilient kid and he just so wants to be here.”
Jules, now 7, has had 10 surgeries “and counting.”
Each year, B.C. Children’s Hospital sees more than 900 kids for new burn injuries and follow-up treatment. (Royal Jubilee Hospital has a burn unit, but depending on the severity of those burns, children may be sent to B.C. Children’s.)
The Burn Fund has already raised $275,000 towards the $1-million goal for the planned renovation of the burn-care suite, as well as help for a multi-disciplinary team that includes injury and illness specialists, music therapists, physiotherapists and social workers.
Umesh Lal, a Nanaimo firefighter and a director of the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund, which includes 53 career fire departments and 4,300 members, said firefighters don’t want to stop at extinguishing fires — they know the scars will be with victims and their families for life. “We want to connect with them throughout this journey for the rest of their lives,” Lal said.
Upon discharge from hospital, the Walker Renney family has used the Burn Fund’s referral program for all manner of supports.
Once home from hospital the burn patient might need “burn baths,” multiple wound dressing changes, burn massages, medications and creams.
“Home is the best place to heal as soon as it’s safe to do so, but once home, you’re not out of the woods,” said Walker. “The burn fund is critical in the wrap-around services it provides after discharge.”
At home, parents become full-time caregivers and that highly specialized “around-the-clock” care be overwhelming, she said.
“It’s huge — suddenly you don’t have support and that’s where the Burn Fund comes in and catches you at the moment you reach out,” said Walker. “It’s just absolutely vital.”
B.C. Children’s Hospital was also vital, she said, providing unparalleled care and compassion.
There were even days the doctors, nurses and other health-care workers made the experience “magical and fun” for the kids, she said.
Jules today has scarring on about 35 per cent of his body. As he grows, some of his scarred skin will require more grafts and reconstruction.
“He’s just a little force and I really think it’s that force is what got him through — he never gave up on himself and he never gave up on life,” Walker said.
>>> B.C. Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund website: burnfund.org