Tommy’s family makes its living on the water; in his hometown of Miami, Florida that is not unusual. His relatives worked together on their commercial boat, and when Tommy was old enough he often pitched in to help. One afternoon when he was eight years old, Tommy, his father and uncle were coming home from a day at sea. As they exited the boat, something caused its 300-gallon gas tank to explode. The accident severely injured both men as well as Tommy, who was burned on nearly 40 percent of his body.
Initially all three were treated at a local hospital, but it became clear that Tommy, whose injuries were the most acute, would need specialized, pediatric burn care. He was transferred to Shriners Hospitals for Children—Cincinnati, where he could benefit from its decades of research and expertise in burn treatment.
For the next 13 years, Cincinnati Shriners Hospital became Tommy’s second home. Over the years, he and his parents traveled to Cincinnati from Florida for many additional surgeries, to release scars or receive laser treatments. He learned the names of nearly all his nurses and doctors, and they came to know him for his upbeat, can-do spirit. His family was also able to take advantage of follow-up appointments at semi-annual burn injury clinics held by Cincinnati Shriners Hospital staff at the Shriners’ Tampa hospital, which only treats orthopedic conditions. (Many pediatric burn patients from Florida are treated at the Cincinnati hospital, so these clinics were arranged to ease travel burdens.)
Social worker Lori Boerger had just started at Cincinnati Shriners Hospital when she first became Tommy’s Family Care Manager. “Tommy is a survivor in the broadest sense of the word,” she said. “I remember the first time we met: I was walking past his room, and noticed him with a small board game spread out on his bed. He saw me pass, jumped up and ran to the door, saying, ‘Hey- you want to play?’ He would even initiate conversations with other children who might feel anxious because of his scars. I knew this young man was going to be OK.”
Recently, Tommy returned to the hospital for one final release surgery before turning 21. While there, he made sure to see the people who had become like family to him, including his doctor, Cincinnati Shriners Hospital Chief of Staff Petra Warner, M.D. “She was almost like a second mother to me,” Tommy shared. “This trip was my first without my parents, and I was a little nervous. But Dr. Warner explained the procedure to me like I am an adult and I could tell by her face, she felt it was the right treatment for me.”
Tommy’s courageous spirit continues to be an inspiration. He plans to join the Coast Guard where he can serve his country and nurture his love of life on the water.