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A Singular Vision: The Founding of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, Part 2

Part 2 of 2: With ‘persistence, commitment, passion and irrepressibility,’ Johnny Stackhouse sees it through. Part 1 of 2 can be reached here.

By Taylor Sisk

In 1970 a man named Powell from the Medical Foundation of North Carolina came to visit Johnny Stackhouse at his business, asking if he would like to join the foundation for $1,000.

Stackhouse told him that he wasn’t interested in joining but that he’d give him a check for $10,000 if the foundation would help him build a burn center – a mission Stackhouse had been pursuing for several years.

“Oh, we’ve got one,” the man told him, as Stackhouse recently recalled. “No,” said Stackhouse, “you don’t. “Well,” the man said, “if we don’t, we’ll start one.”

Burn Center Jelly Week program cover, 1974.

Burn Center Jelly Week program cover, 1975.

But it wasn’t quite so easy. Long story short, a meeting was set up with some of the UNC hospital administration, including Chair of the Department of Surgery Colin G. “Tim” Thomas, at a restaurant in Chapel Hill.

“Where’s the money going to come from?” Stackhouse recalled Thomas asking. “I said, ‘I’m going to raise the money.’ He said, ‘We’ll get involved in this thing and then we won’t see you again.’

“That’s the worst diagnosis he ever made,” Stackhouse said of Thomas, “because he never could get rid of me.”

After much back and forth and back again, over the course of some months, an agreement was reached for Stackhouse to pledge $40,000 of his own money with the understanding that the medical foundation would endorse his efforts to raise a couple of million, or whatever it would take to launch a burn center.

That was the start of it. The effort was now in full swing.

“Talk about praying,” Stackhouse said. “I really went to my knees about this thing.”

The state legislature appropriated $1.5 million. The board of the Rural Electric Association matched Stackhouse’s $40,000, and in 1973 he approached the Goldsboro Jaycees about coming on board. They were attracted to the idea, and said they thought they might be able to raise ten or fifteen thousand dollars.

“Boys, I tell you what let’s do,” Stackhouse said. “Let’s raise a million dollars, and name it the Jaycee Burn Center.”

“They vamoosed,” Stackhouse said.

In truth, the Jaycees liked the idea. John Strickland was at that meeting, and was immediately impressed.

“It was clear that he not only was interested in taking care of the burns, but that he understood the aftercare for these people who had been burned, the impact it had on their families and how he could best assist them in returning to a normal life,” said Strickland, a longtime member of the burn center’s board of directors.

Stackhouse never allowed his vision to fade.

Stackhouse never allowed his vision to fade. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk.

“He had a vision, and he drew us to it,” he said.

The Goldsboro Jaycees devised a plan to sell jelly; the statewide organization then adopted the idea, and the first Jaycee Jelly Week was held in January 1974. Jars sold for a dollar – Stackhouse bought the first one for $10,000 – and nearly $150,000 was raised that first year.

With Emory Hunt of the medical foundation in tow, Stackhouse was now barnstorming the state, by car or aboard one of his Pipers. “I wore out three airplanes trying to get that burn center off the ground, hauling Emory Hunt around,” he said.

They’d arrive in a town, get on a pay phone and drop in on anybody who’d let them in the door.

The Beta Sigma Phi sorority rallied early to the cause. The Junior League in Rocky Mount got involved, and the Sweet Adelines a cappella singing group in Charlotte raised quite a bit of money as well.

Meanwhile, Stackhouse was educating himself on the operation of a burn center.

He went to Galveston, Texas and met with the staff of the Shriners’ burn center there. He tells of walking around the hospital, asking everyone questions, when the head surgeon came out of an operating room and said, “‘Come into my office; I want to talk with you.’ I said, ‘Who’s in charge of this place? I’ve met every shavetail you’ve got here.’ And he said, ‘Well, I thought I was until you showed up.’”

“He was always out there, going to other hospitals, asking questions, people asking, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Wes Googe, current chair of the burn center board and former president of the N.C. Jaycees. “He wasn’t turning loose of it.”

“This was not just philanthropy for him,” Strickland said. “He’s one of the most spiritually focused and spiritually directed people I’ve ever been around. He just had a sincere calling to make a difference. He saw the need, he focused on it, and he got a lot of support because it was so sincere.”

“Johnny took it upon himself to go out on a limb to try to create this program against a tremendous amount of odds,” Googe said. “More people, I’m sure, were betting against him than were betting on him.”

“He had an undying commitment that this burn center would be built,” said Bruce Cairns, the center’s medical director and the John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery. “And the more he was told no, the greater that commitment became.”

“Johnny certainly made his case very well,” Googe said.

Ground was broken for the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center on Jan. 15, 1977; the center opened on Feb. 23, 1981.

“With his persistence, commitment, passion and irrepressibility, Mr. Stackhouse was the driving force behind the effort,” said the late Christopher Fordham, dean of the UNC School of Medicine at the time and later chancellor of the university.

But also in the mix was sound business smarts. Stackhouse knew that a rock-solid foundation would be required to maintain the burn center as a world-class facility.

It was agreed that any funds the Jaycees raised would be held in perpetuity, with the interest from that money being spent only at the instruction of the director of the burn center with the approval of the dean of the medical school.

Hands-on

Equally important, Stackhouse insisted, was an active board of directors.

“He understood, as a business owner, that in dealing with large companies you’re at the whim of individuals, and if they choose to go in a different direction, they take the company with them,” Googe said. “By doing it grassroots, you keep your program and concept in front of the public forever.

“In that regard, he was extremely wise. And I think that speaks to why the board is so active: He wanted to put activists on it, people who would be committed beyond a board meeting.”

The board is tasked to view the treatment of burns from a patient-centered perspective. Burn survivors often speak of their “journey,” and Stackhouse has always seemed to get that – an understanding that there’s much more involved than surgeries and bedside care.

He tells the story of a tenant farmer from near Newton Grove who’d been released from the burn center. Stackhouse went out to check on the man, and found that he’d been wholly unprepared for his return home. The man was taken back to the center.

“So I wanted this follow-up business,” Stackhouse said, “to follow these patients and find out what was happening to them and what we could do for them to improve their situation.”

The Jaycee Burn Center board has been infused with an understanding of the scope of comprehensive care. In its recent recertification by the American Burn Association and American College of Surgeons, the center was called one of the most comprehensive burn centers in the world.

That requires a multidisciplinary approach to care, an approach that medicine in general is moving toward, but that, Cairns said, the burn center has been practicing for 30 years.

“What does it mean to provide the best possible burn care?” Cairns said.

“Well, the best way to treat a burn is to prevent it. So what it first means is that we need to be actively involved in prevention programs. It then means that we need to develop the newest and best treatments. It means that when a burn isn’t survivable, we provide acute hospice. It means that if you’re a child-abuse patient, we have to make sure we provide you with all the support you need.”

It means educating everyone involved, those who will be supporting burn survivors when they return to their communities, and the communities as a whole.

And, again, always with a focus on the patient, Cairns said, “which means we have to constantly reinvent what it means to take care of these people, because we have to listen and learn from them.

“Anything and everything that’s necessary, we have to provide.”

That means occupational and physical therapy. It means stress and relaxation management, psychosocial counseling, social-skills adjustment, discharge planning, preparation for reintegration into the community – whatever may be needed to make a successful transition back to one’s life.

The Jaycee Burn Center runs Camp Celebrate, the oldest pediatric burn-survivor camp in the country, welcoming children and adolescents from across North Carolina and surrounding states to a weekend gathering with those who have had similar experiences.

The UNC Burn Reconstruction & Aesthetic Center provides state-of-the art cosmetic surgery, non-surgical rejuvenation and aesthetic laser treatments.

The center’s Burn Prevention Program offers information to nonprofessional, paraprofessional and professional groups throughout the state free of charge. The burn center’s outreach staff also distributes safety tips and works to pass legislative initiatives to promote fire safety.

The burn center’s mortality rate of 2 percent is impressive. But that “journey” is a lifelong one for many survivors; it’s more arduous for some than others. “We have a lifelong commitment to our patients,” Cairns said.

A ‘birthmark’

“Some of the images you are about to see are graphic” is a warning offered at the beginning of a video about a young girl’s journey through the trauma of a terrible burn and her experience with the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center. So many burn survivors live each day with those words.

But one former burn center patient has described her scar as a “birthmark,” testament to the fact that she’s still here.

Likewise, Oyoana Allende, a former Marine who was badly burned in a suicide attack in Iraq, said the experience “can be your death certificate, or it can be your birth certificate.”

She understands the role the support she received through the burn center’s aftercare program has played in how she came to view her fate; she now volunteers in the center’s Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery, or SOAR, program – peer to peer, fully in the spirit of a people’s institution.

In a recent ceremony in which Cairns was presented with the Edward Kidder Graham Award for outstanding service to the university, Joe Farrell, secretary of the faculty, said: “The burn center is truly one of Carolina’s priceless gems, a comprehensive unit founded to provide a needed service to help make the campus coextensive with the boundaries of the state, as envisioned by President [Frank Porter] Graham so long ago.”

For the people, by the people, just as Johnny Stackhouse thought it should be, and endeavored to make so.

“He’s a quiet person, and he has a heart of gold,” Googe said. “But he has a very firm command of where he wants to go and what he wants to do, and he has a very gentle way of getting you to do it, and feeling good about doing it.”

“He knew what would happen if he let it go,” Cairns said, “and I don’t think he could have lived with himself. Because he knew the magnitude of the injury. He knew that people recoiled. And he said, ‘We’re not going to have that here. We’ll do it, and we’ll do it right, and we’ll create a system that is self-sustained and is able to grow.’”

And grow it does. The Jaycee Burn Center today trains Special Forces troops in burn care; it’s sending people to Malawi to provide education there.

It’s helped prepare Cruz Maria Santibanez of Clinton – 22 years old, survivor of a terrible gas fire when she was a junior in high school, graduating from UNC this spring with a degree in broadcast journalism – to plan her future, as she envisions it, in New York City as a news anchor and host of a talk show in which survivors of adversity will tell their stories.

George Washington Kenan is, at 100, the oldest living former burn center patient. He was injured badly in a dry cleaning accident at 74. He recently returned to Chapel Hill from his home in Wallace for a reunion of burn survivors to say thanks for what he was given.

“No matter how sick you are,” he said, “kindness will bring you on.”

Bruce Cairns quotes the French surgeon Ambroise Paré: “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.”

As Cairns has said, this burn center never was, never will be, an abstraction to Johnny Stackhouse; he likes to talk about people.

“The long reach of Johnny Stackhouse extends to this day,” Cairns avowed, many stories yet to be told.

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