Monday, October 22, 2007

At UCSD's burn unit, a personal struggle between life and death

Posted @ 2:46 PM

Lunch time at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest and two nursing surgical residents are playing a game outdoors in the sun with a Wiffle ball and bat. In the cafeteria, medical personnel are indulging in nachos, pizza and the salad bar.

Meanwhile, on the 5th floor burn unit inside the modernistic structure at Arbor Drive and Front Street, Dr. Raul Coimbra, director of trauma, burn and surgical intensive care, was overseeing state-of-the-art care for 13 patients, including four firefighters, in conditions from fair to critical resulting from burns and inhalation damage.

“We call this a mass casualty,” said Coimbra, who's in charge of five burn trauma surgeons.

Coimbra was particularly taken with the firefighters – three in critical condition, one in fair. “We look at them as our partners,” he said, taking a few moments for a breather in the hospital's lobby. “We're touched and saddened and compelled to help them and try and save their lives.

“For all the patients, everybody's doing everything they can. There's lots going on – changing bandages, adjusting ventilators. We're very aggressive early in excising burn tissue and stopping infection. We're on the cutting edge of treatment and much of it has been developed here.”

Dr. Bruce Potenza, the burn unit chief, was on duty for 24 hours, said Coimbra, but left Monday morning for north Poway where his family was ordered to evacuate.

The hospital, meanwhile, has cancelled elective admissions in order to keep beds open, said Leslie Franz, director UCSD's Health Sciences Communications & Public Affairs. “We're prepared with available beds for more burn victims.”

- Lee Grant

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