When Pam Johnson got a phone call Sept. 1 notifying her that her husband, Christian Johnson, had been hurt while fighting a wildfire in Okanogan County and was being airlifted to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, she knew it was serious. But it wasn’t until she arrived at the hospital that she realized just how critical his injuries are.
“We did discuss … that someday, something like this could happen. But you kind of outweigh that cost of doing it, that, you know, there’s someone out there that needs help. So you hope that it doesn’t happen and you prepare for it if it does and you move forward, you always move forward,” she said Thursday, addressing members of the media in a conference room down the hall from where her husband is in a medically induced coma in Harborview’s intensive-care burn unit.
She described her husband of 24 years, a military veteran who served as a gunner in the Iraq War, as a compassionate, selfless man who believes in helping people. He joined Okanogan Fire District 3, a fire department staffed by volunteers, 20 years ago because it was one way he could give back to his community. He is now an assistant chief.
Christian Johnson, 55, was injured battling the 142-acre Spring Coulee Fire that began burning south of Okanogan, a community of fewer than 3,000 people. It took firefighters from numerous departments about 90 minutes to contain the blaze.
It was unclear how Johnson was injured but he suffered burns to 60% of his body as well as inhalation burns. As of Thursday, investigators had not determined what caused the wildfire, according to the Okanogan County Emergency Management.
Dr. Sam Arbabi, a professor of surgery at the University of Washington and a member of the team of Harborview specialists caring for Johnson, said Johnson has a long recovery ahead of him and will remain in the intensive-care unit for at least two months. Arbabi spoke generally about the treatment of patients with burns to more than 50% of their bodies.
Not only do doctors have to treat burns to the skin, but also those caused by inhaling superheated smoke, which can impact the airway and require a tube to protect the airway from the swelling around it, he said. Making sure the body is properly oxygenated and that a patient gets sufficient fluids — 20 liters during the first day — to protect the kidneys without flooding the lungs requires a delicate balancing act, Arbabi said.
“Also function is important. Sometimes the burns are so deep that they act like a tourniquet,” and doctors have to cut open a patient’s arms and legs to ensure blood flows to the extremities. Infection is always a concern and dressings have to be changed frequently, he said.
Dead tissue also has to be removed and thin slices of undamaged skin grafted over the wounds, little by little.
Johnson, Arbabi said, “will require multiple, multiple operations,” followed by extensive rehabilitation.
“We have a very long road ahead. He’s in critical condition and we take it day by day,” said Arbabi. “He’s definitely a fighter. His body is fighting.”
Pam Johnson said she is overwhelmed and humbled by the outpouring of love and support she and her family have received. In a little over a week, a GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $30,000 to help Johnson and his family, double the campaign’s $15,000 goal. She said people who want to honor her husband can also donate blood or perform a simple act of kindness to help someone else.
Asked where she gets her strength, Pam Johnson said: “From the love of Christian and my faith that we’ll get through this. We’re tough enough to get through anything.”