71-year-old man burned by pavement warns Phoenix residents to stay safe this summer

Jul 3, 2024, 4:35 AM | Updated: 7:14 am

PHOENIX — In Phoenix, the concrete jungle can burn its residents.

For 71-year-old Robert Woolley, his contact burn sent him to the Diane and Bruce Halle Arizona Burn Center for around five months.

The retired teacher and former Navy fighter pilot fell while in the backyard of his Phoenix home in July 2023. The heat of the pavement inflicted severe burns on his hands, arms and torso.

“I went all the way down, hit my head on the ground as well,” he said during a Tuesday news conference at the burn center near Van Buren and 32nd streets.

Medical officials at the center asked him to share his story to warn other Phoenix residents about the dangers of contact burns ahead of the Fourth of July weekend.

‘The burns affect more than just your skin,’ survivor says

After falling, Woolley couldn’t stand up. He tried pushing his body up from the ground, but the burning pavement was so hot, he kept reflexively lifting his hands away.

“I looked at my hands and the skin had peeled off my palms like the skin from an onion. It looked like raw hamburger underneath,” Woolley said.

He started pushing his body with his forearm, which helped him make progress. However, it soon turned charcoal black.

“I started trying to wiggle across the hot rocks like a sidewinder rattlesnake,” Woolley said. “That’s when I burned my leg from my calf to my hip really badly.”

He eventually made it to the back door, which he kicked until his wife and son came to drag him inside.

The fall gave him third-degree burns on over 15% of his body. The ordeal was extraordinarily painful, he said. It took five hours of surgery to cut away his dead skin and complete skin grafts.

“Changing the bandages every day felt like being skinned alive,” he said. “It was almost unbearable.”

He said the burns he suffered affected more than his skin. His blood oxygen was also low. Every day, his heart raced with irregular beats.

“At one point in the rehab hospital, they transported me back over to the emergency room here. They chemically stopped and restarted my heart twice in the ambulance,” Woolley said. “It took five hours to calm my heart down, and my heart would continue to race. So there’s complications in addition to the burns and the scars.”

Phoenix residents warned of contact burns ahead of Fourth of July

Woolley was one of 136 patients admitted to the Diane and Bruce Halle Arizona Burn Center with severe contact burns from July to August of 2023.

Fourteen of those patients died from their injuries.

That number was a small fraction of the total heat-related deaths in 2023, however. Maricopa County said 645 people died due to the heat last year. That’s the most heat-related deaths ever recorded, county officials said.

This summer is set to be a sizzling season. Phoenix saw the hottest June on record, the National Weather Service said.

Additionally, Arizona Burn Center Director Kevin Foster said the center has admitted dozens of people for contact burns this June.

“We’ve had about 50 people who have been admitted for their injuries,” Foster told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Tuesday. “Out of those 50 people who have been admitted, four of them have died. They’ve had heat shock and burn injuries that were so bad, it just wasn’t compatible with life.”

He said he wanted to sound the alarm about contact burns ahead of the Fourth of July weekend because many Valley residents will be outside during festivities.

In addition to the dozens of hospital admissions in June, many more have required treatment for their injuries, he added.

“Probably well over 100 people who haven’t been admitted who just had bad burns that required us to take care of them as outpatients,” Foster said. “It looks like we’re at a record pace, which is a record we really don’t want to set.”

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71-year-old man burned by pavement warns Phoenix residents to stay safe this summer