Wounded warriors

Written by James Combs

Accident Survivors tackle the adversity that comes with physical injury.

Photo: Nicole Hamel Photoshop: Josh Clark

Burned over 70 percent of his body, Kris Kruse is on a road to recovery.

While working road patrol for the Clermont Police Department, Kris Kruse responds to his fair share of traffic accidents. Feeling sympathy for injured motorists comes naturally.

“In situations where I see people who are hurt, I talk to them and tell them that there is life after this setback,” he says. “I let them know that they’ll have to work hard to get back to where they want to be, but it’s definitely doable.”

Kris, 24, speaks from experience. Nearly two-and-a-half years after he was burned over 70 percent of his body, his skin has been successfully grafted, he’s married, and he’s forging a new future.

Gone is the uncomfortable breathing tube lodged in his windpipe. Gone are the bandages covering countless scabs. Gone are the days when taking a few small steps left him in excruciating pain.

What remains are scars on his arms and legs, particularly his left side. Today, he sees those scars as a triumph of health over injury.

“There’s a story behind my scars,” Kris says. “It’s a story of where I was, what I went through, and where I’ve come to be. It’s very humbling.”

But the days and months since Feb. 8, 2016, have been harder than even Kris likes to acknowledge. On that chilly night, Kris, then 21 and seven months into his new career as a law enforcement officer, hosted a post-Super Bowl bonfire. As he and several friends sat around the fire, he noticed the gas can used to start it was too close. When Kris picked it up to move it, the gas can exploded, engulfing him in fire.

Liz, his then-girlfriend, ripped off her jacket and smothered the flames. That spared Kris’ face from being burned—and possibly his life.

“The severity of the situation did not sink in right away,” Kris recalls. “I thought I might miss one or two days of work. I wasn’t in bad pain at first, but that’s probably because adrenaline had kicked in. I felt hot at first, and then I started feeling cold because my skin was dying and skin regulates temperature. That’s when the pain started kicking in.”

And rarely did the pain let up while he was a patient for three months at University of Florida Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Doctors initially gave him a 50 percent chance to live because Kris had suffered third-degree burns on 57 percent of his body and second-degree burns on 13 percent of his body. Day after day, he lay in the same bed, watched the same television shows, and stared at the same walls.

“I was constantly in pain during my hospitalization, but doctors couldn’t give me an adequate amount of pain medication to comfort me because it would have lowered my blood pressure and made my vital signs abnormal,” Kris says.

The road to recovery was more like a highway to hell. There were the painful sessions of unrelenting pressure to break up scar tissue bands that stretched his skin. However, that paled in comparison to the grueling two-hour showers where he lied flat on a stainless steel table and endured warm water falling on his raw skin. Nurses scrubbed him from head to toe to prevent infection.

“Sometimes I was showered twice a day, and I’d go back to my hospital bed and pass out because I was physically exhausted,” Kris says. “And before the shower, they would take my bandages off, and any scabs attached to my skin were ripped open. If torture was legal, that would be the way to do it because that was the worst pain I ever felt in my life.”

The emotional pain was equally relentless. When he first looked into a mirror halfway through his hospital stay, he saw a completely different person staring back. The young man who once logged the fastest running time on the police activity course, religiously worked out in gyms, and was an avid outdoorsman looked like a shell of his former self.

“I was still wrapped in bandages and could not see my burnt skin,” Kris recalls. “Yet, I looked weak, tired, and skinny. I was sad because I felt like I was looking at a complete stranger. The muscles in my legs had atrophied because walking was excruciating. That’s because whenever I tried to walk, the scabs on my leg would pull funny on the skin.”

Doubt began creeping in whether his life would return to some semblance of normalcy. However, an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike provided much-needed incentive to continue fighting.

Jack Kruse, Kris’ father and also an officer with the Clermont Police Department, posted daily updates on Facebook about his son’s recovery. Eventually, Jack amassed an army of faithful followers. Within an hour of posting, thousands of well-wishers across the world wrote encouraging comments to Kris. They also sent him gifts, cards, and letters.

“When you have both friends and total strangers rooting for you to pull through, you feel inspired and motivated to continue fighting to the best of your ability,” Kris says. “I knew that I’d have to keep pushing through the pain to get to my new normal.”

Kris returned to his Groveland home two days before his birthday. He received in-home physical and occupational therapy. Therapists helped him regain mobility in his left arm, which he could barely move because of excessive bands of scar tissue. He also began walking to regain leg strength and balance.

Five months of intensive therapy proved invaluable. In October 2016, Kris proudly donned his uniform and returned to work on light duty.

“That was the best feeling in the world. I had spent eight months being stuck in the hospital or at home. It was so great to experience some sense of normalcy and independence again.”

On Feb. 8, 2017, exactly one year after his accident, Kris returned to road patrol. Another milestone happened in March 2018 when he married Liz, who had faithfully stood by his side throughout his lengthy recovery process.

Today, Kris has resumed many activities that he previously enjoyed: hunting, camping, shooting, fixing trucks, and riding in the woods. But there are daily reminders of the accident. He has not regained full grip strength in his right hand, and some of his movement is still restricted due to excessive scar tissue on his skin. In addition, he cannot cool off naturally because 60 percent of his body’s sweat glands were destroyed, forcing him to work night shifts and lather himself in sunscreen when going outside during the day.

“This is my new normal, and I’ve learned how to adapt,” he says. “I have learned a lot about myself and realize what I’m capable of in the face of adversity. I could’ve been killed, but God gave me the opportunity to live. I have to make the most of it.”

Out of the flames of hell rose a man with a story that can motivate others to persevere through difficult times.

Photo: Anthony Rao Photoshop: Josh Clark

Patrick Rader has overcome a traumatic brain injury and now leads a productive life.

For Lake-Sumter State College professor Patrick Rader, life as he knew it changed in a flash. His most precious memories, his sense of self, and his accumulated knowledge vaporized in an instant. Years of fine-tuning his personality, skills, and flaws were suddenly gone.

On a warm night in June 1999, the 30-year-old carefree man sucked down a few beers at a Colorado Rockies baseball game and several hours later enjoyed a few more rounds at a friend’s bar. Next came the worst decision of his life.

He hopped on his motorcycle, sped through a stop sign, and collided with a F-150 truck. After awaking in the hospital, he had no memory of the accident—or of his previous life.

Patrick became a devastating statistic, one of an estimated 1.5 million Americans who suffer a traumatic brain injury each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The accident also left his brachial artery severed and his right arm separated from his body.

“I crashed two blocks from Denver General Hospital,” says Patrick, a 1987 graduate of Eustis High School who now resides in Mount Dora. “If it had been four blocks, I wouldn’t have made it. My mom said that when she came to the hospital, the only part of my body that wasn’t bruised or scabbed was my hand.”

Patrick, now 49, has spent nearly 20 years pushing against his physical limitations to overcome the bone-breaking, brain-clouding accident. He has endured nine surgeries, including one where doctors took muscles from his abs to rebuild his leg, and years of physical and occupational therapy. He also had to relearn how to read and write.

And with little memory of his past—Patrick did not know he was going through a divorce at the time of his accident—he endured the mental anguish of rediscovering who he was in his previous life.

Through research and conversations with family members and friends, he pieced some things together. He was president of his senior class and editor of the yearbook at Eustis High School and a fraternity brother at the University of Florida, where he often was assigned kitchen duty for being mischievous. At age 8, he and his sister attended a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert and received backstage passes because his sister told event organizers that Patrick had leukemia.

“How many people go back and investigate 30 years of their lives?” he asks. “Finding out about myself was disconcerting because I didn’t know that person I was before. There are some things that guy did that I wouldn’t do now. When I share my past, sometimes I think they are real memories, and then other times I think I probably heard them from a story someone told me.”

For Patrick, memory loss and pain have been constant companions since the accident. As the day progresses, so do his body aches.

“Imagine twisting your ankle, banging your knee on a dresser, then cracking your collarbone on the corner of the same dresser all at once,” he says. “That’s how I start each morning. Then it gets worse from there.”

But along his journey to recovery, Patrick stopped framing memory loss and pain as the enemies and something to be vilified and defeated. While the circumstances of his life shifted well beyond anything he could have imagined, he never lost hope—or his cheerful, funny personality.

Patrick pursued new passions, which provided motivation during the recovery process. In 2007, he earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Central Florida and became an English professor at Lake-Sumter State College. Students enjoy his energetic teaching style. “After the accident, I had complete strangers go above and beyond for me when I was recovering,” he says. “I figured the best way I could pay those wonderful people back is to become a professor and inspire young people to learn.”

Outside the classroom, he has spent weekends umpiring Little League baseball games, playing 18 rounds of disc golf at local courses, and serving as a guest speaker at chronic pain and pain management support groups. He also loves playing “Spiderman” on PlayStation 4.

“In the past four years, I’ve seen more amazing narratives in video games than I have in movies,” he says. “I cry at the end of ‘Spiderman’ because Aunt May dies. Seriously, though, I find things to immerse myself in, and that helps distract me from the pain. If you’re going to be in pain anyway, why not be in pain and be productive?”

Participating in those activities is impressive, especially considering many chronic pain patients have little life outside of visits to a doctor’s office or a pharmaceutical store. What’s more inspiring is that Patrick has not swallowed a pain pill in 19 years.

“After my injury, I was taking opioids and it hurt more to poop than to be in pain,” he says. “That’s the main reason I wanted off them, but I’m glad that I am not putting chemicals into my body. When I talk to chronic pain groups, the people are 20 years younger than me but look 20 years older. Those guys, in a sense, are already dead. I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things I have if I took pain pills all these years.”

He does find other ways to medicate when pain levels rise. There are the outings to local drinking holes such as Wolf Branch Brewing Company in Eustis, Mermaid Juice in Mount Dora, and Brü Tap House in Tavares. Additionally, having a state-issued medical marijuana card gives him the green light to vape cannabidiol oil (CBD), a compound found in marijuana plants.

“I could either stay at home and be in pain or hang out at the bar with a couple friends. The choice is easy. And after the second craft beer, I’m not feeling much pain at all,” he says while laughing.

He also loves spending time with his wife, Heather, a physical therapist whom he married in 2011. They met when he was a patient at her office.

“I heard him laugh when I was in another room, and I fell in love with his laugh before I met him,” Heather says. “You always get the truth with him, and he is a fun-loving guy with such a big heart.”

That happy-go-lucky attitude is a big reason why Patrick has thrived in the face of adversity. And despite his cloudy memory, here’s something Patrick should never forget: He has successfully gone head-to-head with a traumatic brain injury, becoming a source of determination, inspiration, and hope.

About the author

James Combs

Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County’s many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!

Leave a Comment