Tiara Del Rio sits near mom Christina and dad Mike in her hospital room at the Arizona Burn Center. She will be discharged from the hospital Friday, months after she underwent an experimental procedure in which her burns were covered by a skin spray. / Stacie Scott, The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX -- Tiara Del Rio woke up from a three-week medically induced coma in November to learn the experimental surgery that saved her life may help change the future for burn patients' care in the United States.
The 21-year-old, who will be discharged from the hospital Friday, was critically burned on more than half her body in an October house explosion. Her back was the only available donor site on her body to regrow skin to treat her burns. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted special permission to the Arizona Burn Center, at Maricopa Medical Center, to use the procedure the burn center had been studying for a few years: a skin spray.
The treatment is relatively new but is considered less invasive than traditional skin grafting, in which a swath of healthy skin is transplanted to a burned area. The skin spray uses a small amount of skin that is broken down with enzymes to create a solution that is sprayed on the burned area. It has been found to heal more quickly and create less scarring while using less skin.
The spray is approved in Europe, Australia, China and Canada but not yet in the U.S. ReCell is the Australian product used to create the spray. It is under clinical testing on 106 patients at 15 locations in America, including the Arizona Burn Center. The testing began in May 2010 and is funded by the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
"If it goes well, and they approve it in the United States, it will give hope to other burn patients to look into and see how well it's done on me," Del Rio said. "I'm never going to be 100 percent, and I know that. But I look at it this way: I got a second chance, because I shouldn't have lived."
Del Rio and her boyfriend, Beau Zimbro, were winding down one day in October in a Peoria home. Authorities believe she detonated a natural-gas leak when she lit a candle. The candle exploded in her face.
Zimbro grabbed Del Rio and carried her out awindow that the explosion had blown open. He stopped, dropped and rolled. She rolled herself in dirt.
"I was sitting on the sidewalk. I burned," said Del Rio, whose dark brown hair has grown out into a short cut after doctors shaved her charred hair off for surgery.
She had second- and third-degree burns on her face, arms, hands, lower extremities and feet. More than 60 percent of Zimbro's body was covered in first- and second-degree burns, including his hands, face, head and torso. He is recovering at the Arizona Burn Center, where he also received the skin-spraytreatment.
Del Rio's mother, Christina, said she agreed to and trusted the spray procedure because it was being used by the military. She and her friends researched the method while her daughter was in a coma. They spoke with Dr. Kevin Foster, the burn center's medical director and surgical-research director, who petitioned the FDA for permission. A week later, the procedure was approved.
Foster said the treatment has the potential to decrease patients' length of stay and the number of operations they need. The skin spray also could be used on the donor-skin site, which speeds up the amount of time it takes for healthy skin to regrow. It took about half the time for the skin on Del Rio's back to regrow compared with the skin of patients who undergo grafting.
To heal the burns on Del Rio's face, doctors and nurses used another new product that includes medical-grade honey, an increasingly popular method at the burn center. The honey helps fight off infection. Aside from scabs on her forehead and some redness, Del Rio's face is healing well.
"I know it doesn't look perfect right now, but a year from now, you're going to be hard-pressed to tell that she was ever burned in her face," Foster said.
The skin that is healing after the spray procedure also is smoother than what a typical skin-graft treatment looks like. Foster said that is an added benefit of the skin spray.
When Del Rio and Zimbro first saw each other in the hospital, they sat in a room and stared at each other in awe. They did not expect to survive the blast. She often stops by his room to check up on him.
Del Rio is heading to inpatient rehabilitation for about three weeks. While she is there, she plans to communicate with her boyfriend by Skype or FaceTime. They planned a movie night Thursday at the burn center to have one last date before she leaves the hospital. They had only dated for two months before the blast.
Del Rio knows her life will never be the same again. The piercings on her face are gone. The tattoo of a pair of wings on her back is now scattered around her body, on parts of her feet and her thighs. Doctors tried to piece together a new tattoo out of parts of the wings for her when they were grafting her skin before the spray was applied to it.
But Del Rio is staying positive. She is healing well physically and hopes to return to work and become independent again after rehab so that she does not have to rely on her parents to do simple tasks, such as opening a juice box, for her. She wants to return to normalcy - and her own bed at home.
"I'm not scared. I'm more happy because I was given a second chance," she said. "I'm 21 years old. I still have a huge life ahead of me, and this is just one setback."
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