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Craig Robitaille Story: A Legacy Gift to Help Fellow Burn Survivors

Craig Robitaille Story: A Legacy Gift to Help Fellow Burn Survivors

No one could have been more surprised than Craig Robitaille when the can of methyl alcohol — fuel for his grandson's model plane — exploded in his hand. "It was June 8, 2013 —a gorgeous day. I didn't have a care in the world," says Robitaille. "As I was welding, I noticed that the fuel can was pulsating." Robitaille, is a chemical engineer — hazmat and safety trained.

His training told him if he did not act quickly, there would be a disaster. He picked up the can with his left hand; the heated lead bar he'd been welding was in his right hand. Disaster struck.

"The force of the explosion threw me onto the hood of the Thunderbird in the driveway. I slid back and felt my head hit the concrete," he says.

As Robitaille slipped into unconsciousness, he recalls thinking this was it; he was dying. Then he heard his wife, Mickey, say, "Get up, Craig. You have to live." Keeping him alive would be the couple's focus for many weeks to come.

Paramedics transported Robitaille by ambulance to the UCI Health Regional Burn Center. It's the only Orange County burn center verified by the American College of Surgeons and the American Burn Association to provide high-quality care from injury through rehabilitation.

Flames had torched 37 percent of Robitaille's body, affecting his face, neck, hands and legs. His legs were almost entirely burned. His injuries were extensive; he was in intense pain and he needed fluids. Dr. Victor Joe, director of the burn center, put him on a ventilator, along with continuous medication for pain and sedation.

Robitaille floated in and out of consciousness for three weeks. He remembers waking to wound dressings — a combination of biosynthetics, cadaver skin and skin grafts taken from his own body — that covered his scorched frame from head to toe. His hands were locked in place. And the trauma had caused temporary loss of his cognitive abilities; he couldn't reason or couldn't even do simple math.

Mickey visited every day. She hung pictures and did what she could to make a hospital room feel more like home. "Mickey was such a special person," says Dr. Joe. You could see the love and concern that Mickey had for Craig. That was very evident. You could see it on her face. You could sense it in the conversations," says Dr. Joe.

Robitaille endured five surgeries, with doctors grafting skin from his back, flanks and hips to repair damaged tissue. "By the fifth surgery, it wasn't going well," he says. "I suffered a collapsed lung. I permanently lost vision in my left eye. They don't know why." When Robataille was discharged to the care of his wife, there were days he wasn't physically able to get out of bed. He'd go a couple of weeks with no improvement. Then he'd notice a small change — enough to keep him motivated. He began to see signs of the "old Craig" returning.

Like many burn survivors, he continued to feel pain and itching from the physical scars. For this, he pursued laser treatments at the UCI Health Beckman Laser Institute. There he benefited from innovations in the use of laser therapy for treating burn scars. Eventually, he was able to resume things he enjoyed, such as coaching his grandson's soccer team. And he took on new projects, like speaking on behalf of the burn center — something he continues to do today. "We're honored by his continued involvement in our program," says Dr. Joe. "He's a huge supporter of events. His gratitude and ongoing presence is a tremendous contribution in and of itself."

By September 2014 Robitaille was feeling well enough to travel. Mickey and he decided to take their four children and five grandchildren to Hawaii to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. "We renewed our vows at sunset, with the entire family there. We went to bed that night thinking we'd had 25 years together, we were healthy and we had another 25 ahead of us. Everything was right," says Robitaille.

Not long after they returned, Mickey started feeling tired. Blood tests revealed she had lymphoma. Six weeks into chemotherapy, she was feeling better. Doctors ordered a PET scan to evaluate her progress. That's when they learned Mickey was allergic to the contrast dye, a reaction experienced by fewer than 1 percent of patients.

The prednisone administered to combat the allergy weakened her immune system, and her cancer mutated into an aggressive form of nondescript b-cell lymphoma.

Despite her best efforts, Mickey was unable to rally enough energy to tolerate further chemotherapy. She lost her battle with the disease in November 2015. "After what we went through with me, I couldn't save her," says Robitaille.

But, he says, he can honor Mickey's memory. To do that he established the Michele A. Robitaille Endowment Fund for research at the UC Irvine Health Regional Burn Center.

The $100,000 estate gift, what Robtaille calls "a permanent reminder of my late wife," is the largest individual donation in the history of the burn center, which celebrated 50 years of service to the community in 2017.

Many burn survivors face long-term challenges, such as limited mobility due to scarring, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and psychosocial issues. Legacy gifts like Robtaille's allow UCI Health to earmark money for research and programs that might not otherwise be funded.

"Quite frankly, Craig's gift is transformational. We want to be able to use this [gift] to create something sustainable that can benefit others in the longer term. And the fact that he is doing so in memory of Mickey, makes it that much more meaningful" says Dr. Joe.

"For Craig to take the step of committing his financial resources gives us greater resolve to treat others," says Dr. Joe. "Mickey was by his side, always there — a rock for him. It's fitting that he — and we — honor her in this way."