Almost five years ago, Jay Greenshields’ life changed forever. On July 7, 2009, the then 19-year-old refrigeration mechanic apprentice was working on a refrigeration motor in the cellar of Echuca’s Bridge Hotel. Now 24, Jay speaks to journalist Ivy Wise about the experience, how it changed his life and his amazing and inspirational transformation.July 7, 2014 3:19am
On July 7, 2009, Jay Greenshields’ life changed forever.
The then 19-year-old refrigeration mechanic apprentice was working on a refrigeration motor in the cellar of Echuca’s Bridge Hotel.
The gas bottle he was using contained acetylene; a colourless, odourless gas, and, unknown to him, was leaking.
The cellar filled with acetylene gas which ignited, causing a large explosion and Jay caught on fire.
He has vivid memories of being on fire, running up the cellar stairs, removing his shirt which was alight and being raced to Echuca hospital.
With burns to 35 per cent of his body, including his face, back and arms, Jay was in excruciating pain.
His life hanging in the balance, Jay was put into an induced coma and woke up 10 days later in Melbourne’s Alfred hospital.
That was start of a long recovery process that involved multiple skin grafts, learning to walk again and weight and resistance training which has seen him go from a fragile 58kg upon leaving hospital, to a fit and muscular 78kg.
What do you remember of the incident?
Everything. From being in the cellar to being put to sleep in Echuca hospital.
How would you describe the explosion?
It happened in an instant.
The best way I can describe it is a flame ball, like the ones out the front of Crown in Melbourne.
It happened in a split second.
The cellar was really low, so I couldn’t stand up straight in there and there was a big beam at the exit and two steps leading up to the hotel.
I don’t know how I got out, but I remember running across the front of the hotel and managed to get the fire out in my hair and I ripped off my shirt which was also on fire.
I was heading for the river, but at the time there was renovations happening and there was a cyclone fence in the way, so I turned around and I remember yelling for help.
What did being on fire feel like?
It’s like a tightness.
When you burn plastic and it shrivels up and gets really tight, it’s like that.
It was so tight, I couldn’t bend my arms.
It wasn’t bleeding because it was so deep, but it was really, really hot.
What happened when you arrived at hospital?
They started cooling me down with cold water and set up a video link-up with The Alfred hospital.
They started prepping me while a helicopter with a six-person burns unit was being flown to Echuca.
I remember hearing someone say I was going to be transported to Melbourne for plastic surgery, but I didn’t know how bad it was, or how severe my burns were.
They took me in the operating room and put the gas on me and that was it.
Ten days later, I woke up in The Alfred.
I was a bit disappointed I missed the helicopter ride.
Did you know where you were and what had happened to you?
The whole time I was on ketamine, a powerful painkiller, and the side effects were hallucinations, so I was hallucinating the whole time.
I didn’t know where I was, I thought there were little men running around and that the nurses could move things with their mind and I could see through walls.
I also thought I was stuck at a train station and couldn’t get anywhere.
What was that like?
It was a horrible experience and it lasted the whole time I was on it (ketamine), which was two weeks.
Doctors initially told you that you would have to stay in hospital for six months. How long were you in there?
How did you manage that?
I had youth on my side, I was healthy and had led a pretty active lifestyle.
The skin grafts took really well too, as my body accepted them.
Plus I didn’t want to be in there (hospital).
I wasn’t going to lay down and let it kill me, so I told myself to harden up and do it.
Which parts of your body needed skin grafts?
Both my arms.
They took skin from my thighs and torso for that.
I have no feeling on one part of my left arm.
The first night, they did my lower back, but the burns to my face were superficial.
My right arm had to be done in two sittings, so overall I had four operations.
After I healed, I had to go back and have another three operations for scar relief.
How were you feeling mentally at that point?
I just took it. I had no other option.
Dwelling about it wasn’t going to change anything.
It was worse for mum and dad because they were told to start planning a funeral.
When were they told that?
That first night. I was critical, but stable. The second night I was pretty close and the third night was a bit iffy.
You weren’t about to give up?
It wasn’t my time. I accepted it pretty quick after that.
There must have been some challenges that lay ahead of you though? What was the hardest part?
I couldn’t do anything for myself.
I could hardly get a DVD out of the case, I couldn’t make my own food or brush my teeth. Showering was a two-person job.
It was all hard and I got really frustrated and angry before I started trying to take my time.
How hard was it learning to walk again?
Very. When they first sat me up and I stood up, I couldn’t use my legs.
My feet felt like I was wearing clown shoes.
It was a weird sensation.
I took two steps the first time and had to lie back down.
A week later, I walked to the cafeteria.
By the fourth week, I climbed six flights of stairs to my room.
I thought: the quicker I get out, the better.
What did your recovery involve when you got home?
It was a long process. I was living with mum and dad, so they would have to change my bandage dressings four times a day, moisturise my skin four times a day.
My shower water had to be sterile.
My burns were still raw and I had open wounds, so it was really painful.
I was still on pain medication.
That was the best part of my day
When did you join the gym?
A week later.
I knew I had to do something to keep mobile and stretch my skin, so it wouldn’t tighten.
It also takes the mental frustration away.
I was going three times a week, doing weight and resistance training and cardio.
Now I go every day.
How has that helped your recovery?
It brought back the elasticity in my skin and built up my muscles.
I haven’t had any more tightening since.
I was on WorkCover for three years, so it gave me something to do.
You were two years into your apprenticeship when the explosion happened. Did you want to finish that?
No, I couldn’t. When I had to look for work, a sales job popped up at a valves shop, so that’s what I’m doing now.
I’d love to go back to it (trade), but I’ll just have to wait and see.
Are you limited in what you can and can’t do?
There was a lot of things I was told I couldn’t do, but I have.
I just know my limitations.
How has the explosion affected you mentally?
Every now and then I get flashbacks, but they’re not as bad as they used to be.
I don’t like being around patio heaters when they’re being lit.
Otherwise, fire doesn’t bother me.
I used to get a lot of stares from people (looking at my burns) which got to me.
I’d rather people ask me than stare.
How has this experience changed you as a person?
It’s changed me a lot.
It’s made me a lot stronger, physically and mentally.
No matter how hard something seems, I know I can do it.
The ball’s in your court.
You just have to harden up and do it.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
At least try.
So, what does the future hold for you?
I wouldn’t have a clue.
I was 19 when it happened.
I missed out on the three years of your life where you make mistakes.
What a 19, 20, 21-year-old does, when I was that age I was sitting at home.
So I am just going to take life as it comes.
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