“They’re fantastic people who can answer any question I have”

Seven seconds. Not much can happen in seven seconds. Or so we think.

But to Wesley Daniel, in just seven seconds life can flash – literally – before your eyes.

That’s because Daniel’s face was on fire.

Daniel, at 24 and a recent graduate of Chicago’s Roosevelt University, caught on fire during a dress rehearsal of the Lyric Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg”.  A trained actor and theater/circus performer, Daniel’s role was as a fire-spitter on stilts as part of a festival scene in the famous opera.  While he’d performed the unique skill several times in rehearsals without incident, and had worked with fire before, was Daniel’s unlucky day. The liquid used to ignite the flame, essentially the fluid used in cigarette lighters, singed his face, setting it aflame.

Imagine yourself on fire, the flames literally in your eyes. Then imagine yourself several feet off the ground, on stilts, and contemplate the feeling of terror you might experience.

“When my face caught on fire, initially a lot of bad words went through my mind,” Daniel joked. “When I realized what had happened, I saw my chin was red, so I tried to put the fire out with my right hand.”

That didn’t work. But the well-trained, nimble Daniel knew what to do next. He had the presence of mind to fall forward, onto his knees, to minimize damage to his hands and wrists, in a “controlled fall.”

“Thank God I remembered the proper way to fall on stilts. I’ve been on stilts at least four years, but hadn’t fallen from them before,” he remembered.

As he fell, he noticed stagehands rushing onto the stage. The moment he hit the ground, they placed his face directly into a fire extinguisher, then pulled him offstage and immediately applied towels to his face to control the burn and minimize damage to his skin.

“The crew was absolutely fantastic,” he said.  Had this happened at a smaller theatre with little or no crew – or without people trained in first aid – the results could have been far worse.  That treatment not only helped minimize immediate damage, but contributed to the lack of long-term scarring he can expect.

Still packed in towels, Daniel was rushed to a hospital for treatment of his second-degree burns and some upper respiratory conditions that quickly passed.  Thankfully, he suffered no lung or airway damage.  He was discharged after a couple of days.  After the incident, Lyric dropped the fire-spitting element from the festival scene.

But there was damage to his vocal folds, most likely from his inhalation of the lighter fluid and/or the chemical in the fire extinguisher.  Daniel’s voice, typically what he calls a “high tenor,” became a soft rasp.  For a professional actor and performer who’s appeared at some of Chicago’s most prestigious venues – including Chicago Shakespeare Theater – that injury was a threat to his livelihood and passion.  Daniel uses his voice quite a bit.  He, like many others in his profession, came to Chicago to train and become a working actor in theatre, the city’s growing film production industry, and corporate communication and video work.  With his voice essentially out of commission – at least temporarily – the injury has potentially significant career ramifications.

That’s where H. Steven Sims, M.D., a UI laryngologist and director of the Chicago Institute for Voice Care, and Jan Potter Reed, MS, CCC-SLP, a UI at the Institute, entered the scene.

A colleague of Daniel’s recommended he see Dr. Sims, who works regularly with performers at Lyric Opera and other venues across the city.   His casual, less invasive approach was a welcome relief to Daniel.  Surgery is not a primary option.  While injections of collagen or hyaluronic acid and/or steroids to boost the cords’ natural healing are still possible, they were put off until speech pathologist Reed works extensively with Daniel.

“Dr. Sims is great and knew exactly what to do,” Daniel said.  It’s also a relaxed environment – that’s the best part of my treatment.  They’re giving me tools I can use at home.  Most of the time, Jan has me talking and doing exercises.  They’re fantastic people who can answer any question I have.”

“Having worked with so many patients like Wes who rely on their voice as an instrument, I know how stressful such an injury can be, both to their self-confidence and their work,” Dr. Sims said.  “They have enough worries to deal with.  Our job is to give them the medical attention they need along with the personal comfort and security that eases the pain and promotes real healing.”

Jan Reed believes that being informed on the science of speech pathology is critical to recovering fully and to do so with the least invasive treatments possible.  For example, some speech pathologists adhere to a now-dated notion that injured vocal cords need to be rested to promote healing.  That’s not what today’s science recommends, she noted.

In fact, resting the cords slows recovery.  “You need to make the cells in the epithelium and vocal cords move through exercises,” she noted.  “You want to stretch those cells, get them moving as much as you can, because exercising those cells helps to get them vibrating on their own.”

At their sessions, Reed uses increasingly challenging exercises with Daniel.  “I don’t want the healing to happen so that the scar tissue become hard as it heals,” she said.  “The object is to get more pliable tissue to promote recovery.  In Wes’ case, we need to promote healing so the cords work as well as they did before.  If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, we can inject some material to fill it out.”

Though she’s worked with many burn victims before, this case is highly unusual to Reed, because most burn cases involve bronchial injury and treatment, so a different kind of wound healing and therapy is required.

“The type of therapy we’re offering Wes has been shown to produce anti-inflammatory chemicals on the vocal cords.  The combination of treatments we’re providing is highly unique and generally limited to the top-end voice centers,” she added.

The good-spirited Daniel became a bit of a local, national, even global celebrity from the incident.  That’s because it occurred during an “invited dress rehearsal,” one that typically includes press and photographers who prepare write-ups or previews of shows.  His father and girlfriend witness the tragedy at the Lyric Opera, and understandably were concerned.  “If my face had been on fire any other day, no one would have reported it,” he noted.

Months later his voice was limited – he called his rasp his “Batman voice” – Daniel is back on stage, though not on stilts breathing fire.  At press time, he was preparing for a minor role in Lyric’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”  And he notes given his condition, “It’s a good time to be working at the Lyric –and it’s a non-speaking role!”