Transplant Services Center tissue delivery saved life of 9/11 survivor

Future State Sen. Birdwell was Pentagon attack victim

October 2011

Shortly after American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the Transplant Services Center at UT Southwestern received an urgent request for skin grafts from The Burn Center at Washington Hospital Center.

Ellen Heck, founding director of the Transplant Services Center, quickly determined that the UT Southwestern facility had 70 square feet of skin available to send. She tried to arrange air transport, but all air traffic in the U.S. was grounded. Instead, UT Southwestern transplant technicians Matthew Harris and Eddie Perryman drove 1,300 miles to Washington D.C. to deliver the skin, preserved in dry ice, on Sept. 12.

Transplant Services Center
Texas State Sen. Brian Birdwell (left), Ellen Heck, founding director of the Transplant Services Center

“All of us at the center felt fortunate we could immediately do something to help the victims of these attacks,” Ms. Heck said. “It did not seem phenomenal, what we were doing. It was simply what we were expected to do. Getting the skin grafts ready, arranging transportation, all of those steps kept us focused on the needs of the Washington burn center. There was such a small window for the doctors to carry out surgeries on so many victims before infection set in. We had to get the grafts to them within 24 hours.”

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, elected in 2010, was a recipient of those skin grafts that UT Southwestern provided.  During a recent symposium, Disaster Triage & Treatment: A Decade of Experience, sponsored by the Transplant Services Center, he recounted the story of his recovery to an audience of emergency responders and medical personnel. 

The daylong event covered an array of topics including EMS protocols, fluid resuscitation, wound care, electrical injuries and disaster planning, Presenters included:

  • Dr. Paul Pepe, Chief of Emergency Medicine in Surgery;
  • Dr. Raymond Fowler, Professor of Emergency Medicine in Surgery, Associate Professor of Allied Health, Co-Chief of the Section on EMS, Disaster Medicine, and Homeland Security in Emergency Medicine;
  • Steven E. Wolf, Professor of Surgery;
  • Brett Arnoldo, Associate Professor of Burn/Trauma/Critical Care in Surgery;
  • Jose Sterling, Assistant Professor of Surgery;
  • Dr. Basil A. Pruitt Jr., Col., U.S. Army, Retired, former Commander/Director of the U.S. Army Institute for Surgical Research and Professor of Surgery at UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Ten years ago, Sen. Birdwell, then Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army serving at the Pentagon, went to the restroom around 9:30 a.m., after the first two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York. Minutes later, Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, a mere 20 yards away. Col. Birdwell’s body was engulfed in flames. As he was transported to the Georgetown University Hospital emergency room, he made two requests.

“I realized that what I said and did right then might be my last words and my last actions,” the senator recalled. “First, I saw Maj. John Collision, one of the men who helped get me to the hospital. I called him over and requested that he remove my wedding ring. The burns were so bad on my hands that the nurse had to do this. I said, ‘Make sure that my wife, Mel, gets this ring.’ He assured me he would. Then I asked him to tell Mel that I always loved her. I am a Christian, so the second thing I did was to pray with Chaplain Linda Cirillo, acknowledging the Lord’s sovereignty and command of my life and eternity.” 

He would undergo 30 surgeries, skin grafts and burn treatments to repair the third-degree burns that covered 60 percent of his body. With his wife Mel, he went on to write a book, Refined by Fire: A Family’s Triumph of Love and Faith, about his recovery and to establish the Face the Fire ministry, which has provided financial gifts totaling more than $250,000 to hospital burn centers, burn survivors and their families, and wounded servicemen and women.

“To see what Sen. Birdwell has accomplished over the last ten years; it means a lot to the center to know our actions played a part in his recovery,” Ms. Heck said. “Without the donation of skin that outcome would not have been possible. I am grateful to the donor families who ensured we could meet that desperate request on September 11. Tissue donation was important then, as it is now, although we hope to never have to respond to another situation like that again.”