High-tech features in CHUM burn unit speed up patient recovery

When you look at Alexandra Duchesne, you see a vibrant young woman working on a Masters degree — but only two years ago she was covered in bandages, almost from head to toe, after being burned by hot oil.

Unité des grands brûlés at the CHUM is one of Quebec's 2 burn units

Alexandra Duchesne, 24, now volunteers at the CHUM hospital burn unit, 2 years after being treated for serious burns herself. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

When you look at Alexandra Duchesne now, you see a vibrant young woman working on a Masters degree — but only two years ago she was covered in bandages, almost from head to toe, after being burned by hot oil.

She and her sister had friends over for dinner and were using the deep fryer when Duchesne realized the temperature of the oil was too high.

She decided to carry the pot of hot oil to the balcony, but her sister walked back in at the same time and the two collided.

"The oil spilled all over us and I caught on fire," said Duchesne.

She ended up with second-degree burns on her body and third-degree burns on her arm.

Her sister had third-degree burns on her calf.

After a skin graft on her right arm and a one-week stay in the burn unit of the CHUM, Montreal's French-language superhospital, Duchesne went home to begin the long recovery.

Now, once a month, Duchesne goes to the burn unit in the new CHUM to talk to other patients, share her experience, and provide a bit of hope.

"For now when you're at the hospital, it seems like you're going to be a 'grand brû​lé' forever, and it's going to be your life forever," said Duchesne.

"But when you see people, [and you see] they still have a normal life, it helps you."

The burn unit has its own, dedicated operating room which is three times larger than the previous one when it was located at Hôtel-Dieu hospital. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

Most modern in Canada

When the new CHUM hospital opened just over a year ago, it was equipped with one of the most modern burn units in the country.

Some of its features include:

  • Burn victims bypass the hospital's emergency room and are taken directly to the ninth floor admitting room, which has a special bed for doctors to irrigate the burns. 
  • Staff can raise the temperature of the admitting room instantly to prevent infection, and make the room more comfortable for burn victims since they often suffer from hypothermia.
  • The burn unit floor has its own operating room which is more spacious that the previous one, and larger than the regular operating rooms.
  • Each of the nine patient rooms can serve as mini operating rooms, if needed.
  • The admitting, operating and patient rooms are equipped with positive air pressure so when the door is open, air flows in a way that prevents bacteria or other airborne impurities from entering.

The medical director of the burn unit says the results in patient care are striking.

Plastic surgeon Dr. Ali Izadpanah says the stay in hospital for victims is getting shorter thanks to the ultra modern facility, combined with the specialized staff. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

Dr. Ali Izadpanah said there's generally one day of hospitalization for every per cent of body area that is burned.

For example, if a person needs skin grafts over 20 per cent of their body, they can expect to spend about 20 days in hospital.

Izadpanah said the new CHUM burn unit is outperforming that estimate.

"So if you're at 20 per cent we've be managing to get about 16 days of admission, which is cutting the cost to the system for about four or five days," he said.

He said that the faster patients can return to their regular lives, the better they do in the long term, psychologically and otherwise.

Specialized care helps with quick healing

Izadpanah said the specialized nurses, psychologists, physiotherapists and other professionals in the unit also contribute to the shorter recovery times.

Occupational therapist Geneviève Theriault-Poirier keeps patients moving to maintain their range of motion and make sure grafted skin doesn't shrink.

Theriault-Poirier said her work there is unique.

Alexandra Duchesne spent weeks at home, healing from second and third-degree burns. (Submitted by Alexandra Duchesne)

"Usually when you have a fracture or something like that, you should not move when you have pain. With a burn, it's the opposite," said Theriault-Poirier.

"You have to move even if you have pain. That's my main issue with burn victims, to get them to move," she said

Two years ago, Theriault-Poirier helped Duchesne.

"She did all of her exercises and everything, and [this is] the result — she can do everything she wants now."

For Duchesne, she is back at school working on her Masters degree in occupational therapy, so she can help other burn victims.

"When they look at you, and you're up [and active], and after that you help people, it shows them that they can do the same thing," said Duchesne.


Elias Abboud


Elias Abboud is a journalist at CBC Montreal.