1998 bus fire leads burn nurse to career as burn surgeon

1998 bus fire leads burn nurse to career as burn surgeon

MADISON, Wis. - When a mentally ill man walked onto a Metro bus in April of 1998 with a bucket of gasoline, dumped it on passengers and set them on fire it changed many lives.

For the five passengers and the bus driver it meant months of critical care in the burn unit at UW Hospital.

For 22-year-old Angela Gibson, who was only a few months removed from nursing school and working that night in the burn unit, it shaped her entire career.

"It was chaos. We had every nurse possible that knew how to take care of burns on our unit trying to get through that initial resuscitation phase for the burn patients," Gibson said.

She was assigned to care for 29-year-old Eric Nelson and 24-year-old Heather Gallagher, who were engaged to be married at the time of the fire. The couple was sitting together on the bus when Salim Amara poured gasoline on them and set them on fire. Nelson suffered burns on 93 percent of his body and Gallagher was burned over 86 percent of her body.

As she worked every day to help save the lives of the couple, Gibson's life became linked to theirs and all of the painful moments that came with it.

"It was definitely a difficult time to where I had to rely on my husband quite a bit when I'd come home and just debrief with him basically and go through the things that I was seeing and the things I was dealing with," Gibson said.

Of the seven people brought to the UW Hospital burn unit following the bus fire, Eric Nelson's injuries were the most severe and life-threatening.

"He was doing really poorly. We thought we were going to lose him and we brought his fiancée down to say goodbye and that was really tough," Gibson said.

Nelson survived that day and the next day. Eventually he progressed to the point where he and Heather could go home. When they did, it gave them the chance to renew their plans to get married. But given the close relationship they had developed with Gibson they decided to move forward in life with the person who had helped them get to that point.

They asked Angela to be a bridesmaid.

"For us to be able to get all of the occupants of the bus through their hospital stay and to see something as joyful as a wedding, there just are not a whole lot of words that can be said," Gibson said.

The experience changed Gibson. She had watched burn surgeons save the lives of the victims of the bus fire and it made her realize that was what she wanted to do. To go back to medical school to complete the training to become a burn surgeon would take more than a decade. It would be a long time and even longer odds.

"I was told by many people that I couldn't do it. Why would I want to do that? It was going to be forever long training, that I was a female and that I wouldn't be able to. When was I going to have my kids? I mean it was pretty amazing all of the nay sayers," Gibson said.

She put that skepticism aside and spent the next 16 years training to become a burn surgeon. She not only proved the skeptics wrong by completing that training, but she also started a family and had two children along the way.

"I can't believe I'm where I am and that it all worked out," Gibson said.

Her life and that of the burn patients she works with were shaped by a bus fire 18 years ago.

"I really don't think I would be here if that wouldn't have happened," Gibson said.

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