Army Nurse Helps Soldiers Heal From Burn Wounds

As part of NPR's ongoing series, 'The Impact of War,' guest host Allison Keyes explores one of the tragic consequences of combat - burn wounds. Such wounds can subject victims to a painful and unpredictable recovery. Army Lt. Col. Maria Serio Melvin shares her experiences at the military's largest burn center, the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX, where she treated service members injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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ALLISON KEYES, host: From the front lines to the backstory, now, on The Impact of War. That's the name of NPR's occasional network-wide series that brings to life the experiences of U.S. troops, their families and their communities. Many of the most serious war-related wounds are from burns. The recovery is long, extremely painful and can be unpredictable.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Maria Serio Melvin knows very well the complications of burn injuries. She spent more than a decade treating them. She also used to supervise the burn intensive care unit at the military's largest burn center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Not all of Lieutenant Colonel Melvin's patients recovered.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, today's Scripture reading will be given by Lieutenant Colonel Maria Serio Melvin.

Lieutenant Colonel MARIA SERIO MELVIN: So do not fear for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your god. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

KEYES: That from a memorial service for a Marine who didn't survive severe burns from military service. Lieutenant Serio Melvin joins us now from the studios of Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. Welcome to the program and thanks for your service.

MELVIN: My pleasure. It's an honor being here.

KEYES: I understand after the storied career of yours as an Army nurse and officer, you're retiring in August. Congratulations.

MELVIN: Yes I am. Thank you.

KEYES: And how are you feeling about that?

MELVIN: Mixed feelings. It's been an absolutely phenomenal and exciting career. And making this decision was extremely difficult. But I'm at a place in my life now where I'm ready to - for stability. I've got some children that asked me to stay in the San Antonio area and I absolutely love working with the burn population.

So with the Army Nurse Corps you have to move on, move to different places. And I decided I'd like to retire and continue to work with the burn patient population.

KEYES: I've got to ask, for a layman, this seems like one of the toughest nurse jobs possible. I mean, you deal with, I mean, horrific injuries, disfigurement. What drew you to this specialty?

MELVIN: It was actually because of the Army nurse corps as to why I got started. Sheer chance. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. All that I knew is that my husband and I wanted to return to San Antonio because that's where we met. And the Army Nurse Corps says, well, I don't have any jobs available at Brooke Army Medical Center, but I do at the burn center. Do you want to try burn nursing? And I didn't even know there was a burn center back then. And I said, sure, I'll try it. And I ended up loving it.

KEYES: So you went into this not even knowing the level of care that you were about to provide?

MELVIN: Absolutely.

KEYES: Wow. You were on NPR's TALK OF THE NATION earlier this year with a soldier who said he'd lost an eye and ear in an explosion. And he was asked about the difficulty of trying to accept who he is now. And what he said really struck me 'cause he said that people are defined by their character, not their skin. But if you are weak, a disfigurement of this magnitude could stop you in your tracks. Is this a common attitude that you run into among the service members you've treated?

MELVIN: I think he did a fabulous job of describing so much of what we see at the burn center. And, you know, whether it's a civilian emergency patient that we're taking care of, or wounded warriors, if those individuals don't have the fortitude to get through what they need to get through to get better, they won't survive. And so we see that time and time again, this perseverance, this bravery, this unbelievable will to live. And I think it's part of that that helps us keep going and keep coming to work every day.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with Lieutenant Colonel Maria Serio Melvin. She's an Army nurse who specializes in burn victims.

I want to ask you about an interview you did with reporter Terry Gildea in our member station KSTX. And you talked to him about how being a burn nurse is not for the faint of heart. You yourself said you went into the specialty without knowing that much about it. But is burn care something that only a certain kind of person can handle?

MELVIN: Absolutely. I have always said that and I will always say that. It is such a strain on you emotionally and physically. Actually, every - morally, ethically, mentally you have to have - be of a special type of a person to want to do that line of work. But it's like that with nursing in general.

KEYES: Part of the treatment that you must give in addition to the patients is helping to deal with their families as well. As a nurse that spends so much time with both the patients and the families, do you feel like you become almost a part of the family during the treatment cycle?

MELVIN: Sometimes that does happen. For me personally in the role that I'm in right now, I don't get quite as engaged with families like I used to. But when you're at the bedside or even when you're a clinical head nurse, for example, you do get very emotionally attached to those families. And you, you know, when they get discharged it's, again, a bittersweet goodbye because you've been through so much together. You shared so much negative and also some great positive things together because you've seen these patients go from being initially injured to being strong enough to go home.

And then we get to see them - sometimes months later, we just happen to run into them at Target or Wal-mart or at an outpatient clinic. It's just amazing. It's like a reunion.

KEYES: I want to ask you, what do you say to families that have to help the wounded not only deal with that, here's what I look like now, but just deal with the skin grafting and all of that? Is there a thing that you say that makes it easier for them or at least gives them more of the fortitude to go through the level of recovery they have to?

MELVIN: That is also very individual. I can't describe exactly what I say, but my basic themes are always trying to instill a realistic sense of hope. And I reminded the family - I remind the families a lot of how far they have come. So if you look back at your loved one six weeks ago, you would've never imagine that they are where they are today.

Well, just take that now and move it forward. Six weeks from now you will not - you won't - you'll be so surprised to see how far you were able to get. And then we just keep on saying, look, it's going to get better. Every day is a new day, every day you grow, you get used to this and before you know it, this will become your new normal.

KEYES: Lieutenant Colonel Maria Serio Melvin is a critical care nurse specialist for the U.S. Army. She spent more than 22 years in the Army Nurse Corps and she supervised the burn intensive care unit at the military's largest burn center, which is inside Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. She joined us from Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. Thanks so much and congratulations again.

MELVIN: Thank you.

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