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Stony Brook opens expanded burn center

State Sen, John Flanagan, left, learns about the

State Sen, John Flanagan, left, learns about the new Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center at Stony Brook University Hospital from Dr. James Vosswinkel, chief of Trauma and emergency surgery, center, and Dr. Mark Talamini, chairman of the department of surgery, right. (June 16, 2014) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Lorraine Fuchs walked into the debridement and bandaging room Thursday at Stony Brook University Hospital's new burn center and pointed to two shower heads hanging from the ceiling.

These, she said, were part of the reason the hospital needed the $2-million expanded burn center -- the only one in Suffolk County -- which opened Thursday on the eighth floor.

The 67-year-old Smithtown resident spent three weeks last spring in the old burn unit on the fourth floor after 40 percent of her body was badly scalded by boiling water that spilled from a gas burner.

Twice a day, she said, she was brought into the debridement and bandaging room, where nurses carefully scrubbed and re-wrapped her burned flesh to prevent infection.

The nurses were outstanding, she said, but the shower heads would swing, and the room was too small to move around in easily.

"They knew what they were doing, and they had such a sense of humor," she said of the nurses. "But it was hard for them. This is state of the art."

A bigger debridement and bandaging room is just one of the features of the new center, named the Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center in honor of the more than $1 million raised by volunteer firefighters for the burn center over the past several decades. The firefighters contributed $156,000 to the new center, and the rest was paid by the hospital.

"It's very important we have a highly functional burn center," said Barry Vicik, a captain in the Eastport Fire Department.

State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), a prime supporter of the burn center from its opening in 1984, credited the firefighters with ensuring that it remained viable despite budget pressures.

"The road to here today was not a smooth one," he said.

The new center has 7,200 square feet of space, up from 5,600 square feet, and includes six private patient rooms with great views and larger treatment rooms. A specialized team of about 30 doctors, nurses and therapists will treat more than 100 burn patients a year at the center.

"Time is tissue," Dr. Steven Sandoval, the medical director of the burn center, told the 100 or so firefighters, emergency medical technicians, politicians and health workers assembled for the opening. With a state-of-the-art center, he said, the hospital can offer the most advanced care.

"The difference is real and meaningful," he said.

Erik Unhjem would agree. The 62-year-old Goshen resident spent 27 days in the burn center after 70 percent of his body was burned in a plane crash in Shirley in August 2012. Unhjem's wife, Jane, and the pilot died. The Goshen couple was on a test flight of a single-engine plane they were interested in buying.

Unhjem attributed his remarkable recovery -- he's back to working full time, cycling and flying -- to his good physical shape before the crash and his mental attitude.

"And," he added, "to this wonderful facility and the angels in scrubs."