Man burned in fire finds support in 30-year struggle to recover

Posted: Sunday, November 30, 2003

SOUTHFIELD, MICH. Delbert McCoy remembers the horror as much as the pain, the surreal sensation of watching flames licking his legs, surging up his chest, engulfing his face, his hands, his eyes.

He remembers the screams of the crowd as people scrambled to escape the dance club, trampling those who fell, jumping out of windows to escape.

McCoy was trapped. All he could do was leap through the flames, hands over his head, bobbing and weaving, trying to duck the walls of fire that swirled all around.

The charred black lump that firefighters carried out didn't even look human.

It would be 30 years before McCoy would blink again, using reconstructed eyelids that surgeons fashioned from skin grafted from his leg.

For days, McCoy just blinked and blinked. Having eyelids meant being able to close his eyes to sleep. It meant an end to constant infections and the ability to shed real tears.

So McCoy allowed himself some tears.

He wept because the operation brought such hope that maybe there was more the doctors could do, that perhaps one day he might have a nose again, and lips, and ears and hair.

And he wept because it brought back memories of a time when he was healthy and strong, when his eyes shone from his handsome young face, when strangers didn't stare or turn away.

Not everyone turned away. A few always saw the man within.

In particular there was a skinny kid around his own age, who nursed him, enjoyed his company and helped him mend, before sending him back into the world. Each man left his mark on the other.

Decades later, their lives have reconnected with extraordinary results.

Tim Sheard stumbled into nursing purely by accident. It was 1970, and Sheard had written such an impassioned anti-war essay that the draft board had awarded him conscientious objector status. He could serve in a hospital, instead of in the military.

That is how the 22-year-old student from New Jersey wound up in St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital near Ann Arbor. And that is where he met the 20-year-old Delbert McCoy.

It was a year after the fire, and McCoy had just been transferred from Detroit to the burn unit at St. Joseph's.

Sheard had never seen anyone so disfigured, or in so much pain.

McCoy had third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body. He had been burned right through to the bone in some places, leaving exposed tissue and nerve endings that still oozed blood and fluids. His hands were stumps, his arms locked in a twisted embrace.

But McCoy's heart was strong, his lungs worked fine, and his eyes filled with gratitude for the simplest acts of kindness: a sip of water, a gentle touch.

As a rookie nurse, Sheard knew nothing about pain or recovery. But he knew the man he bathed every day the man with no ears, no lips, no nose, no hair was special.

Sheard would spend hours rubbing cocoa butter into McCoy's newly grafted skin. He would guide him as he hobbled down the halls, and sit with him outside the nurse's station.

The two men would talk about everything: sports, families, Vietnam.

Sheard met McCoy's brothers and sisters and marveled at the rowdy spirit that filled the ward when they poured in. And he marveled at how McCoy's father, Albert, had helped pull the son through the first terrible year.

When the son screamed in agony during the daily dressing changes, as he was lowered into a salt-filled tub that turned crimson with his blood, the father would hold him and say, ''These are healing waters, son.''

It was the father who carried him into a special court session in the hospital, so the men charged with arson could see what the fire had done.

And when the son despaired, it was his father who reminded him of all he had to live for a loving family and two baby daughters who didn't care what he looked like. They just needed their Daddy.

But it was hard for McCoy's father to visit daily after his son was moved to St. Joseph's. And so, more and more, McCoy leaned on Sheard.

The surgeries seemed endless. In addition to skin grafts, McCoy had operation after operation to break joints in order to loosen them, to place pins in his legs and arms, to try to pry apart his fingers.

But doctors could only do so much. Two and a half years after the fire, they told McCoy it was time to go home.

McCoy was terrified. He felt safe in the hospital, where the nurses knew him, where he had made friends, where he had such a positive attitude that doctors would ask him to counsel other burn patients. Outside he would feel like a freak.

Sheard tried to reassure him.

''You are an inspiration,'' he said. ''To everyone in this hospital. To me.''

It took a long time for McCoy to get used to the stares.

You're still the same Delbert to us, his family would say. What does it matter what you look like?

And so his father gave him a job at the cash register of his newly opened party store. His friend Napoleon Ross dragged him out for beers. His brothers took him to Detroit Tigers baseball games. And his daughters just loved him.

But his wife was lost. She had been just 16 when she married a handsome, hardworking young man who supported his family with two back-to-back jobs in the car factories. The husband who came home from the hospital was needy and scared and scarred beyond recognition.

They struggled in those early years. And they fought. And after ten years of trying, they broke up for good.

Over time, McCoy stopped feeling so insecure. Gradually, he began to believe what he always told his girls: It is what is inside people that counts, not what they look like.

As the years passed, he no longer felt repulsed when he looked in the mirror. He began putting himself in public situations, rather than avoiding them.

He did a correspondence course and got a degree in marketing from Liberty University in Virginia. For a time, he ran a record store. When that failed, he got a job selling candy in supermarket parking lots.

When people stared, he smiled. When people asked what he was raising money for, he would say, ''to pay for eyelids so I can blink.''

Sheard graduated from nursing college and moved back to the East Coast, where he started working in the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Over the years he saw many patients. But he never forgot Delbert McCoy. And in the early 1990s, when Sheard's two sons were raised and he started writing articles for medical magazines, and later medical mystery novels McCoy's story was one of the first he told.

Sheard had no idea if McCoy was still alive, so he named his patient Albert.

Sheard wrote of his initial horror at the extent of his patient's injuries, and how it was quickly replaced by admiration for Albert's spirit.

On a whim, Sheard sent the story to the Detroit Free Press.

On July 31, 1994, McCoy's family read ''Albert and the Angels'' and knew immediately.

McCoy called the newspaper, which in turn called Sheard, and in no time at all there was a reunion a big joyous affair in Detroit. McCoy proudly introduced Sheard to his family including his grown daughters and his fiancee, Renee Brandon.

Sheard was thrilled that McCoy was so happy. But it was hard to see the same disfigured face and know that, medically, so much could be done.

Selling M&Ms was never going to pay for eyelids. And McCoy's insurance had long said it would not cover ''cosmetic surgery.''

Sheard's article drew attention to the man selling candy on the street. People stopped and talked more, dropped more money in the box, wished him luck.

And then, in 1997, the Detroit News wrote a piece about McCoy. This time there were photographs. This time McCoy was given a chance to share his dream that one day he would have lips and ears and a nose.

The response was overwhelming.

Lawyers called offering to fight insurance companies for money for reconstructive surgery. General Motors offered to help pay. A skin specialist offered treatment, free of charge, as did a plastic surgeon.

And so McCoy began another odyssey of surgeries. And a mindboggling new chapter in his life.

It is early fall, and McCoy sits in a wheelchair in his regular spot in the supermarket parking lot. His face is still hauntingly misshapen. But his skin is smoother now, and the blotchy pink patches are gone. He has lips now, and eyelids, and nostrils.

Doctors have started working on constructing ears, using cartilage from his ribs. Eventually they plan to peel back his scalp and stitch in hair.

There are many more surgeries ahead, but McCoy welcomes them.

Because now, instead of selling candy, he is selling a book. The book tells the saga of a 34-year-old fire and the charred patient who survived, of the father who inspired him, and of the nurse who never forgot him.

''The Fire in My Soul'' was published by Seaburn Publishing Group this summer. There were book-signings in Detroit and in New York, interviews on local television and radio stations.

And there were parties to toast the authors Tim Sheard and Delbert McCoy.

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