It happened on Memorial Day weekend, a little before 5 p.m.
Lisa Sears, 59, had just walked into the family cabin on Bois Blanc Island in the Straits of Mackinac in northern Michigan.
She and her husband, Jerry, had been looking forward to a few days of relaxation.
“It was an old log cabin that had been in Jerry’s family since the 1940s,” Sears said. “Maybe about 100 years old. It used to be a deer camp, set in a quiet, secluded place with 6 acres surrounding it.”
Bois Blanc Island is nearly 50 square miles. It’s reachable by ferry, similar to nearby Mackinac Island, although automobiles are allowed here.
The Sears often travel north to the island from their residence in Grand Blanc, near Flint.
“When I first walked into the cabin, I thought I smelled propane gas,” Sears said. “But then, it’s an old place and it always smells a little musty when we first get there.”
She went to the kitchen and set her purse down.
She opened a few windows on her way in, allowing in some fresh air.
And then the house blew up.
Falling into fire
Three months later, Sears remembers it all quite clearly.
“It was a concussive explosion, a flash fire,” she said. “I think I was awake and aware the whole time. I was thrown into the air, yet I felt no overwhelming fear. I felt like I was enveloped in the hands of God and that I was safe.”
Flames instantly swallowed the cabin.
Sears landed belly down in the basement. The floor had vanished beneath her, the ceiling opened to the sky.
“I was on burning debris and something burning fell on top of me,” Sears said. “I was able to get it off me and get out from under the debris. I have this image now of angels overhead playing badminton with burning pieces falling from the sky to keep them off me.”
The explosion had been loud enough to summon neighbors. When they arrived they saw the demolished cabin and assumed no one survived.
Then someone spotted movement in the burning debris.
Sears survived the blast. So did her husband, Jerry. He’d been standing at the basement stairs when the explosion threw him from the building and out into the yard, knocking him unconscious.
Everyone on the small island knew each other.
Sears recognized the young fireman who arrived at the scene.
“Brandon was by himself at that point,” she said. “And he sprayed water on me and doused the fire around me.”
The island has one ambulance.
“That arrived and so did the Coast Guard,” Sears said. “They all stayed with me and Jerry until the helicopter arrived to bring me to Spectrum Health. Jerry was taken to Munson Healthcare in Traverse City and I was taken to Grand Rapids.”
North Flight Aero Med transported the couple to their respective hospitals in a unique situation where the crews of both the helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft responded to the island to rescue the couple.
Into caring hands
Sears drifted off to sleep on the trip to Grand Rapids. She awoke in the emergency department at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, just as a nurse began to cut away her burnt clothing.
Another nurse trimmed away her singed and mangled hair.
Spectrum Health is a Level 1 Trauma Center, the only one in West Michigan.
“That means we can treat most any injury that comes through our doors,” said Amanda Yang, MD, a Spectrum Health trauma surgeon.
Dr. Yang became one of the many experts who cared for Sears that day and beyond, throughout her stay at Butterworth Hospital.
“It was incredible, how all of these doctors worked together over me,” Sears recalled. “My hair was so stinky from the fire and it came away in wads when I touched it. I felt so much better when one of the nurses cut it away.”
She suffered second-degree burns over 6.5% of her body, including her face, hands, abdomen and feet.
“Both of her ankles and her left femur and tibia were fractured,” Dr. Yang said. “She had a fracture at the base of her skull, a broken right arm, a liver laceration and spinal fractures. And yet—she was such a trouper.”
Dr. Yang oversaw Lisa’s hospital course, ensuring each and every injury she had was appropriately diagnosed and then addressed by the trauma team or appropriate specialist.
Cathryn Chadwick, MD, Spectrum Health surgical critical care, admitted Sears and triaged her care.
Charles Gibson, MD, an acute care surgeon, helped treat her burns. Moises Googe, MD, a neurosurgeon, tended to the spinal trauma. Gable Moffitt, MD, an orthopedic trauma surgeon, handled orthopedic needs.
Dr. Gibson remembers examining Sears’ skin and cleaning her burn wounds. He applied a soothing ointment and dressings for pain relief.
“The Spectrum Health Regional Burn Center is one of the busiest in West Michigan, but Lisa’s story was one of the wildest I’d seen,” Dr. Gibson said. “She had second-degree burns, which can be the most painful, because the burn has reached nerve endings.
“Her face had mostly flash burns, less deep, so no skin grafts were needed,” he said. “The face has an amazing ability to heal because it has a robust blood supply and we are constantly sloughing off skin as we wash. So she should heal without any scars.”
He smiled upon recalling Sears’ demeanor.
“She’s tougher than I would be,” Dr. Gibson said. “Incredibly calm, incredibly chill, telling me her story as I worked on her burns.”
Onto the next
Dr. Moffitt’s orthopedic work followed Dr. Gibson’s burn treatment.
He tended to her fractures.
“We usually avoid surgery as we consider where to put the incision to avoid the burns, but we were able to perform surgery on Lisa right away,” Dr. Moffitt said.
He used plates and screws to repair the femur, left ankle and right arm. He cleaned and closed up the right ankle.
“Lisa’s prognosis is excellent,” Dr. Moffitt said. “She should return to full function, although perhaps she will feel some stiffness in her ankles later.”
To treat the spinal fractures, Dr. Googe used a brace that stabilized Sears’ back.
“She had multiple compression fractures,” he explained. “Think of a pop can. And if you step on it and compress it, it gets crunched and widens. Lisa’s spine bulged in places, but it was neurologically intact. Bulging is only a problem when it affects nerves.”
After about a week in the hospital, doctors moved Sears to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, where she remained until June 16.
She spent about 12 weeks in a brace and she used a wheelchair to ease her recovery.
She’s already on the road to rehabilitation, although there’s still plenty of hard work ahead.
Confined to her wheelchair, Sears worked on her upper body strength first. Four hours each day.
“My daughter Kate was always by my side—and that’s really helped,” she said. “And then I also did yoga and a meditative hour twice a week.”
She attributes her calm during and after the accident to yoga, which she had practiced daily for the last 35 days, but on a regular basis prior to that.
“I knew how to breathe to stay calm,” she said.
During rehab she enjoyed frequent video visits with her husband, Jerry, whose blast injuries included head trauma and a shattered jaw. Doctors had to keep his jaw wired shut for weeks to let it heal.
Today the two are back home in Grand Blanc, where they run a construction company together. Their daughter, Kate, who lives in Indianapolis, temporarily moved back in with her parents to care for them.
“I once loved wearing heels,” Sears said. “And I will wear them again someday.”
Sears and her husband attend outpatient rehab therapy three times a week.
She jokes that it’s their new family outing.
Family, from here and from beyond, has helped carry her through her ordeal, Sears said.
Her faith in God and a positive attitude have been instrumental, too.
“I saw a photo later in the newspaper up north of firemen putting out the fire at the cabin,” Sears said. “I saw her right away in the smoke overhead—my deceased mother’s face appearing in the smoke. She was my angel that day. My angel saved me.”