Imperial Sugar patients in Augusta making progress

Once patients are moved out of the burn center, they go to the Rehabilitation Unit.
Once patients are moved out of the burn center, they go to the Rehabilitation Unit.

AUGUSTA, GA (WTOC) - The night of the explosion, flight after flight took off from Memorial University Medical Center. Those helicopters were filled with the most critically burned patients from Imperial Sugar, 20 total. Their destination was Augusta, to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center.

One of the first on board was Paul Seckinger, who was burned over 80 percent of his body. He's still there, in the ICU. And so is his mother Karen, who continues to visit her son every day.

Paul was in the refinery maintenance shop when the plant exploded. He's had at least ten surgeries, but is slowly improving. "They told me they may sit him up in a chair," Karen told us smiling. "So that's like a big move. We're very excited about that."

It's the little things families look forward to. But they still have a long road ahead because the recovery doesn't end in the ICU.

Once patients are moved out of the burn center, they go to the Rehabilitation Unit at Doctor's Hospital in Augusta. It's there where they learn how to walk, talk and perform basic functions of daily living, like buttoning clothes or brushing their teeth.

Jenny Purnell's husband Justin, just moved to the rehab unit two weeks ago. Burned over 60 percent of his body, his hands are the worst. "He was putting clothespins on a metal rod, just to exercise his fingers and stuff," she explained. "So they keep him working from head to toe and he seems pretty determined to make everything work like it did before."

Physical therapist Mark Clayton, took us on a tour of the rehab center, as other patients undergo rehab very similar to what the Imperial Sugar patients are going through. None of the refinery burn victims still in Augusta were comfortable being interviewed just yet.

Clayton says simple tasks, like pinching clothespins or folding laundry, will actually help patients like Justin Purnell regain movement in his fingers and hands. "We use fine motor coordination with hands. They work on using clothespins, they can work on strengthening, fine motor coordination," Clayton told us. "Grabbing, reaching for things. We also use fine pins just to get the sensation back in their hands."

It's not just the hands, but the entire body must be exercised. Therapists even brought in a Nintendo Wii to get their patients moving again. Burn patients will spend three hours a day, six days a week in rehab.

Joseph M Still Burn Center medical director Dr. Fred Mullins, said the length of stay depends on their recovery. "You lay in bed for a couple months, you become very debilitated, you lose a lot of your muscle mass," he said. "So you basically have to retrain your body and build up your muscle strength."

That could take months, even years to accomplish.

It's something Justin Scurry is very familiar with. He spent close to four months in the burn center and rehab unit following a terrible car accident. He lost one leg and his fingers on his right hand. He was also burned over 25 percent of his body. "Every day I wake up, there's a different obstacle every day. And I cross that bridge every time. Because you have to have that will power. You got to want to do it," he said.

Jenny Purnell knows that and knows her husband does too. "He's doing really well," she said. "I think he's doing everything he's supposed to do up there. But he's still got a long way to go."

Rehab is just a stepping stone for burn patients. Many will still need outpatient care, including more surgeries, even after they are discharged. That could last for months or even years.

Reported by: Melanie A. Ruberti,