by Robert Lanz, LCSW
Lightening things up a little this week…..
“Hey Bob. Can you go in room nine and talk to that kid and his dad? He’s got a weird burn pattern on his butt.”
After a while in the ER it becomes almost obvious that some injuries are seasonal. First week of football practice? Call ortho. Start of ski season? Call ortho — and warm up the CT scan. Summertime? Forest fires in the local mountains. (Our paramedics and firefighters get fall and burn injuries.) Christmas? Drunk drivers. And the one that brought room nine to my attention tonight: October chills bringing on old wall heaters.
This is California. We turn off the gas to heaters in our homes around the end of April and turn it back on in October or later. That’s half a year for kids to forget simple things like the fact that in their trendy old Craftsman homes, heat comes from registers on the floors or walls. In those six months, kids either forget how hot the registers get or they grow to be more mobile and can’t seem to avoid scooting onto the hot metal floor registers before their parents can stop them. The outcome of those lapses could result in grid-pattern burns (matching the pattern on the register) on kids’ hands and feet and sometimes even their knees.
Hardly child abuse or neglect. Though that’s possible. Usually those kids from Craftsmans showed up at the ER with both parents, and seemed to take comfort equally from mom and dad. (The parents had the same six months to forget about the heater)
I suffered one of those butt burns myself, just out of grad school while living in a funky old house in Echo Park (now a hip part of L.A.’s music and movie scene.) The house only had one gas heater to warm the whole house — not that difficult in L.A. weather, even in the winter. (I even had a gas faux fireplace with cement logs, if it ever got that cold.) And one night, it got that cold. I set the wall heater to its highest level. After a long hot shower I stood in front of it, shivering (naked of course, holding a big towel in front of me, enjoying the warmth on my bare back) enjoying it, until I dropped the towel. Most social workers I know don’t fantasize about being engineers or physicists and I’m solid on that list myself. Perhaps if I had studied harder in my undergraduate science, technology and math classes I would have understood the mechanics of the butt burn move that was to come.
If your rear-end is only a few inches from a wall heater and you bend over very quickly, your ass will press right on to the heater: instant pain, and a grid-pattern burn on your derriere that matches the pattern on the heater guard. Pretty lame. But as the president’s right-hand man used to say, ‘never waste a crisis.’ Or in this case, a butt-burn.
At the time, I was working in juvenile hall. There I was on my shift, with burnt skin and grill marks on my ass. My secretary asked why I was walking funny. I turned to tell her the story of how it happened, but being young and impulsive, when I opened my mouth, out came this tale:
My friend Danny and I were at the Pancake House in Hollywood after some serious carousing at a couple of blues clubs. A food fight started (and we weren’t participating) that turned into a fist-fight that turned into a near-riot. I resisted the impulse to pull out my probation officer’s badge and try to break up the melee. Clinical judgment screamed out to me: ‘Too late for that Bob — get out of here.’ With about twenty people brawling it looked more like a biker bar than the International House of Pancakes so we made a beeline for the back door through the kitchen. When I tried to run past the huge Samoan pancake chef, he put a giant shoulder into my gut, stood up and lifted me off my feet and sat me right onto the waffle iron.
It was about that time in the story that I pulled my pants down and said to the secretary, “Look what happened.”
There it was, the marks on my butt cheek looking very much like a Samoan-induced waffle iron burn.Repeating the story over time, I kept embellishing it, but always kept the same ending and showed-off my right butt-cheek with the cross-marked pattern. Hell, I was almost a little bummed out when I finally healed all up. No one, until now I guess, ever knew the true story of the injury, the fiction being a much better presentation than the facts.
So I walked into E.R. room 9, introduced myself to dad and the boy and told them a social worker was required to see all children coming into the E.R. with any kind of burn. I already surmised what happened, but legally I had to hear it myself. The kid showed me his grid-pattern burned butt cheek and gave sort of a frown. It wasn’t funny to him and I figured he probably wasn’t old enough to massage this painful experience into a humorous one. I hoped he someday might acquire that skill. (I’d be happy to help if he ever asks.)
The child said, “I was standing in front of the heater after my bath and I dropped the towel. When I tried to grab it, my bottom went against the heater and it burned me.”
I looked at dad. He shrugged.
“Sounds like an accident for sure. Case closed.”
And dad says, “That’s it?”
“Well. I lived in an old house too.”
If I still had the marks I probably would have compared butt cheeks and maybe at that very moment the kid would have learned the valuable skill of laughing at pain.
“That covers my part. The nurse will come in and put some Silvadene on it and tell you how to watch for infection. No big deal.”
Dad said, “This won’t ever happen again.”
“Yeah. I know.” I could say that with all sincerity.