By Martin Ruffell
THIS STUDENT says he felt his skin MELT after accidentally setting himself on FIRE whilst cooking fried chicken – leaving him with third degree burns over 25 percent of his body.
On May 26, 2020, political science student, Gage Hopkins (21) from Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, USA, was cooking fried chicken with his housemate Nikhil (21) in their apartment at Arizona State University.
Forgetting that they had left oil cooking on the stove, Nikhil noticed that black smoke was pouring from the lid of the pan. In an attempt to avoid the fire alarm going off in their rented accommodation, Gage removed the lid of the pan – at which point a seven-foot flame engulfed the student, setting his arm, neck and face alight and melting his hand to the handle of the pan.
Ablaze, Gage attempted to make his way to the fourth floor balcony of his apartment, in order to dispatch the burning oil outside, however the situation was only made worse when he tripped on a rubbish bin, pouring the remainder of the burning oil down his legs. Falling to the floor in agony, Gage was fortunately able to put out the flames and save his own life whilst his roommate stood frozen in shock.
With the apartment full of black smoke and the fire alarms going off, Gage managed to stumble to his bedroom, where he attempted to remove the scolding clothing from his body. Looking at himself in his bathroom mirror, Gage realised just how serious the situation was. The cooking oil had caused his skin to melt away, leaving open wounds and blisters all over his body, with his legs being worst affected.
With his roommate Nikhil now on the phone to the emergency services, Gage was able to think clearly enough to remove himself from his apartment and avoid the danger of smoke inhalation.
Feeling dizzy and with his heart racing, Gage waited 15 minutes for three firefighters and two paramedics to arrive.
Gage was taken in an ambulance to the Burns ICU at Valleywise Medical Centre in Phoenix, Arizona where he awoke to a nurse feeling his feet and telling a doctor that he was losing circulation in his left leg.
Fortunately, the medical staff were able to return circulation to his leg by cleaning the wound thoroughly. Over the next three days Gage underwent four skin grafts on his legs, arms and face using skin from his thighs.
“While cooking both of us forgot there was oil on the stove in a pot with a glass lid on top,” Gage said.
“My roommate was at the front door of the apartment and noticed black smoke pouring out of the lid.
“Out of panic, I removed the lid from the pot and instantly a six to seven-foot flame erupted in my face.
“As soon as I grabbed the pot, the flame was in my face, my shirt caught fire, I felt my neck burning, the skin on my hands were melting to the metal handles of the pot, and at that point I knew I made a huge mistake.
“When I spilled the oil down my legs and my legs also caught fire, I was screaming to my roommate to help in pain, but my vision was black and I could not see.
“Honestly, I believe by seeing what my skin looked like kept me awake and alert because I knew if I were to blackout, I would be in much more danger.
“I thought I was in a dream, I couldn’t believe what was going on, my heart was racing, I was dizzy, and I knew my body was losing a lot of water.
“All I remember after that is being taken outside in one hundred plus degree weather with the sun beaming down onto me, being put into the back of the ambulance.
“A doctor came in with a clipboard and a paper asking for my permission to amputate my left leg. Without hesitation, I checked off the ‘no’ box and broke down.
“Dressing changes were by far the most painful thing I have experienced besides being burned. I would never wish what happened to me on anyone.”
After five weeks in recovery, Gage was discharged and returned home to Pennsylvania where he continues his outpatient rehab and undergoes physical therapy four times per week. To this day he still suffers daily with nerve pain, severe itching, and discomfort from his tightened skin.
Whilst the physical symptoms of the burns are gradually getting better, the psychological effects of such a traumatic accident still stay with the student who now suffers from PTSD and panic attacks. However, Gage does admit that the accident has given him a new, positive perspective on life.
“After my accident, I have been doing well physically but have been struggling on the mental side,” he said.
“My psychiatrist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it’s been hard both on me, my family, and my girlfriend.
“I always ask myself; ‘Why did I grab the pot? What would have happened if I just pushed the pot off the heat? Why didn’t my roommate react?’ My nightmares also get to me but I have to learn to deal with them.
“Overall, I am doing well but have a long way to go until I’m back to what I call normal. Without question the incident changed my life.
“Everyone knows the generic saying, ‘don’t take life for granted,’ but honestly, I took life for granted before my accident but now I realise that any day can be your last.
“Some freak accident can happen, then boom, you’re gone forever.
“Before my accident I was not the most positive person in the world and even my girlfriend told me she noticed a change in my positivity.
“I believe I reacted with positivity because I’m grateful to be alive after my accident, it could have been much worse if I was not wearing what I was wearing.
“Being down and negative throughout this situation would have been the worst thing for me because it would have shown that I’m not grateful for being alive today”.