The inpatient burn unit opened May 21, 2013, at WellStar Cobb Hospital off Austell Road on the corner of the East-West Connector. In August, Gov. Nathan Deal visited the new facility for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Last year, Becca Coley was asked to move from the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, where she worked as a nurse, to open Cobb’s burn unit as the nurse manager.
As of Tuesday, Coley said Cobb Hospital’s burn unit has treated close to 600 patients this year, including one person who was about to be admitted from the emergency room.
Patients at Cobb Hospital’s burn unit have arrived from across Georgia, southern Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and the Gulf Coast, Coley said, to receive long-term, comprehensive wound care.
Coley said the eight-bed unit is overflowing, and she will be presenting the need for more space to the hospital administration this week.
When it opened, there were 25 nurses and team members hired for the specialized unit. Coley said she was in the midst of hiring more staff on top of the three or four nurses she added last month.
In an effort to get the number of nurses for critical patients to an almost one-to-one ratio, Coley expects the unit to have 30 to 32 staff members in a month.
Coley said 90 percent of the burns treated were caused by fires, but there are also cases of chemical and electrical burns.
The Cobb Hospital burn unit has treated patients with 90 percent of their exposed skin burned, Coley said. Even if a burn does not cover most of the body, the patient’s life can be threatened based on their age, level of health and the location of the burn.
“Most of the time, these are healthy individuals that have had an accident,” Coley said. “It is a long process. … It takes weeks and weeks and months to heal.”
Burns to the top-most layer of skin are defined as first-degree burns, but if the damage penetrates into the underlying layers, it is a second-degree burn. A third-degree burn extends to all layers of the skin.
If the burn covers more than 10 percent of the body’s surface area, Coley said, “you need to be seen.”
Any burn that wraps completely around the leg or arm can lead to a loss of limb, Coley said, adding if only 10 percent of the skin has been burned, it might still be a severe case with wounds to the face or fingers.
“Extremities are really important,” Coley said.
Treating burns is a “growing specialty in medicine,” and Coley said some hospitals group them with their trauma units.
Although the treatment for each patient is different, Coley said the process of treating the “wide-open wounds” involves the burn unit’s dedicated surgeon taking the victim to an operating room in Cobb Hospital to scrub off the dead skin to reach unharmed tissue.
Another step might involve taking skin from cadavers to graft on to the exposed areas, Coley said, until that tissue can be removed and replaced with healthy skin from another area of the patient’s body.
One patient’s story
Rob Langston, and his wife, Wanda, say they cannot speak highly enough of the treatment their family received at Cobb Hospital after a near-death accident he suffered in rural Steward County in southwest Georgia.
On Sept. 1, Langston, who lives in Morris and owns a tree service company, was grinding down small trees from the enclosed cab of his Bobcat, a large piece of equipment operated from within the machine.
“I was in the woods and the machine caught on fire. The wind was blowing all the smoke away from me,” Langston said. “I didn’t know the machine was on fire until it was too late.”
Although he did not initially see the flames that were spreading around the engine compartment, Langston could feel the heat and knew he was in trouble.
Langston found the weakest place in the top left corner of the door and began to “viciously kick” for what “felt like an eternity.”
With only a seven-inch gap, Langston began to push his body through the opening, but got stuck at his waist, and the effort to get out bruised his bladder.
Langston burned the palms of his hands on the roof of the machine trying to pull the bottom half of his body as the flames began to climb inside the cab.
“I told the Lord, ‘I know you don’t want me to burn up,’” Langston said. “All of a sudden I just flopped out on the ground.”
Once out of the cab, Langston used his cellphone to call his son, who was about 45 miles from the worksite — which was six to eight miles deep in the woods.
After meeting an ambulance by the road, Langston was taken to an emergency room in Columbus. That is where Langston’s wife met her husband.
“I knew it was bad,” Wanda Langston said. “Rob doesn’t get in an ambulance for anyone unless it is bad. So I was expecting the worst.”
The couple was told the Columbus facility would not be able to handle his injuries and within 30 minutes were transporting him to Cobb Hospital.
Wanda Langston said there were three nurses waiting at the entrance to the burn unit when they arrived.
“They promptly went into action,” Wanda Langston said.
Robert Langston was burned on 20 percent of his body, with most of his left leg from the shin up to his hip damaged, resulting in several surgeries and skin grafts.
“I do know if I had been in that fire another 30 seconds … they would not have been able to save my leg,” he said, before adding his boots kept his feet from burning.
He stayed at Cobb Hospital for a week and then returned for extended visits on and off for six weeks.
When he was discharged, Wanda Langston said the staff of Cobb Hospital gathered around to celebrate the miracle of his recovery.
“I have never experienced care like he experienced care there,” Wanda Langston said, adding she has a new outlook on extended care.
Although Robert Langston said his left leg is not as strong as it once was, since the burns reached his muscle, he is doing well and back at work in his physically-demanding job.
“Pain is just part of life,” he said from his newest work site in Mississippi, cleaning up debris from recent tornado damage.