David Beanland reckons his left pinkie hurt the most. That’s saying something given half his face was blown off. And his hands. He was one of eight firefighters who turned up to a supposedly routine call out to a coolstore in Tamahere on April 5, 2008.
The rest is history, reports the NZ Herald. A gas leak ignited when the firefighters entered the industrial building, sparking a massive explosion. Senior station officer Derek Lovell was killed.
The blaze turned Mr Beanland, in his own words, into a “piece of charred meat”. In reality, he’s lucky to be alive.
“I asked for medium rare, but I got well done,” he jokes.
The 47-year-old has a good sense of humour. He’s needed it.
To rebuild his face, Mr Beanland’s had 19 delicate reconstructive surgeries. Skin graft after skin graft, in one case held on with 120 staples. Debriding all the dead skin. Fat injected to fill a deep scar on his cheek. Another op to fold skin into a new left ear, with a separate procedure to craft a new earlobe.
Four balloons slowly inflated “as big as a football” under his scalp to create more hair-bearing skin – which was stretched across the bald half of his head. Hairs planted to grow a missing eyebrow. Delicate eyelid grafts.
All up, more than 80 hours under general anaesthetic. And the only thing missing, is the little finger on his left hand. “I must have been on good drugs because pain has never been a problem. The only thing that really hurt was my finger. The doctors tried for nine weeks to save it,” says Mr Beanland.
“We made the decision to amputate and when I came out of surgery there was no more pain.
“It’s still good enough to hold a golf club and a fishing rod. Priorities eh.”
He met the Herald with surgeon Dr Zac Moaveni in his Hamilton office to show the public the healing that can be achieved after horrific disfigurement.
“As bad as it gets” is how Dr Moaveni, a plastic and reconstructive specialist at Middlemore Hospital, describes the burns.
“Surviving something like that is a gift in itself.”
The pair first met in January 2009. Mr Beanland had already had a dozen operations at Waikato Hospital to repair his scarred skin, so the focus turned to step-by-step rebuilding and refining his facial features.
The blast scorched two-thirds of his face and scalp, incinerating most of his hair and left ear. Once the skin grafts took hold, Dr Moaveni began the bizarre technique of replacing the crop of hair.
He placed two balloons under the scalp, which were slowly inflated every day with 10 to 20 millilitres of saline injected at home by Mr Beanland’s wife Dianne.
Forty days later, Beanland was walking around Hamilton with an 800ml “football” on his head.
“I went to the skatepark to pick my boy up and these two young fellas were walking down the street, chatting away.
“One of them said: ‘Cor look at that dude’s head, man.’ He wasn’t being malicious, he just blurted it out. I just cracked up, it was so funny.”
Once the skin was stretched enough, Dr Moaveni removed the balloons and pulled the loose – but hair-bearing scalp across – to staple into place.
The process was repeated twice. The result? A full head of hair.
“Fortunately for David, he’s got very thick hair,” noted Dr Moaveni.
But the bald skin it replaced was not wasted. That was folded into an ear and, again, sutured into place.
“You don’t want to throw away any useful tissue. You’ve got to always think ‘how can I use this leftover piece?’ It’s sort of spare parts surgery,” said Dr Moaveni.
There is no recipe book for reconstructive surgery says Dr Moaveni, who studied his specialty for 10 years after graduating from medical school.
“You have to work with what’s in front of you. Each patient is different, each situation is different, each scar is different. You’ve got a certain toolbox and you have to think laterally.”
It’s clear the pair have an easy rapport and Dr Moaveni is full of praise for his patient.
“I’ve seen David through highs and lows and when things weren’t as good as expected. His mental attitude and strength and drive and determination have just blown me away. “He’s been doing the hard work, not me. Really quite inspirational.”
David Beanland disagrees. He reckons he’s had it easy compared to his young daughter, who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago.
“For the average family, it probably would have been a major. But it’s nothing compared to what she’s done. She’s finished chemo last year and is in remission now.
“But it’s not one of those days that you forget.”
He admits to riding an “emotional roller coaster” over the scars that remain.
“When I get frustrated I just look at those photos of me on day one. I was a mess,” says Mr Beanland.
“I couldn’t even look in the mirror for the first four weeks. I was just a bit of charred meat back on day one, to looking pretty normal now.
“You can’t really compare it.”
Such a reaction is normal with burn victims, says Dr Moaveni. Mr Beanland has coped better than most because he had realistic expectations.
“When you survive a major injury, the first phase is fighting to survive. Then there is euphoria that you’re alive. You’re not too worried about how you look,” says Dr Moaveni.
“Gradually, the realisation that you’re quite badly disfigured starts to hit home.”
No more surgeries are planned in the near future for the firefighter, who is back at work now. He can’t actually remember the Tamahere explosion, which means he hasn’t suffered from traumatic flashbacks while on the job.
Dr Moaveni warns there will come a time when some minor touch-up work is needed, as skin grafts tend to shrink.
“But time is very good for scars. With reconstructive surgery, success is not measured after individual surgeries but over a long journey.”
David Beanland adds: “You’re going to be on the journey, whether you have a good attitude or bad. You may as well enjoy it.”