Fire victim saved by dead man's skin

For three months, he moved around with parts of a dead person's skin grafted onto him.

And he didn't know about it until a hospital employee told him five days ago.

No, this is not a horror movie - it is Singaporean Liew Soon Huat's reality.

He suffered 27 per cent burns to his body - a combination of second-degree and third-degree burns to his back, hands and left thigh - after a fire broke out in his four-room flat in May.

The burns were so bad that skin grafts were required.

The skin for these grafts came from dead overseas donors.

Outer skin, about tissue paper- thin, is removed from a donor's back and legs, typically within 15 hours from the time of the donor's death.

The skin takes about six weeks to integrate with the recipient and eventually sheds off.

Anyone who suffers severe burns will require skin grafting, said Associate Professor Tan Bien Keem, senior consultant at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) department of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery.

Third-degree burns go through the dermis and affect deeper tissues. They result in white or blackened, charred skin that may be numb.

Second-degree burns affect the epidermis and the dermis (lower layer of skin).

They cause pain, redness, swelling, and blistering.

Mr Liew, 33, went through three skin grafts in all.

Recovery

He said: "I remembered looking at the burnt, palm-sized wound on my left thigh and wondering how long it would take to heal.

"Maybe I was more concerned about it because I could see the injury."

After resting at home for the past few months, the project manager returned to work last week.

He said the inconveniences, like keeping the wounds dry during showers and applying moisturiser on affected areas, are minor.

More uncomfortable was donning the pressure garment on his torso almost 24/7.

Mr Liew has to do this until next year.

But he is upbeat about recovery in the days ahead and Prof Tan echoes this view.

He said: "The success rate (for skin grafting) is usually very good if there are no infections.

For patients with severe burns, chances of recovery are good if they don't have respiratory burns."

Dr Alvin Chua, senior principal scientific officer at SGH Skin Bank Unit, said: "There is no waiting list. Donated skin pieces are processed and frozen down in readiness to treat any severe or extensive burn patients.

"Because the skin donation rate is low in Singapore, we have to depend on donated skin imported from overseas."

To date, there are only four skin donors in Singapore this year.

While Mr Liew's physical scars heal, the memory of what happened is still raw.

Brush with death

Brush with death

His brush with death came at about 4am on May 20.

Woken by his mother shouting at his sister to get the fire extinguisher, Mr Liew stumbled into the living room.

He saw thick smoke swirling and flames licking the sofa.

He tried to open the padlock, but was trapped in the blazing inferno along with five family members.

Three neighbours heard their cries and rushed over to help.

"One of them managed to break the lock open," Mr Liew recalled. "I could hear the fire crackling and explosions as window panes shattered in the heat."

Mr Liew was the most severely injured.

He was unconscious for two days and was hospitalised for 18 days.

He said: "I didn't feel pain when I was running downstairs. I just kept feeling the heat on my back. It was only when I woke up in hospital that I knew I was injured."

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong will flag off the inaugural SingHealth Transplant Awareness Walk today.

More than 250 people are expected to form a green transplant awareness ribbon at SGH.

kohht@sph.com.sg

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