Teen burn victim takes recovery in stride

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Young men are known for getting banged up while living on the wild side. Nate Sheets might be their poster boy.

Scrapes, bruises and the occasional broken bone are par for the course when coming of age. But three years ago, Sheets endured something most people hope they never have to: severe burns. Then 12 years old, he was riding an ATV when he took off awkwardly from a jump and came down in a heap.

Sheets landed upside down with the machine on top of him. Worst of all, his left arm became wedged between the searing-hot oil cap and exhaust pipe. If not for his 14-year-old brother, who saw the accident and hauled the ATV off of him, it might have burned Sheets’ arm down to the bone.

He didn’t cry or scream out in pain. There was no pain, in fact, because the metal that left a half-inch-deep brand on his flesh also burned the nerves.

“He looked melted. I would say that’s a great way to put it,” says his mother, Brenda Walstrom, who received a texted photo and message asking if she wanted to meet at the emergency room.

Despite the turmoil that might have ensued, Sheets took the aftermath in stride, cheerily greeting the doctors charged with cleaning the gravel and dirt-filled wound. But he knew he was lucky.

Sheets hit his head, but did not suffer a concussion. He was wearing a helmet, something “everyone and their dog” asked him about following the crash, he says. He was also wearing goggles that caused a cut on his forehead and a black bruise on his eyelid. In typical adolescent fashion, he played up the injuries, telling stories of fending off a bear. Or when girls asked him, Sheets would say he “saved a bunch of kittens and babies from a burning building,” before revealing the real, less-flattering version of events.

Sheets, now 15, went through five casts, two skin grafts and countless compression sleeves, and the burns took more than a year to heal. His lengthy recovery was aided by The Children’s Hospital, which not only treated Sheets, but invited him to a camp for young burn victims run by the Cheley organization. It was there that he swapped stories with kids who suffered burns over as much as 90 percent of their bodies.

Sheets’ most recent trip was in late September to Washington, D.C., where he visited several national landmarks with 100 child burn victims from the U.S. and Canada. He received a special invitation from South Metro Fire Rescue Firefighter Lee Maulsby to attend the International Burn Camp, run by the International Association of Firefighters.

Of course, trouble seems to find Sheets, or vice versa. During a winter camp for burn victims in Steamboat Springs, he tried out the trick park on a snowboard. On the third jump, he broke his wrist on the same arm that was burned.

“It was the last day of camp at least,” says Sheets, who also admits to being back on an ATV within five months of the crash.

Walstrom calls her son a “glass-half-full kind of guy,” with a penchant for danger — and a high pain tolerance. On a separate occasion, he nearly ripped a finger off his left hand with a homemade can crusher. Sheets laughs when his mom suggests that his left arm might pop off and run away, Addams Family-style.

Her son has returned from the skate park with a massive knot on his forehead, and split his lip wide open twice. For all of his run-ins with the ground, Sheets shows no signs of disfigurement, with the exception of the third-degree burn scars on his arm. Walstrom might be slightly mentally scarred, as she is more hesitant to answer her phone these days for fear of what news she might receive.