Jack Denham was 80-years-old when he experienced one of the worst moments of his life.

He was trying to dispose of some contaminated gasoline in his backyard in the country. He covered it in dirt and stood 40 feet back. But it was a sweltering hot day, and the distance wasn't enough. As soon as Denham lit the match, the fumes blew back at him.

The heat was so intense that his shirt melted and dripped off him. It burned his torso, chest, arms and hands.

“It was over in an instant,” he recalled. “There was no rolling on the ground to put it out. I took one look and thought 'I've got a problem.'”

Denham was one of about 40 past patients and family members who attended the annual Christmas party for the Hamilton General Hospital burn unit on Thursday. 

Many have horrific stories like Denham, who stayed in the burn unit for two weeks in July. But they come back to celebrate with the staff and each other. The unit has some of hospital's longest-term patients, and it becomes like a family.

Denham drove down from his home in Damascus, Ont. to talk to fellow survivors and see the staff. The personal touches are many, he said. Nursing staff lay a comforting hand on the arms of patients with no other family. When Denham left the unit, he said, one nurse had tears in her eyes as she hugged him.

“I've got such tremendous memories of this place that I do not think of the discomfort I had,” Denham said. “I only think of the great people who took care of me.”

The Hamilton Professional Firefighters Association provided gifts for the party. “This is something we love,” vice-president Rob D'Amico said. 

The party also included visits from Santa, door prizes, refreshments and a cake baked by a former patient. 

Stays in the 10-bed burn unit range from a few days to several months, so patients and staff form a special bond, said Patty Arpino, the unit's clinical manager.

Kianna was two-years-old when she fell into a campfire

The outpatient program serves children and patients with smaller burns. The inpatient program is for adults with burns that cover more than 10 per cent of their bodies.

Common causes for burns include campfires, house fires, scalds, car accidents and fireplaces. 

Courtney Davis, 69, of Hamilton was on his way home one night in 2010 when he was in a car crash involving two other vehicles. 

The incident itself is a blur to him, but he was burned so severely that he lived in the unit for eight months. 

He came to the party Thursday, he said, to visit staff who were “really friendly to me,” he said. 

Kianna Gangoo, 5, of Brampton was one of the youngest former burn patients. She was two years old when she fell backward into the still-glowing embers of an extinguished campfire and got second-degree burns on her arms and legs.

She got a Barbie at Thursday's party. Her siblings got gifts too. 

Her family attended the party so Kianna could hear the stories of other burn patients and know she's not alone, said her mother, Nadia. The family also wanted to thank staff at the burn unit.

“They treated her so well,” Nadia Gangoo said. “I had no complaints."