Town comes to a child's aid
Kids don't come much better than 12-year-old Olen Hulsebus - a straight A middle school student and member of the Talented and Gifted program, an active standout in 4-H and the First Lutheran Church in Sioux Rapids and a lover of most sports including street hockey, swimming, football and basketball.
So when tragedy struck him, many people were affected.
Olen was assisting his mom, Laura Hulsebus, a special education teacher at West Bend-Mallard, and grandmother, Joan Hulsebus, Sioux Rapids, do some fall lawn cleaning October 17. The three were burning yard debris they had cleaned up.
Olen was throwing sticks into the fire when the wind shifted. The fire caught the sleeve of his sweatshirt on fire. Thinking back to the messages received in preschool from the local firemen, he stopped, dropped and rolled.
The burning sleeve ignited the front of his sweatshirt, and his flesh began to burn.
"I saw him on fire and took my coat off to try to get the flames out," said Laura. A neighbor ran to help with a blanket and snuffed out the flames. Laura ran for wet towels to apply to his burns while the neighbor called the hospital.
Olen was rushed to the Pocahontas Hospital Emergency Room, bypassing an ambulance call to save time. By the time he arrived, Olen's burned skin had already turned to blisters.
"I was so glad he was alive," Laura said. "We didn't know how bad the burns were until we got to the hospital. He was in a good amount of pain when we got there. He kept saying, 'Mommy, I'm so sorry.' I kept telling him it wasn't his fault. The hardest thing for me was that I couldn't hug him, he hurt so bad. I could only hold his hand."
A long ordeal has followed, but Sioux Rapids children and churchgoers have rallied for Olen.
Olen experienced second degree burns on the right side of his chest, side and back. A hood protected part of his face from the flames, although his his eyebrow, eye lashes and some of his hair was singed away.
The sweatshirt, made of 50 percent cotton, 50 percent polyester, was melted due to the extreme temperatures. His legs, covered by blue jeans made of 100 percent cotton, fared much better.
The hospital transported Olen to St. Luke's Critical Burn Unit in Sioux City where he remained for five days. For another week, he was treated while his mom stayed at the Ronald McDonald House.
Olen has asthma and numerous allergies; his body rejected medication after medication. He has had to endure the suffering without being able to take pain killers.
His burns became infected, his right lung collapsed and he began having seizures. His skin was too sensitive for many of the ointments usually used in burn cases.
The family looked further for help and took him to Rochester, Mn. He is currently being served by Mayo Clinic. Many specialists are aiding his burns, his asthma, his allergies.
His burns are still unstable and continue to open up from the blisters. He wears a burn vest and burn shorts under his clothing, and must do so for the next two years. Once he is in high school, he must wear another type of pressure suit burn garment for protection while playing sports. Plastic surgery is inevitable.
The family has applied to get Olen admitted into one of the nation's four Shriner burn hospitals. They are awaiting word back.
"His recovery will be a long one," said Laura. "He has been a real trooper through all of this." The skin that is healing is doing so in a variety of colors. "But he's not vain. He doesn't care what he looks like. Some of his skin is fluorescent white, some is pink and some is maroon. He's never been one to get hung up on anything."
Olen missed several weeks of school, but completed all his work which was faxed to him. He returned to school recently, but remains on the first floor of the building as it is still difficult to climb steps.
Olen and Laura are staying in the one-level home they own in Sioux Rapids, and trek the 30 miles to school each day. Their normal home in Mallard is bi-level and would be difficult for Olen.
Their church family at First Lutheran in Sioux Rapids hosted a fundraiser recently and piles of cards were made and sent to Olen from his friends and many students in preschool to 12th grade that he didn't even know. Olen attended Sioux Central from preschool to first grade; many former classmates and community members came out to wish him well on his recovery. The students have been saving pop tabs "like crazy," Laura added. The tiny tabs add up and bring in money for the Ronald McDonald houses that give families of children requiring hospitalization a free place to stay. "It's all been awesome," Laura said.
"It was a fluke thing," Laura said about the accident. She hopes others will do as she now does, and look for 100 percent cotton clothing items for their children in the event of a brush with fire.
Olen, a quiet boy, doesn't complain. He says he is now able to walk without too much pain; he awaits the day he can again run and climb and play again.