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Fire victim makes remarkable recovery at Evans-Haynes Burn Center

Ji Hyun Lee goes home earlier than expected, despite severe burns.

Ji Hyun Lee Fire survivor Ji Hyun Lee (Photo: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

By James Shea

In the fall of 2021, Ji Hyun Lee heard her dog barking in the middle of the night. Confused and half asleep, she walked into the main room of her Richmond apartment. At first, she thought she saw a light flicking through the window, but she quickly realized her porch was on fire. Smoke began filling her apartment.  

Lee, 32, dialed 911 and ran into the bathroom, where she hid in the tub.

“I panicked,” she said. “I didn’t even think to break a window when I saw the door was blocked.”

A few minutes later the fire was raging. Firefighters broke into her apartment and began searching through thick smoke using infrared equipment. They eventually found Lee unresponsive in the bathtub and transported her to VCU Health’s Evans-Haynes Burn Center.

Horrific burns and lung damage

At Evans-Haynes, Lee was treated for burns covering 40% of her body and severe damage to her lungs from smoke inhalation. Lee spent almost a month in the hospital, where she underwent three separate surgeries.

Mack D. Drake, D.O., associate medical director of Evans-Haynes Burn Center, performed skin grafts and other procedures to repair the damage. Lee was released from the hospital in November and has been undergoing rehabilitation ever since.

“The rescue was very dramatic, and she has made a spectacular recovery,” Drake said. “She should have very little long-term damage from her injuries.”

Lee had lived in Richmond since she attended VCU as a student more than a decade earlier. Since being released from the hospital, she has been living with her parents in Northern Virginia. She still faces a long road to full recovery and needs the extra support from her family.

Painful memories

Her journey has been hard, Lee admitted. She had two cats and a dog in her apartment and lost two of her pets in the fire. She had to undergo multiple surgeries and must now push through the painful rehabilitation process.

“You have to stretch the skin,” she said. “That means moving and stretching where they put the new skin.”

Lee added with a pause, “I lost everything in the fire.”

Lee does not remember being rescued but is thankful the firefighters found her.  Without their incredible experience in structure fires and how to look for people through darkness and smoke, the outcome might have been very different.

“I remember getting into the ambulance vehicle, and then I remember I was in the E.R.,” Lee said. “And when I finally woke up and realized what's going on around me, I was in the ICU.”

According to Drake, the rule of thumb is one day in the hospital for every 1% burned. He finds it remarkable that Lee was in the hospital less than a month after suffering such extensive burns. As well, Lee appears to have no long-term lung damage from smoke inhalation.

Team commended for skills, patience and understanding

Lee is grateful for the care she received at the Evans-Haynes Burn Center, which is celebrating its 75th year of service. She knows everyone on her team played a key role in her recovery — from clinical care to answering questions.

Lee was particularly impressed with how patient her doctor was when answering her mother’s questions. Lee and her family were born in South Korea, so English is her mother’s second language. Lee had to translate everything from English to Korean, but Drake took the time to answer every question.

“He always tried his best to answer the question and explain it easier so we can understand better, because medical terms are sometimes a little difficult to understand.”

Pain continues, but so does hope

Lee still experiences pain. Her doctors have told her that her cells are rebuilding, which can be a painful process. Bending over is especially painful because that stretches repaired skin. They expect the pain to eventually go away, though.

Lee wants to move back to Richmond soon, but right now she is focused on the recovery process.

“The process is expected to take about a year,” Lee said. “The wounds and the coloration will go back to normal in maybe six to seven months and basically, everything will become normal in about a year.”

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