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May 28, 1994. 8,500 gallons of gasoline. A split second when something goes wrong. A tanker rolls over and bursts into flames on a slow turn on Milwaukee’s Highway 45.

 Bill Ester
 Bill Ester spent two years recovering from a gas tanker truck accident that left 60 percent of his body burned.

Bill Ester recalls the accident in amazing detail. “My initial thought was ‘This is how it ends.’ But survival is a very strong instinct. I jumped out a window and, thank goodness, ‘stop, drop and roll’ had been beat into me as a kid.”

Paramedics transported Bill to Columbia St. Mary’s Regional Burn Center where he began the long process of recovering from traumatic third-degree burns – the most severe kind – that covered more than 60 percent of his body. It was a grueling two years of surgeries, therapy and hard work before Bill’s doctors deemed him “healed.” But what he gained through that process are insights and lessons that have guided his life ever since.

In the last two decades, medical science has made great advancements in the treatment and care of severe burns. While burn injuries are one of the top five leading causes of accidental death in the United States (affecting approximately 500,000 people a year), over 90 percent of burn patients survive. As a result, more people than ever are living in the aftermath of a severe burn – and Columbia St. Mary’s Regional Burn Center is at the center of that care.

“We are extremely fortunate to have this level of care – this completeness of care – right here in Milwaukee,” says Thomas Schneider, MD, the Medical Director of the Regional Burn Center. “The CSM Regional Burn Center serves as a model, regionally and nationally."

Columbia St Mary’s Regional Burn Center is a state-of-the-art treatment and recovery facility. It is the only center of its kind in the area and is renowned for providing exceptional burn care throughout eastern Wisconsin, upper Michigan and northern Illinois.

Opened in 1959, it is the first Burn Center in Wisconsin and the fourth oldest in the nation. Today, this 12-bed unit is prominently located on the fifth floor of the new Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital Milwaukee, where patients and families can have respite views overlooking Lake Michigan.

Columbia St. Mary’s mission has always been to make a positive difference in the health and lives of individuals – with special concern for those who are vulnerable. This philosophy is no better epitomized than in our Burn Center, where a specially trained team of physicians, nurses, therapists and other caregivers assures the highest quality care to those suffering from burn injuries. They're fully committed to treating not only the physical injuries, but also the psychological wounds that often accompany them.

“The physical and emotional support I got from the physical therapists and burn specialists was amazing and they encouraged me to connect with some resources that I would not have,” says Elaina Meier, who received care for severe scald burns in 2001. “I am indebted to them not just for the physical recovery they facilitated but the emotional recovery.”

To help enrich the lives of burn survivors and to educate the public about prevention, the Burn Center partners with community organizations and schools. Our outreach to the community includes community education, assisting at burn camps, and support groups such as Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery (SOAR).   

 View from the Burn Center Golf Invitational Lounge

 Picturesque views from the Burn Center Golf Invitational lounge offer patients a calming environment to heal their mind and body.

Columbia St. Mary’s, along with the Wisconsin Alliance for Fire Safety and local chairperson Bill Ester, are excited to be bringing this year’s World Burn Congress to Milwaukee. Each year, The Phoenix Society hosts the four-day World Burn Congress that draws more than 800 burn survivors, their families and caregivers, healthcare professionals, fire service, and others involved in the burn recovery process. The conference offers educational and support programs and provides a save environment for burn victims to meet, share stories, heal and support each other. The World Burn Congress takes place September 12-15 at the Frontier Airlines Center.   

This year will also mark the 24th anniversary of the Burn Center Golf Invitational (BCGI) – an event hosted by the Wisconsin Alliance for Fire Safety – which has raised more than $1.6 million for the center. In recent years, the BCGI has funded Cardiac Telemetry Packs, Radiant Heat Panels and educational burn safety outreach programs. Funds were also dedicated to building and upgrading the Regional Burn Center in the new Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital Milwaukee. 

Over the years, Columbia St. Mary’s has always placed the needs of those we serve as our highest priority. We have earned a reputation for providing exceptional state-of-the art medical care in a family-centered, healing environment. We continue to maintain this reputation thanks to our outstanding employees, management team, physicians and volunteers, all of whom are committed to excellence.

“The relationships I developed at the Burn Center are life-long,” says Bill, who today is a tireless advocate for not only the Regional Burn Center but burn survivors everywhere, serving as a volunteer with Columbia St. Mary’s Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery (SOAR) program. “Those people are my saviors. My angels.”


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