Nearly a year after his stay in the hospital, Brent Harris is still writing thank-you notes to his supporters.


    Nearly a year after his stay in the hospital, Brent Harris is still writing thank-you notes to his supporters.
    Harris was seriously burned last year in a freak accident during Boot Hill Museum's Bull Fry and Bash, one of the opening events of Dodge City Days. He spent 10 days in the intensive care unit of Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis campus in Wichita, followed by two months of recovery at home in Dodge.
    The man known as "The Face of Dodge City" received 300 get-well cards while he was in the hospital, and people flooded the hospital's switchboard with calls seeking information about his condition.
    The notion that people cared about Harris' health was the most important lesson of his recovery, he said Wednesday.
    "Probably what I've learned most from this is the kindness of the fellow man," he said. "I had no idea people cared."
    Harris' sister-in-law, Jan Stevens, said his well-wishers played a key role in his recovery.
    "I think Brent had a lot of people in this community that prayed for him, were thinking of him," she said. "And I think if it hadn't been for that, things might have turned out a little different for him."

Flash fire
    Some people who suffered severe injuries might try to block the memory from their minds. But Harris recalls nearly every detail of the night he was hurt.
    Boot Hill staffers were preparing food in the 12 turkey fryers that Harris had built, and the oil in the cookers had expanded due to the heat. Harris needed to pour off a little of the oil to make cooking easier. Harris poured off the excess oil in the first eight cookers without a problem, but the oil in the ninth cooker caused a flash fire that seared Harris' face.
    "It was basically like standing in front of a jet engine," he said. "The flame was three feet in diameter, 15 feet in the air. And there it was."
    He said no one was to blame for the accident.
    Harris swung around and placed the cooker on the ground, then backed away and tried to put out the fire in his hair and mustache. As he tore his T-shirt off, he heard someone say, "Quick, hose him down with the fire hose!"
    Harris didn't think that was a good idea, but he was busy looking for a spot where he could drop to the ground and roll over to put out the flames. So he walked away in hopes of circling around and turning off the hose — but somebody stopped him.
    Harris said his survival instinct and andrenaline kicked in at that point, which helped him focus on putting out the fire.
    "I'm the maintenance guy here,"  he said. "I have a compulsion to fix things. At that time, I was broke. And it was simply instinct to try to fix me."
    Harris didn't realize it at first, but he had suffered second- and third-degree burns to his face, neck and arms. He was rushed to Western Plains Medical Complex for treatment, then flown to Via Christi.
    Stevens was attending a meeting that night and arrived at Boot Hill shortly after the fire. She saw an ambulance outside the museum, but she didn't realize her brother-in-law was injured.
    When Stevens learned that Harris was hurt, she left the museum and called her sister, who accompanied Harris on the flight to Wichita. Then Stevens headed to Wichita to be with her family.
    Stevens said she was taken aback when she saw her brother--in-law in the Wichita hospital.
    "It was just shocking to see him," she said. "He didn't look like the same person."
    The next day, Stevens spoke to an EMT who told her that he originally doubted Harris would survive — mainly because the medical crew had trouble establishing an airway. "He said, 'I said to myself, 'Don't let him die in this ambulance,'" Stevens said. "Then they got him to the hospital, and he said, 'Don't let him die in the hospital.' Then when he was in the air, 'Don't let him die in the air.' It was that critical."

Recovery
    Harris spent 10 days in the Wichita hospital, then returned home to begin recuperating from his injuries with his wife's help. A team of physical therapists helped Harris begin the hard work of recovery.
    The therapists told Harris to walk as often as possible, but he was not allowed to go out in the sun. He started walking in the evenings, but that didn't work either — so he stopped.
    Instead, Harris spent most of his recovery resting and writing thank-yous to the people who had sent him cards.
    Harris recovered faster than anyone expected, and he was back at work at Boot Hill within 60 days.
    Today, it's difficult to see where the fire left its mark on Harris. His face has  only a few scars, and his famous mustache has grown back.
    There are a few subtle signs, however. For instance, Harris wears long-sleeved shirts to protect his skin from the sun, and he has to see the doctor for checkups on a regular basis.
    Harris said several people, including his wife and his therapists, helped him recover from his injuries. But his faith in God, combined with his supporters in Dodge City, also played key roles in his recovery.
    "A huge share of it to this community and the churches all over the state of Kansas — and the people of Dodge City," he said. "That's the big part of it."

    Reach Eric Swanson at (620) 408-9917 or email him at eric.swanson@dodgeglobe.com.