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Fort Wayne house explosion victim's recovery slow, steady

Friday, December 28, 2012 - 9:32 am

Last summer, Caleb Hofmann, 21, thought this would be his senior year at Indiana University in Bloomington. Instead, it became a semester at St. Joseph Hospital – weeks shrouded in the murk of a coma and months of skin grafts and therapy for burns.

His plans took that radical turn in a split-second July 14.

Hofmann, an accounting student at IPFW, was spending a couple of months living with friends in a house at 1701 Bayer Ave. That Saturday, he attended the Three Rivers Parade to watch his brother, Conner Hofmann, 12, perform in the Concordia Marching Band, then went to Dairy Queen. After returning home he noticed a bad odor in the house. Hofmann said it really smelled, so he decided to light a candle. He sparked his lighter. The moment the spark hit the air, he was thrown across the room and into the wall, and then the wall was on top of him.

“I remember saying to myself, 'I am here by myself, no one is going to get you out, if you don't get out you will die,'” Hofmann said.

Hofmann said he couldn't remember all the details, but somehow he was able to get out from under the wall and out of the house. He remembers a man came and helped him out and to a neighbor's porch. It was shortly after he got there that a second explosion occurred. He recalls watching the flames spreading through the second story.

Rescued by neighbors

Neighborhood resident Jason Baugher said he helped pull Hofmann, who appeared to be the house's only occupant, to safety. Baugher, who lives on the next block, heard what he called a “massive boom” while he was sitting outside drinking coffee. He threw his cup down and ran toward the blast, followed by another man.

“I heard a voice saying, 'Help me, help me,'” said Baugher. He says he saw a man peeking out of the rubble who had been entirely blackened by the explosion, except for the whites of his eyes.

Baugher said he and the other man who responded pulled the victim free and took him to the porch of the house next door. He described the man as “badly burned.” Just a few minutes later, Baugher said, another blast spread the flames.

Hofmann recalled sitting in the neighbor's yard. He kept asking people to call his mom. He didn't feel like he was in pain, but Hofmann said he must have been in shock. He kept asking for water and had some people spray him down with a hose. By the time the ambulance arrived he was beginning to feel the pain. When he got to the hospital the ambulance driver told him that his mom was there.

“That's about the last thing I remember for the next two-and-a-half months,” Hofmann said.

His mother, Tracy Hofmann, was on her way home from the parade; she lived only a few blocks away from the house. She saw the smoke and drove down the street where she talked to the police, but she couldn't remember what her son's address was. She called Hofmann's father, Mike Hofmann – the couple is divorced – and found out what happened. A police officer drove her to the hospital.

Hofmann's younger brother Blake Hofmann, a sophomore at Concordia Lutheran High School, recalled shortly after the accident that he was consoling their mom and said, “Caleb isn't the Wicked Witch and it will take more than a house falling on him to bring him down.”

The long recovery

Hofmann's brother was proved right, but it was a long three months as Hofmann moved through a series of medical crises during his recovery.

Hofmann was put into a medically induced coma to manage the pain from the burns that covered 75 percent of his body. Amazingly, he suffered only minor burns on his face; the majority of the burns were on his legs and arms. Skin grafts were taken from his back and chest for his arms. Skin was taken from his underarms and flown to Boston, where it was used to grow more skin grafts for his legs. He stayed in St. Joseph Hospital until Oct. 25, when he was moved out to the Rehabilitation Hospital at Lutheran Hospital.

Dr. Kevin Berning, co-medical director of St. Joseph Hospital Regional Burn Unit, was one of the team of doctors who worked on Hofmann's recovery. He explained when you have a burn case like Hofmann's the real danger in recovery is from infection of the wounds. Hofmann was heavily sedated from the beginning.

Because his lungs were burned, he was placed on a ventilator. The sedation kept him still, so the new skin that was grafted onto his wounds would have time to start healing and he would have relief from the pain.

“I don't think an older person who suffered as many complications as he did would have survived,” Berning said. Generally, the percentage of the burned area added to your age will predict your chance of dying, Berning said.

They had to give Hofmann liters and liters of fluids because the damaged skin couldn't retain the water in his body, making him vulnerable to dehydration. After he had stabilized, they removed the damaged skin from the burned areas and covered it with xenograft (pig skin) as a temporary fix until his own skin could be grafted back on.

“You have essentially injured 75 percent of your biggest organ, your skin,” Berning said.

An array of complications

Dr. Brian Youn, who also worked on Hofmann's case, said on top of the wounds, he also suffered blood clots in the lungs (which collapsed), a clot in his leg, an infection in his heart valves and a stroke. None of those complications are common in burn victims, yet somehow Hofmann pulled through.

“When I first woke up, I couldn't even move my hands,” Hofmann said.

He was weak on his right side from the stroke and he had lost 50 pounds. He had to learn how to walk again, and the nerve damage he suffered from his burns has left him without feeling in some areas of his arms and legs. He has been assured that the nerve damage will improve over the next two years, although he may never have all the feeling back. Besides the loss of feeling, he also suffers from nerve pain in other areas.

Hofmann said he used to be very active and have a healthy appetite, but he has lost it since the accident. He is trying to eat more to gain the weight back.

He is currently recovering from a minor setback of another collapsed lung.

Hofmann underwent a procedure at Parkview Regional Medical Center in early December, but was released Dec. 21 so he could be home for Christmas.

Once he is back up to speed, he will do outpatient physical therapy at least three days a week. Hofmann is working on strengthening his upper and lower body, as well as undergoing speech therapy. Between trips to therapy, he has an iPad and watches TV to pass the time.

Some of his friends have been raising money for Hofmann to help him with his medical expenses. Friend Tim Koehlinger had a charity auction at Wrigley's Field in September and Dan Bercout set up a donation website. Elena Moreno had 2000 elastic bands made and has been selling bands them for a dollar each to raise money. His cousins Natalie and Gary Fitzgerald had a recovery motorcycle ride and hog roast in September to raise money. His church, St. Paul's Lutheran, raised funds, which was sent to Thrivent Financial for Lutherans who matched part of it to help with Hofmann's medical expenses.

Hofmann is focused on his recovery and plans on attending IU next fall.

“That's my goal. I think I can do it.” Hofmann said.