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‘Skin saves lives’: burn patients need skin donations

WATCH ABOVE: Su-Ling Goh explains how one tissue in particular – skin – saves lives. WARNING: some images are graphic in nature.

EDMONTON — Wes and Wilf Michalycia survived a house explosion in Fort Saskatchewan in February 2013. They remember the boom of the blast, the flames, and stumbling outside in excruciating pain. What the brothers don’t recall is the fight for their lives that began when they arrived at the hospital.

“The only 10 per cent left of (my) natural skin was around my neck and my collarbone here,” says Wilf, pointing with what is left of his right hand. His body was over 90 per cent burned. Wes’ was over 65 per cent. Both had an extremely high risk of developing a deadly infection.

WATCH: Brothers who survived fatal house explosion honoured for courage

“The burn patient is probably the most susceptible to infection, because the wounds are in places where bacteria can thrive,” explains Dr. Edward Tredget, director of the University of Alberta Hospital’s Firefighters’ Burn Treatment Unit.

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Without skin, pathogens can easily enter tissues and penetrate the blood stream. To protect a burn patient’s wounds, surgeons take whatever is left of the patient’s own skin and transplant it. But if there isn’t enough – as in the Michalycias’ case – the patches of healthy skin must be left to heal, then re-harvested weeks later. In the meantime, the patient needs donor skin.

Skin is collected from donors who have passed away. Up to 40 paper-thin pieces are taken from donors’ backs and legs, to allow for an open casket funeral, if the family chooses. Blood type makes no difference to the recipient, because burn patients’ immune systems are so weak.

“(Donor) skin can be used as long as the patient is quite sick and immunosuppressed,” says Dr. Tredget.

“But eventually the body will recognize it as someone else’s and then it will reject it. And (the donor skin will) need to be replaced.”

Only patients who are more than 50 per cent burned require skin donations – about seven of the 150 patients a year in Edmonton’s Firefighters’ Burn Treatment Unit. But they need a lot. Wes and Wilf required about 50 pieces each, exhausting Alberta’s skin banks in Edmonton and Calgary. Doctors had to scour the country for more.

Dr. Tredget’s research team is working on a way to regenerate skin. Until that’s a reality, skin donations are in high demand. And the Michalycias are thankful for generous donor families.

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“After you get hurt and you finally wake up and find out all the stuff that’s been going on, you really appreciate people stepping up and donating skin like that,” says Wilf.

“If I didn’t have that donation of skin, I probably would have died.”

Only two per cent of people who pass away meet the strict criteria for organ donation. But 90 per cent can donate tissues, including corneas, heart valves, tendons and skin. Visit LiveOn.ca to register to donate.

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