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Kennewick girl burned in Utah stays upbeat

KENNEWICK -- Lauren Thomas sat on a couch in her uncle's downtown Kennewick store and pulled up the legs of her pants that hid the bright red, burned skin on her shins.

It looks extremely painful, but the 17-year-old Kennewick High grad said it doesn't hurt anymore -- it just itches a lot.

What hurts is the "donor site," a large area on her right thigh where healthy skin was taken to create skin grafts to cover the third-degree burns from her feet to about six inches above her ankle.

"My whole left leg doesn't hurt right now," Thomas said as she scratched her legs.

Her second-degree burns run from just above her ankles to her knees. "Walking is hard -- I'm kind of hobbling now because of the (pain) from the donor site."

Thomas was burned over21 percent of her body in an explosion at an abandoned mine shaft in Utah last month.

She spent two weeks at the University of Utah Health Care Burn Center in Salt Lake City and a week of follow-up care nearby before she was able to return home with her uncle Saturday.

"I'm happy and relieved to be home ... and be in my own bed," she said Wednesday, adding that being home has lifted a huge amount of stress.

Thomas has lived in Kennewick since December with her aunt and uncle, April and Kevin Osborn.

Her uncle stayed in Utah during her recovery, while her aunt returned home -- reluctantly, they said -- to take care of the rest of the family and run the family's store, Second Hand Heaven.

Thomas, who was visiting friends in Provo, Utah, was hurt July 16 after she went with them to an old mine shaft that reportedly isabout 20 feet in diameter, 3,000 feet deep and is covered with a metal grate.

People like to drop glow sticks, fireworks and homemade bombs down the shaft -- there are several videos online showing the popular but dangerous activity, Kevin Osborn said. It also is against the law and arrests have reportedly been made in the past, but it doesn't stop people from hanging out at the remote area.

Thomas' friends and another group of people were throwing glow sticks and other things down the shaft when a third group showed up with a couple of gallons of gasoline.

Several spectators -- including Thomas -- were sitting on the grate with their legs dangling through the spaces when a jug of gasoline was knocked over.

The boy who caused the explosion apparently had some gas on his hand and when he went to light the jug, his hand caught fire and he dropped the gas, causing it to spill, Kevin Osborn explained.

At first, Osborn said he was furious at the boy who caused it, but talked to him at the hospital and doesn't hold him at fault.

"He was doing what everybody did," Osborn said. "These are all good kids who were doing what the internet showed them."

Osborn admits it was dumb but said, "If anything, it's the state's fault for allowing this to happen."

There reportedly are plans now to close and cap the mine shaft.

Thomas was heavily medicated the first week. She said she remembers her whole body shaking a lot and not being able to stop it. She also remembers being adamant about moving herself from the ambulance gurney to the hospital bed instead of letting doctors and nurses move her because she was afraid of being put down too hard.

"I didn't want anyone to lift me or touch me," she remembered. "I was afraid of the pain."

It was a traumatic time for the teen and her family, but there were some light-hearted moments -- thanks also to the pain medications.

"We did a lot of laughing in the hospital because it was the best therapy," Osborn said.

Humor still helps. When Thomas saw the dead, flaky skin on the inside of her pant leg, her uncle joked, "I always knew she was flaky, now it's really bad."

"Sometimes I have random, sad times when I'm alone," Thomas admitted, but said being around her family makes it better.

She does wake up in pain each morning, and after taking her drugs begins a two-hour routine to get ready. She gets into the shower, takes the bandages off her feet and ankles and then has to remove the dead skin she finds on her legs. Then she carefully washes her legs and puts on new bandages.

Part of her physical therapy requires doing flexing and stretching exercises to keep the skin from stiffening up. Thomas said she couldn't move at all after she was first burned and now has to relearn how to bend her toes.

Doctors say the skin grafts are healing nicely so far and not much scarring is expected. Her legs, however, will be red for years, but will fade over time, Osborn said.

"It's been interesting to watch. There are good days, and most days are great, but some days it just hurts," he said. "We know when she's hurting because she's growling at us."

Though the recovery may be hard, Thomas is not letting her injuries stop her from starting her freshman year at Brigham Young University-Idaho next month.

She will just have to wear special compression pants that help her legs heal for the next eight months to a year, and will make multiple four-hour drives to Salt Lake City for follow-up treatments.

She also is heading to Boise next week for a checkup with her doctor, Jeffrey Saffle, who is the No. 1 burn specialist in the country, Osborn said.

"You change after something like this happens," Osborn said.

Thomas said she was near a flame for the first time Wednesday -- when the burner on the stove was turned on -- and she didn't freak out.

But, she added, "I don't think I'll be able to sit by a campfire for a while."

Thomas doesn't have medical insurance and her uncle estimates the 14 days in the intensive care unit will add up to about $500,000. Donations can be made to an account in Thomas' name at Chase bank to help with medical costs.

-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com

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