Zack Wilkins sits in his living room with his family showing off his scars. Photo by Nikia Washington

By Nikia Washington

Like any average pre-teenage boy would be, Zack Wilkins is quieted by a game on his mother’s tablet for most of the ride to Cincinnati. Occasionally, he is heard asking his mother a question, or chatting with his grandmother who is sitting a row up from him, but for the majority of the trip he is silent. A stranger would guess nerves kept the 14-year-old in a hushed state, as he is the sole reason for the three hour ride to the  Shriners Hospital for Children. However, worries of the day’s events are the furthest thing from Zack’s mind. Its 9 a.m. in the morning and Zack is simply tired.

Stepping out of the van doors, and into the hospital lobby, the energetic, talkative Zack is now fully alert. He is joking and smiling as he strides nonchalantly into the treatment center – a silent insult to the other children who fear entering this building.

Just a year and half ago Zack could relate to those kids. Being recently traumatized by the event that would change his life, this would have been the last place he wanted to be.


In July of 2010, Zack and a younger cousin attempted to construct a bonfire in their grandmother’s backyard.

“It just felt really hot and I thought I was too close,” said Zack. Moments after feeling the heat, his cousin pointed out his pants had caught fire.

In the next minute and thirty seconds the two boys attempted to put out the fire by hand and water – neither were successful as the fire fought back. Zack eventually ran into the house and hopped in the tub, as instructed by his panicked grandmother, seizing the flames.

“With older kids, you’ll see misusing of gasoline or campfires” said Louise Hoelker, Shriners Director of Volunteers and Public Affaris. “Especially with boys.”

Zack believes gas from the can he used to ignite the bonfire dripped onto his pants, allowing the flame to catch easily.

“[Firefighters] said if I was on fire for any longer, it would have been to the bone,” Zack said. After an ambulance ride to Tiffin Hospital and a life flight to Toledo St. Vincent’s, Zack and his family were informed he had severe third degree burns.

“Burns severity is measured by how long a person is on fire,” said Tresa Wilkins, Zack’s mother. “Anything after a minute is usually third degree.”

Zack’s parents were not present at the scene of their sons injury, but arrived at the hospital soon after. Steve Wilkins, Zack’s father who instantly booked a flight back home from a North Carolina business trip upon hearing the news, said he didn’t know what to expect.


“It was rough,” he said, of when he finally reached Zack. “Seeing him all bandaged up was hard.”

Tresa, who arrived first at Tiffin Hospital and then had to travel to Toledo after Zack was life flighted, waited hours to know the severity of her son’s injuries.

“The nurse said ‘It’s bad, that’s all burnt skin,” she said, recalling the first time she saw Zack after the fire. His legs were under a thin white blanket and Tresa could make out the black skin underneath.

“If it’s first or second degree it will heal on its own,” said Hoelker. “If it’s third degree it won’t.  Eventually they need to take [the dead skin] off and put good skin on.”

Zack Wilkins' right leg received the most of the burn during the bonfire accident. Scars from the skin grafts starting mid calf and extend to his upper thigh. Photo by Nikia Washington.

Zack’s skin grafts took place soon after his arrival to the hospital. He still grimaces at the thought of the procedure.

“They said all they were going to do is take skin from my left leg and move it over to the burns,” he said. He remembers complying with a simple ‘O.K.,’ naïve of the intensity of the surgery.

“I didn’t know how bad it was going to hurt.”

Days, weeks, and months after that first surgery, frequent occurrences which would leave painful memories flooded Zack’s healing process.

“I lost my voice in the hospital from a lot from screaming,” Zack said, with the sense of accomplishment a boy his age would use when announcing he caught his first fish or scored his first touchdown.

Tresa, much less enthusiastic about the traumatic experiences, vividly remembers Zack being extremely vocal during his first shower where nurses scraped off the dead skin.

“That was one of the times where we had to walk out and leave him with the nurses,” she said. Seeing him in that amount of pain was unbearable.

Steve said Zack would calm down when he and Teresa were not around. Zack responded that whenever they left the room he felt like there was no point in screaming – there was no longer anyone there to save him.

Due to the severity of his injuries, Zack was rehabilitated during his initial three week hospital stay, and following his release. One of the skills he had to relearn was how to walk.

“The first time they sent him out to walk around the ward he almost collapsed,” Steve said.

Zack’s burns wrapped around his right knee, an area that is commonly known as one of the most difficult burn areas to heal and one of the most painful.

Occurrence likes these defined Zack’s life for at least a year after the bonfire accident; his rambunctious personality was affected as well. Zack’s younger sisters, Cheyenne, 12, and Madison, 10, would normally describe Zack as playful, funny, sometimes annoying, and protective.

“He was a lot quieter and didn’t smile much anymore,” Madison said, reflecting on Zack’s first weeks back home.

Cheyenne agreed saying his sense of humor was not the same. The two girls, along with Zack’s older brother, Nick, helped out with Zack when they could, but did not like seeing their brother in so much pain. Zack said one of the worst parts of the healing was when his dressings had to be changed.

“I had never heard him scream like that,” Cheyenne said.

“We had to go next door and tell the neighbors we weren’t hurting him,” Steve said. “That’s how bad it was.”

When Zack returned to school from summer break, he was still undergoing the healing process, which also caused complications at school. Some teachers did not understand Zack had a temporary physical disability and that he could not participate in activities such as gym class. Others did not comply with restrictions that were made to assist his healing.

“His injury did distract him from learning,” Steve said. During the healing process, Zack missed several days of school for checkups and appointments. However, with after school tutoring, Zack stayed caught up with the curriculum.

Other than the academic struggles at school, students were aware something had changed Zack over summer break. He had to wear compression stockings everyday to keep his bandages in place and he was obviously receiving special treatment in classes. But when his friends or other classmate asked questions, Zack had no problem answering.

“They asked how painful was it and did I scream,” Zack said. He chuckled slightly when he said he responded, “Yeah, I screamed a lot!”

Zack was also comfortable showing his wounds to friends.

“Some of them thought it looked cool, some of them thought it look weird,” Zack said confidently. It’s evident none of his physical changes bother him.

Zack’s parents agreed that throughout this entire process Zack has been as positive as a kid can be for someone who has endured an experience of such magnitude. Last year, he was invited by Toledo St. Vincent’s Hospital to attend the National Burn Conference in Galveston, TX based on his optimistic outlook during his hospital stay. Zack and his mother enjoyed the all expense paid trip, where Zack met many celebrity burn survivors.

Zack Wilkins, and his younger sisters Cheyenne (left) and Madison (right) joke around in their family room while watching T.V. Photo by Nikia Washington

Still, a year and half after his accident, the healing process continues for Zack. He and his mother came to Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, a Verified Burn Unit by the American Burn Association, in hope of finding an alternative surgery for the skin behind his right knee which is not healing correctly.

After Zack’s appointment he sits down for lunch with his mother, grandmother, and a few gentlemen from the Zenobia Shriners, which support the funding of the hospital. While eating, Zack casually discusses the results from the consultation he had today and, somehow, the conversation gets on the topic of scars. He and his mother laugh about something his father told him – chicks dig scars.

Zack grins big.

“Well I’m gonna have a lot of chicks,” Zack says. “Because I have a lot of scars.”



Most burns that occur are preventable.

February 5- 12th, 2012 is National Burn Awareness Week.

Celebrate, Practice Fire Safety, and Raise Awareness.