Injuries don’t hurt Conway man’s attitude

By Tammy Keith Originally Published February 10, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 8, 2013 at 11:14 a.m.
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Eilish Palmer

Robert Brooks, 22, of Conway has received cards and prayers from all over the country after he was burned Dec. 12 in a chemical explosion at his workplace. Brooks said doctors are amazed at his progress. On Monday, Hendrix College will dedicate Waltz Night to Brooks, a Hendrix graduate and professional musician.

Robert Brooks of Conway makes his workplace chemical explosion, which caused extensive burns to 20 percent of his body and resulted in him losing an eye, sound like a stubbed toe, a stumble, a minor inconvenience.

“Losing the eye — well, I’ve got another one, and it’s 20-20,” he said, his throat still hoarse from a surgery.

A bass player with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and a singer, his positive attitude doesn’t surprise anyone who knows him.

Not his parents, Patrick and Robin Brooks of Conway, nor friends of the 22-year-old who played with him in the Hendrix College Chamber Orchestra.

The Hendrix College Chamber Orchestra will present Waltz Night 2013 at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Worsham Performance Hall in the Student Life and Technology Center on the Conway campus.

The free performance is dedicated to Robert.

The accident occurred Dec. 12 in Searcy at Goes Green, a plant where Robert has worked since May as a chemist in research and development.

“He almost died,” said his mother, Robin Brooks. “It’s a miracle story.”

To date, he’s had seven surgeries, including one Tuesday at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center to remove his right eye.

“It was a smashing success,” Robert said Wednesday from his home.

Robert said the accident happened after lunch Dec. 12.

“Everything was going great,” Robert said. “We got a bad sensor reading,” and he volunteered to climb 8 feet in the air to check on the reactor.

He said he put on his safety gear — helmet, goggles, everything except his gloves.

Robert said he didn’t detect any problems, so the process continued, but he perched nearby to monitor it.

“I was sitting there — when the door blew open,” he said, adding that the mixture that hit him was 93 percent sulfuric acid.

“I kind of crouched in front of a ball to get as low as I could to get under it.”

He said he turned to his left, which is why the right side of his body took the brunt.

“The steam and stuff just nailed me,” he recalled.

Robert estimated the mixture was at 500 degrees when it reached him.

It wasn’t intense pain; “it was more of a tingly, burning sensation,” he said.

“It was three, four seconds before I was like, ‘I need to get down.’”

Robert remembers grabbing the railing and jumping down, landing on his feet, and running to the decontamination shower.

“All of my training and stuff kicked in, and my body did what it was supposed to,” he said.

“I got in the safety shower and washed off everything that was excess — it was very cold, very cold.

“My adrenaline was kicking in. I thought, I really don’t want to look at what happened, so I’m going to keep my mind focused and straight.”

Lance Green, a co-worker who witnessed the accident, called 911 and grabbed eye wash for him, Robert said.

A White County Sheriff’s Department deputy happened to be nearby and escorted the ambulance to the emergency room at White County Medical Center.

Robert was placed in a decontamination shower again.

It was a chaotic scene, he said.

“It was actually kind of funny. I said, ‘OK, shut up — here’s what it is: I’m Robert Brooks, I got hit with 93 percent sulfuric acid, steam and calcium-oxide lime.’”

Robin said that when she and Patrick got to the hospital in Searcy, they didn’t get to see Robert for a while.

Robin said she naively asked a nurse, “Do you think he’ll be home for Christmas?”

The nurse told her, “This is very serious, Mom.”

The nurse told Robin that more than 20 percent of Robert’s body was burned, “third degree and worse.”

“His head was as big as a basketball. It was so frightening,” Robin said.

Robert said a doctor asked him, “‘OK, is there anything else we can do for you?’

“I said, ‘At this point, some morphine would be nice,’” Robert said.

A heartbeat later, he felt a pinprick.

“I woke up in the burn unit at [Arkansas] Children’s Hospital,” Robert said. “Children’s performed miracles.”

He said he doesn’t remember his six or seven days in the intensive-care unit.

He had chemical burns to his face, right ear, neck, chest, arms and hands. He underwent several skin grafts in those areas.

Robin said doctors were constantly amazed at his progress.

“They said he healed in four days what usually takes a normal person four weeks to do — not everything, but certain parts,” she said.

A nurse told him, “You have more than medical science on your side,” Robin said.

Robert has no doubt.

He had a dream, but he’s not so sure it wasn’t a vision.

“While I was in ICU, there came a point where doctors were, ‘He’s gone from this to he’s fighting for his life. We really don’t know what else to do.’ I’m pretty sure that’s when this dream kicked in. … At the same time, it felt so real, you question whether it’s a dream.”

He said it was a “purgatory-type setting — an area of constantly shifting sand — hard to move, but at the same time, getting to different places wasn’t as hard as it seemed.”

He said there was a creature, a guardian, that he was supposed to destroy to move forward.

“I moved on to this certain area, and I saw this template, and it was in the shape of this sword. I said, ‘OK, I guess this would help.’

“I remember every now and then seeing glimpses of this creature. … I was staying where he couldn’t see me,” Robert said.

When he got the last piece of the template in place, “the sword burst into flames,” he said. “When I picked it up, it wasn’t hot; the flame wasn’t even hot.

“I pretty much lifted out of the sand, and everything dropped away. … All of a sudden, there’s this incredible light.

“The only way you could look at this light was to be in the fetal position. It brought me down to a knee.

“I couldn’t look at the light, but it wasn’t oppressive. In this light, there was this great warmth. In all this power, you could feel the amount of peace that was in it. It was so peaceful, yet so powerful.

“I heard the words, ‘Don’t worry, my son; I will take care of you.’”

Then Robert woke up.

“It was incredible. I woke up and was like, ‘Was that a dream?’” Robert said.

“I think it wasn’t. It was so out-of-body.”

Robert and his family are members of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Conway, but people of all denominations have been praying for Robert, his mother said.

Cody, one of Robert’s three brothers, is on an international soccer team at Lander University in South Carolina, and he told teammates. Word spread, and Robin said people all over the world were praying for Robert.

“He went global,” she said.

“There are people who have written on Facebook that they didn’t believe in God, but now they do,” she said.

Because Robin and Patrick learned how to take care of their son’s injuries, doctors let Robert go home Jan. 18.

“They’ve both been super,” Robert said of his parents. “They’ve been very strong about it.”

The part that hurts the worst is when his wounds are cleaned with a hand-held sprayer in the shower, a process that takes up to three hours, Robin said.

“He’ll just look at us and start to cry, and we’ll cry, and we’ll stop,” she said.

“He is a such a brave guy — he hardly ever wants to take his pain medicine.”

Robert’s girlfriend, Ashley Halbert of Texas, who plans to go to medical school, has also been a constant support.

“Oh, man, she has been an angel,” he said.

Robin said the outpouring of love and support from friends, neighbors and the community has been a blessing.

“They are just as important in the recovery of this young man,” she said.

It will be a long road.

In a few months, he will have another surgery to implant a prosthetic eye.

Robert’s hands are in pressure gloves, but he wants to start practicing his bass. He’ll have to build up callouses again on his tender skin.

He said he’s looking forward to going back to work, too.

“Absolutely — as soon as I can, I’m going back to the plant,” he said.

No one would expect anything less.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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