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Date Of Injury: 1997

Life is constantly changing and as human beings; we adapt and evolve with many of the curves thrown our way. Sometimes things happen that shape us for the better and then other times, actions and events change the course of our lives for worse. But every now and then, an event occurs that somehow works inward from both directions, both lingering unpleasantly in our memory while simultaneously propelling us forward into a better future that we might not have found otherwise. The darkest of times can shine light on our character and will to succeed. Such is the story of Luke Schesselman of Oskaloosa.

About four years ago, Luke was preparing for state, as he is a member of the Oskaloosa Shooting Team. Over the course of the day, the team had accumulated many cardboard boxes from their shooting practice. The wind had caused much of the cardboard to blow into a nearby field.

“Our head coach decided to burn the boxes and get rid of them whenever the wind would change directions,” Luke explained. “After he had started the fire, the wind somehow switched back directions. I had decided to stay after practice to help shoot with the younger kids, so I was still there.”

These circumstances set the stage for a chain reaction of events to occur, as the shift in wind direction changed the tone of the practice.

“The embers started flying towards us and a piece of cardboard, not very big, but still big enough and hot enough, hit me in the back of the leg and gave me a burn on the back of my leg,” continued Luke.

“I just kind of swatted away at it, thinking it was just a little ember that had hit me in the back of the leg; well, they ended up carrying me over to one of those canopy things and put two or three of those five-gallon gatorade containers on my leg.”

While he put it mildly enough, this “small” piece of cardboard had inflicted Luke with third-degree burns and had also done enough damage to singe many of his nerve-endings, reducing the pain to almost nothing. Luke and his father called Melissa Schesselman, his mother, to take Luke to the hospital.

“It was just an ember,” Brad Schlesselman, his father, elaborated. “It was a freak deal. We burned the boxes and the wind switched to a completely different direction and a two-by-four sized ember came out and hit him.”

Initially it took a few days for doctors to realize the severity of his burns.

“It became a third-degree burn, although we didn’t know it at the time,” said Melissa. “After a few days, our doctor suggested to go up to the University of Iowa Burn Center and immediately the doctor came in and said, ‘You need a skin graft.’”

While the news was anything but what he wanted to hear, Luke, with the help of his family, decided to take skin from his hip to graft to his leg. Luke felt anxious and unsure of what was happening around him but said the University of Iowa employees reassured him and helped him through the process every step of the way.

Through the burn clinic at the University of Iowa, Luke learned about something called Miracle Burn Camp and put his name on the list for the next available summer, not yet knowing that his life was about to change yet again, and this time, definitely for the better. The following summer Luke attended Miracle Burn Camp.

The camp initially began in 1995 as a one-day outing for children treated for burns at St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in Sioux City. It eventually grew into a weeklong event and moved to Camp Foster on East Lake Okoboji. In 1997, the Burn Treatment Center at University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, alongside St. Florian Fire and Burn Foundation, began sponsoring children to attend from Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and Illinois, and the camp has grown into what it is today.

“Camp is pretty big, it’s 40-some odd acres of space for kids to roam, the whole thing is like 120 acres,” explained Luke. “To start things off, you get off of the bus and you’re greeted by the entire burn staff and YMCA staff. You get to meet your counselors and take a tour of the camp. You immediately start getting to know other kids there.”

Conducted by a staff of professional firefighters, burn survivors, burn care professionals and YMCA camp experts, volunteers serve as camp counselors and activity leaders. During his time at the camp, Luke started to expand his experiences, make new friends and develop a leadership role amongst his peers. Due to his success as a camper and the positive impression he left on others, eventually Luke was selected to attend the 20th International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) International Burn Camp with one of his counselors, Andy Sheehan, a firefighter from Bettendorf. The two are still close to this day, able to speed-dial the other in the blink of an eye if need be.

More than 52 burn survivors and firefighters from the U.S and Canada stayed at Camp Wabanna in Edgewater, Maryland, for this camp.

“Some of the highlights during the weeklong trip were visiting all the war monuments and memorials,” explained Melissa. “The group saw the White House and toured the Washington Monument and Smithsonian Institute. One event was laying a wreath on behalf of the IAFF at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They visited the U.S. Naval Academy, watched a Washington Nationals baseball game and toured several local firehouses.”

Each year, the IAFF selects young burn survivors, ages 13-15, and a burn counselor from regional burn camps to attend this international camp for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The camp’s mission is to provide a supportive atmosphere to help burn survivors share their experiences.

Sheehan enjoyed the trip for more than just something to do. As a firefighter who has helped countless people, the experience granted him closure.

“As firefighters, we help so many people through one stage of the process. We save them from a fire, sometimes we put them in an ambulance and then off they go, and we never see them again,” he explained. “This camp, these kids, they show us what happens after all of that.”

Looking back on the chain reaction, Luke’s father sees many hurdles jumped and goals reached, all the result of an unfortunate accident.

“The coach felt absolutely terrible; you never want to see a kid go through that,” said Brad. “Yet had that date not have occurred, Luke would be a much different child today than he is right now. This whole burn camp experience has really developed him as a person and it’s been a fantastic program to teach him about life and how to conduct yourself in adult ways.”

Aside from the personal, face-to-face impact he’s had on other campers and staff at the Miracle Burn Camp, Luke has also helped those he will never meet. Luke’s burn data and information has been disseminated to rural hospitals to aid in recognizing third-degree burns in an effort to reduce the amount of time between the burn and being recommended to a burn clinic.

Miracle Burn Camp is free to any child ages 8-18 who has experienced a burn injury, and transportation from Iowa City or Sioux City to Camp Foster is available. To learn more about the camp, contact Bridget Werling, RN, at the Burn Treatment Center of UI Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City by emailing [email protected] or calling 319-356-3218.