The first words out of Rod Hessler’s mouth were simple, but they rang remarkably true, considering what he’s been through since February.
“Things are going well,” he said from his Billings home on Monday afternoon.
On Feb. 28, Hessler was welding at his business, Al’s Body Shop, at 1221 Terry Ave., when, for reasons that still aren’t completely clear, a fire broke out. He ended up with burns on 40 percent of his body — 30 percent of those were third-degree burns — and was flown to a Colorado burn unit in critical condition.
Hessler spent three months recovering at the Univeristy of Colorado Hospital burn unit and underwent 11 surgeries, but to see him now, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that just eight months ago he suffered near-fatal burn injuries.
“I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in,” he said.
His left arm and hand are dotted with scar tissue and still smooth and pink after receiving grafts of skin taken from his right thigh. The fire burned both of his legs up to the buttocks. Much of the skin on the outside of his lower left leg was burned, leaving a pair of raw tendons exposed, but that skin is growing back on its own.
There was plenty of nerve damage, but he’s regaining feeling in the scarred areas — he said he can poke one side of his left knee and feel it near his shin — and mostly has a full range of motion in his limbs. He wears a compression sleeve on his left arm and compression tights on his legs, mostly to smooth out and help shape the new skin.
The fire started as Hessler welded a mount, but he still doesn’t know exactly what happened, and the Billings Fire Department declared the fire accidental.
“I saw a flicker out of the corner of my eye and turned and saw a wall of flame, probably three or five feet high,” Hessler said.
He first tried to go out the back door but decided to turn around over fears he’d be trapped in the back if the building came down. At that point, he looked down and saw that his pants were on fire and stopped, dropped and rolled to smother the flames.
After trying to leave through the office door, Hessler retrieved his keys and managed to open one of the front doors and go out the front of the building.
Things get a little blurry at that point for him, but he remembers a City of Billings employee — with a first name of Ed and who works for the water department — helped him across the street and told him to lay down in the grass and wait for help.
He noticed his left hand was badly burned, covered in “black, crusted skin about an inch higher than it should’ve been.”
Police called Hessler’s wife, Cindy, at her job at Rocky Mountain College, and she was there within 10 minutes. An ambulance took Hessler to a Billings hospital trauma center and it wasn’t long before he was off to the burn center in Aurora, Colo.
“It didn’t take them long to fly me out of here,” Hessler said. “The 911 call came in before 11:30 and I was landing in Aurora by 2:30 that afternoon.”
He ended up staying there until May 31. Cindy Hessler was by his side from the time he was loaded into the ambulance in front of the shop to the days and weeks of recovery.
The only time she left was one Friday in May to come to Billings and attend a benefit set up to help the couple cover some of the costs of the extended Colorado stay, and she returned the next day.
“She was with me for three months,” Hessler said. “To have her by my side for that long like that, that was something.”
Hessler credits his remarkable recovery, both at the burn unit and now back in Billings, to a few factors. First, his wife’s dedication to staying by his side, followed by prayer, God, and an upbeat attitude.
“My attitude,” he said. “I tried to keep upbeat. I tried to keep a smile on my face all of the time.”
Hessler is active in several groups in Billings, including the Breakfast Exchange Club and the Billings Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy Alumni Association and is a clown with the Shriners.
While he was recovering, friends from those groups worked to raise money to help the Hesslers cover costs that his insurance wouldn’t.
“It was well above everybody’s expectations, for the effort and the money and the people that showed up,” he said.
Upon returning to Billings, Hessler initially needed help from an in-home nurse to help dress and clean his wounds, as well as physical therapy three times a week.
Now, he has regular doctor’s appointments and stretches daily. He can’t go back to work yet, as doctors have said he’s classified as fully disabled until next February, and isn’t sure what he’ll do when he can, although he’s looking forward to that day.
“I’m getting pretty antsy to do something,” Hessler said.
After the fire, he leveled Al’s Body Shop due to the damage. It’s now a dirt and gravel lot surrounded by a chain link fence. Hessler changed the businesses name to Al’s Auto Storage, because the property is zoned for an automotive business, and the lot is filled with numerous vehicles.
Hessler said he may put together a resume and send it off to insurance companies in an effort to become an adjustor since he’s worked with cars for most of his life.
Or, in a completely different direction, he’s toying with the idea of going back to school and becoming a massage therapist.
But with the possibility of work still months out, he said he’ll just focus on getting stronger and healthier again.
“I’ve pretty much been through hell and back,” Hessler said. “I want to try to get as much of my strength back as I can.”
At a May 17 fundraiser, organizers met a couple who didn’t know the Hesslers at all. They said that they pick a handful of such events each year and attend, just to help.
“It’s a chance to give back,” Rod Hessler said. “Maybe they gave to help me, maybe they didn’t. But it’s something we want to do now and we’ll pick out two or three each year.”