A Fashion Designer Is Grateful for the Power of Love to Overcome Pain
Pierre Espinal is an entrepreneur and successful fashion designer in his thirties, who fiercely loves his family and cares passionately about people. His love and compassion grew from a tragedy early in his life. As a teenager, Pierre lost his father when a car he was working under exploded. “He was my hero,” said Pierre. “He was everything a good father should be.”
A life-changing accident
Fifteen years later, tragedy struck again for Pierre. In mid-August 2020, a freak accident involving a kerosene explosion changed Pierre’s life forever. Pierre recounts, “My clothes were in flames and my body was on fire. I ran toward the house, screaming for my stepfather.” His stepfather used a throw rug to put out the flames. “He rushed me to the hospital in Lancaster,” continued Pierre. “I had to stay conscious on the way to the hospital to give him directions,” he joked.
Pierre remembers trying to call his fiancée in the car. “I kept mistyping my password and finally managed to FaceTime her,” he explained. “When she answered, I saw my face for the first time and was horrified.” Pierre continued, “I had no facial hair; my eyebrows and mustache were gone. The skin on my arms was bubbling and peeling.” Pierre then called his brother. “I had to tell him to take care of our mother if I didn’t make it.” His brother tried to reassure Pierre that it was going to be okay. But Pierre could taste the fumes in his mouth and chest. “I knew it was really bad.”
As soon as they arrived at the emergency department, Pierre jumped out of the car and ran inside, screaming, “I need help!” Because COVID was at its peak, Pierre’s stepfather could not come inside with him. Pierre begged the doctor, “Don’t let me die; my family needs me.”
“I remember seeing my father, who had died, out of the corner of my eye; then everything turned black,” Pierre recounted. “I don’t remember anything else until I woke up at Crozer Health.” He had to be airlifted to Nathan Speare Regional Burn Treatment Center at Crozer Health. Pierre had burns over 40 percent of his body.
A lengthy hospital stay
Before the accident, Pierre’s mom — who lives in Florida — kept calling him and asking him to buy her a flight to come back to Pennsylvania for a visit. “I kept putting her off, but I finally bought her a ticket the morning of the accident,” explained Pierre. “I think she must have had a feeling she was going to be needed.” Pierre’s mom arrived the next day.
Pierre was in a medically induced coma for 20 days. Because he sustained a smoke inhalation injury, Pierre had to be on a mechanical ventilator until he improved. Pierre also believes his medical team put him in a coma because of the pain he suffered, especially during daily dressing changes. While in the coma, Pierre got pneumonia, which led to a dangerously high fever. To bring down the fever, Pierre’s healthcare team treated him on cooling blankets.
Because of COVID and other burn unit restrictions, Pierre’s mom could not be with him. “My mother begged them to let her in my room, and they finally allowed it,” said Pierre. “She prayed and prayed. She put ice under my armpits and on my groin.” Pierre’s fever finally came down enough that they could give him a blood transfusion, along with antibiotics, to combat the infection.
Pierre’s mother continued to will her son to get well. He woke from the coma on September 6, his mother’s birthday. He described, “When I woke up from that coma, I was in disbelief that I was alive. I truly felt like I had come back from the dead.”
Once awake, the hard part was only beginning for Pierre. He was in the hospital for two more months while burn surgeons, Dr. Linwood Haith , Dr. Mary Lou Patton and Dr. Robert Guilday, managed his critical condition and performed multiple surgeries. Pierre also required several blood transfusions.
Pierre’s mouth was so damaged from the burns, the surgeons reconstructed his lips using a technique known as “gate flaps” to restore function. For his other facial burns, Pierre received a surgical treatment called ReCell, a burn treatment in which the surgeon uses a patient’s own skin to produce a suspension of “spray-on” skin cells to regenerate a new outer layer of skin. They took skin from his thighs for use on his face and nose. With this technique, Pierre has less scarring and patchiness. For Pierre’s arms, which were severely burned, his surgeons took skin from his thighs and grafted it to his arms. He recalled, “I had about 200 staples put in my skin to hold the netting on. It was unbearable.”
“It was rough in the hospital,” Pierre shared. His mind was full of paranoid thoughts, and he wasn’t sleeping well. “I had a PICC line to receive medications, a tube in my throat for breathing, and a catheter going into my bladder,” he continued. Pierre tried more than once to get out of bed and leave the hospital; the nurses had to calm him down.
Because of COVID, Pierre could only have one person at a time visiting and for only one hour a day, making a difficult period even worse. Pierre said, “The sights and sounds in the burn unit were scary — the monitors alarming, the patients crying. Visitors were so important to my mental well-being. It was such a comfort for me to see and talk to someone familiar.”
Eventually, the breathing tube was removed, and Pierre began to feel hopeful about his recovery. His doctors and nurses encouraged him to start physical therapy. Pierre is incredibly thankful for the healthcare team at the Crozer Health Burn Center. Pierre shared, “They treated me like I was a member of their family. Anything I wanted or needed, they did for me. They were my angels.” He continued, “With their encouragement, I stayed positive and worked hard at my PT.”
After almost three months, Pierre was able to go home. He has now been out of the hospital for one year. “It didn’t get easier after leaving the hospital,” shared Pierre. “In some ways, it’s been harder. My support system got smaller. Sometimes, my family forgets that I still need their help.” Pierre continued, “I have my bad days. I still get depressed. But I am thankful for my doctors and my family. I’m so grateful to be here.”
For the past year, Pierre has been traveling to Crozer Health every four to six weeks for surgical treatments. Dr. Adam Walchak , a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, has been treating Pierre since leaving the hospital. “He’s a miracle worker,” Pierre said. Pierre receives Kenalog steroid injections to help soften the burn scars on his lips, as well as laser treatments to smooth out the raised skin on his face.
Dr. Walchak performs other surgical treatments to loosen up scar tissue and improve Pierre’s mobility. “When I left the hospital, I didn’t have full movement of my arm and hand,” explained Pierre. Now many of his scars have gone away. “It’s out of this world how well I’m doing considering what happened to me, how severe the burns were.”
Finding purpose in tragedy
“The burn unit is one tragic story after another,” continued Pierre. Many patients have lost their homes in a fire or lost members of their families. He said, “I thank God that I was the only one in my family to get hurt. In the hospital, my stepfather would say, ‘I wish it had been me.’ But I tell him, ‘No! I’m young and healthy. I’m going to get through this.’”
When Pierre goes to Crozer Health for his follow-up surgeries, he finds meaning in talking to the other patients and hearing their stories. Pierre said, “I feel worse for other people, especially the young people, than I do myself. I hate seeing people hurt. “
He explained, “With burn patients, there is you — before the accident and you — after the accident. Deep down inside, you’re the same person, but to those who knew you before — they treat you differently, make you feel different. You could have been the coolest kid on the block, but now you’re the burn victim.”
Pierre continued, “When I meet someone in the waiting room, I didn’t know them before their injury. That helps these kids. They don’t feel any judgment. They can be themselves around me.” Pierre feels called to engage with them and motivate them to stay positive. “When I speak with others and give them support, it motivates me to keep pushing myself to get better, too!”
Once, Pierre noticed a young man in a restaurant wearing compression gloves. “I also had compression gloves, so I knew he must have burned his hands.” Pierre stopped to talk to him. He recounted, “The boy told me he burned his hands trying to fry chicken nuggets on the stove after school. The oil was too hot and went up in flames.” Pierre gave him his phone number. “We now FaceTime once a month. I know what he’s going through — to feel down, to feel like an outcast. I like to think I’m helping him.”
Pierre looks to the future
Pierre is determined not to give up on his dreams. “I can’t let this stop me,” he said. “I have to turn my experience into a positive.” Pierre is currently working with a colleague, filming a documentary about what he has been through. His company, Pierre Apparel, will launch a new clothing line at the same time as the documentary — donating a portion of the profits to the Crozer Health Burn Center. “I hope that the documentary will help not only burn patients, but anyone who has been through trauma or mental depression,” explained Pierre. “Don’t think your life is over.”
Pierre concluded, “We have to love hard. Appreciate those you love and who love you.”
Learn more about Crozer Health’s burn treatment services and how they are helping patients recover and rehabilitate from severe burns.