In August of 1985, I was putting gasoline into my boat at our summer place on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. I turned on the ignition switch to check the gas level, when I heard an explosion. The gas fumes had gathered around me as I stood on the deck and exploded with a spark from the switch. I was engulfed with flames. I went to the local hospital and was soon taken by helicopter to the Burn Unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
I was met by Dr. Jack Burke who was chief of trauma and head of the Burn Unit at MGH. He cared for me for 16 days. Dr. Burke passed away in early November at the age of 89. He saved my life. When I was admitted to the hospital, I was diagnosed with third degree burns on my hands and legs. I underwent several hours of surgery. Dr. Burke took skin from my thigh and grafted the back of my legs and my hands. I learned that when your hands are burned, they curl up and become claw-like.
To prevent this and to keep my hands flat after surgery, Dr. Burke used super glue to attach hooks from a lady’s dress to my fingernails. He then used ping pong paddles with dress hooks at the top. Then, he stretched my hands flat across the paddles and used rubber bands to attach the hooks on my fingers to the hooks on the paddles. My hands were stretched flat on the paddles so they wouldn’t curl up. I had paddles for hands for over a week in the hospital. Today, my hands are scarred from the burns but they are totally functional. No claws.
As I was cared for by Dr. Burke, I learned using paddles to heal burned hands was not his only creation. The New York Times reported that together with Dr. Ioannis V. Yannas, a professor of fibers and polymers in MIT’s department of Mechanical Engineering, Dr. Burke created artificial skin.
Over 11 years, these two men led a team that developed a material of amalgam of plastics, cow tissue and shark cartilage that became the first commercially reproducible, synthetic human skin. It would save the lives of innumerable, severely burned people worldwide.
Dr. Burke served in World War II as a fighter pilot in the Italian Campaign and I once persuaded him to tell me about his encounters with German Messerschmitts over Italy.
I will miss my friend and doctor, Jack Burke. He was a great blessing in my life.
I’m Bill Marriott and thank you for helping me keep Marriott on the move.