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Burn unit work leaves mark on retired nurse

Staff writer

Twilla Baker of Lincolnville will never forget the time when her father-in-law became one of her patients.

She was supervisor of St. Francis (Via Christi) Critical Care’s burn unit when her father-in-law, who was in his 70s, was welding near his home in Valley Center and sparks ignited a fire. He tried to stamp it out, setting himself on fire.

He called 911, and Baker’s son, who was a Valley Center police officer, responded, along with the local fire department, which put the fire out on his body.

Baker said when she arrived on the scene, she went directly into nurse mode.

“I knew that action had to be taken, and I was the most qualified person on the scene to know what to do,” she said. “I guess it’s a self-protection sort of thing.”

She immediately ordered an airlift to St. Francis (Via Christi) Hospital. Then she located his wife and another daughter and took them to the hospital, where a doctor explained the situation to them.

“I went back to my office and cried,” Baker said. “I didn’t want to cry in front of them because I wanted them to have hope.”

The man was in the hospital for four months. He lost both legs above the knee and suffered a heart attack.

Baker said he had been an active person and would not let that major incident stop him. He was fitted with two prosthetic legs and eventually returned home to live on his own.

Baker was a supervisor at the burn center for 10 years. She treated many kinds of injuries that ranged from minor burns to full-body burns on patients of all ages, from infants to seniors. Some patients were there for a few hours or days, and some stayed for months.

One of her most traumatic experiences was when 13 men were airlifted from Hays after an oil explosion.

“That was a rough time,” she said. “I had finished my usual 12-hour shift, gone home, and taken a shower when I got a call to come back in immediately.”

The burn unit didn’t have 13 open beds, so additional beds were brought into adjoining rooms. A second crew of workers was brought in.

“We didn’t have time to identify the men, so I assigned each man a letter as he arrived,” she said.

Baker worked for 36 hours straight after going back to work. A nap room was provided where workers could go for a quick snooze. Doctors and hospital staff brought food to them.

“I ate more pizza and sub sandwiches than I had ever eaten before or have eaten since,” she said.

All but one of the 13 men survived.

Baker said she sometimes had to defend herself against family members who accused her of being cold-hearted.

“At first, you had to appear cold-hearted just to administer the critical care,” she said. “But you do become involved and go through emotional roller coasters. That is true for all emergency personnel.”

She said it was especially difficult relating to families when she knew the patient was going to die.

“The doctors told them, but the nurses had to deal with it,” she said. “Some patients defied the odds and lived. One patient was burned on over 90 percent of his body, but he survived, went back to school, and started teaching.”

Baker and her husband, Lonnie, moved to rural Lincolnville in 2000.

She is proud that the experiences she shared with family led her daughter and a niece to become nurses.

“I loved my work,” she said. “I would never have chosen another profession. It was a big challenge every day, from one minute to the next.”

Last modified March 10, 2016

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