Beating the Odds

Given a three percent chance of survival, burn patient Charlie Xavier shares her powerful story.

It was a freak accident. While building a new chalkboard for her sons last September, Charlie Xavier stumbled and dropped her sanding tool. The rest is a nightmare: Sparks triggered an explosion, and she was immediately engulfed in flames. The Charlottesville mother of two managed to stop, drop, and roll, but by the time she was med-flighted to VCU Health Evans-Haynes Burn Center in Richmond, 85 percent of her body was severely burned, leaving her with a three percent chance of survival. 

At the time, Charlie and her husband, André, were days away from opening Patch Brewing Company in Gordonsville while running C’ville Tours and raising their boys, London, 4, and Julien, 9 months.

The brewery would have to wait. 

André didn’t know if his wife of 14 years would make it. She was intubated, heavily medicated, and swathed in bandages from the neck down. And as she battled one infection after another, the team at VCU’s burn unit didn’t know either.

But Charlie was a fighter. “I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at 15 months old,” she recounts nearly a year later as her recovery continues. “So I’ve been in pain my whole life.” Fibromyalgia, a second diagnosis, was an additional complication. Now, facing a long recovery, she says, “I really do think that’s what prepared me for the pain that I would experience dealing with burns,” she says.

From VCU to Sheltering Arms 

At VCU, as the days turned into weeks and months, André saw flashes of the old Charlie emerge. In October, she picked out London and Julien’s Halloween costumes from her hospital bed. In spite of the odds, her condition slowly began to stabilize. All in all, she underwent some 54 surgeries over six months at VCU’s burn center.

In March, she transitioned to Sheltering Arms Institute in Richmond for another three months of intense physical rehab. “I’d never seen a patient with the extent of Charlie’s injuries, let alone someone who survived such catastrophic burns,” marvels Dr. William Carter, Charlie’s physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Sheltering Arms. 

Her team there—physicians, physical and occupational therapists, medical psychologists, and therapeutic recreation specialists—rallied to develop a treatment plan. “She needed about three hours of wound care a day,” explains Dr. Carter, who adds that the Sheltering Arms team prepared for Charlie’s complex case by shadowing the experts at VCU prior to her arrival.

New-Tech Healing

While Charlie has beaten every obstacle thrown at her, her journey has not been without hiccups. With only 15 percent of healthy skin remaining, skin grafts became a dicey prospect. So the team at VCU used RECELL®, a spray-on treatment derived from her own skin cells to help healthy tissue regenerate.

But while this new technology jump-started the healing process, Dr. Carter explains that a simple ankle flex or knee bend—part of the physical therapy program at Sheltering Arms—would cause the new skin to tear, which was not only excruciating, but it also increased Charlie’s risk of infection. Additionally, her joints, stiff and swollen from living with rheumatoid arthritis, further complicated this already complicated case. 

During her months at Sheltering Arms, “we were always negotiating, talking things through,” Dr. Carter says. “Her motivation was incredible. She had one goal: to get home to see her kids.” When the search for a home health agency to provide wound care proved insurmountable, Charlie took on the challenge and located specialists who would come to her once she was discharged.

Dr. Carter says Charlie’s drive speaks to the “strength of a mother’s bond.” She fiercely missed her children, whom she’d seen only sporadically in the eight months since her accident. Between pandemic restrictions and her precarious health, visits were strictly limited. 

Cheering on Charlie

Discharged from Sheltering Arms in late May, Charlie says, “you just have to pull up your big girl panties and take it. Take it like a woman.” More surgeries lie ahead, with possibly more physical rehab. But at the moment, she’s relishing spending time with her husband and boys, reestablishing a routine, and enjoying the little things like watching her kids grow up. 

André’s blog, Cheering on Charlie, continues to chronicle their collective journey. Part public update, part confessional, from day one André has shared every moment, even when the pressures seemed unfathomable. On the day she was discharged from Sheltering Arms, he wrote, “I dreamed, wished, hoped and prayed for, for this very specific moment, and the reality of today was beyond any of my dreams!” 

To make sense of the unthinkable, the couple have co-written a book, I Almost Lost Her: A Memoir of Unthinkable Tragedy, released in September. Within the pain and frustration, they look for hope: that her wounds will heal, that she will learn to drive a modified vehicle, and that someday she will walk again.  

Talk to Charlie for an hour and her overwhelming determination will win you over. Sure, recovery isn’t easy. “It’s going to take a while,” she says. “Patience is key.” But nobody’s second-guessing her potential for a return to a normal life. Just look how far she’s come. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue.

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