When the fire swept over his body, Karson Coker was initially thinking first-degree burns and a trip to Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
“It wasn’t like I was standing there on fire,” he said.
But that changed quickly after first responders arrived Aug. 22 at Coker and wife Calah’s 100-acre White County farm where had been trying to burn brush.
Karson called 911 first, then Calah to tell her to start heading to the hospital.
“I knew it was bad for him to need an ambulance, but I didn’t know (at that time) it was quite that bad,” Calah said.
Karson said it felt like his “lips were gone, and I could see skin hanging off my arm,” but he otherwise thought he would be OK. His neighbor, who is with the White County Fire Department, had a different opinion: He told him he probably needed to be airlifted to Grady.
“The pain was pretty excruciating, but I had a lot of adrenaline too,” Karson said.
He suffered second- and third-degree burns and was flown by helicopter to the burn unit at Grady Memorial Hospital, which began a harrowing ordeal for Coker and his family.
“With the types of chemicals he was using, he is lucky to be alive,” Calah said during an interview with the couple Sept. 12 at her parents’ home in North Hall, just days after Karson was released from Grady. “He’s lucky he wasn’t 100 percent burned.”
Karson’s survival, from the fire but also complications following skin graft surgery, “truly is a miracle,” Calah said.
Karson, 26, was chipping trees on the property where the couple plans to open a wedding venue. To burn a big pile of brush, he used camping fuel instead of kerosene, which he couldn’t find at the store.
“It turns out it was more like … jet fuel and burns twice as hot as gas,” he said. “It just blew up like a flash around me.”
Calah’s sister, Aly, arrived at the scene to learn that Karson was being airlifted.
When Aly shared that detail with Calah by phone, “that’s when I freaked out,” Calah said. “I don’t remember getting from Cleveland to (her parents’ home).”
She drove with her father to Grady.
In the meantime, while waiting for the helicopter to arrive, Karson asked Aly to get checks out of his car to pay two guys who were working with him.
“He was more worried about paying them … than anything,” Calah said.
Karson was immediately sedated at Grady. Skin graft surgery began Aug. 24.
“He ended up having five blood transfusions during surgery, because he lost so much blood,” Calah said.
Initial reports after surgery were good.
But the next day, the family learned Karson had fluid in his lungs and had developed a staph infection. The following week was touch and go.
“We definitely had our moments where we thought we were going to lose him, too,” Calah said.
Karson is the brother of Keaton Coker, a Flowery Branch High student who died of cancer at age 18 in July 2014.
Karson’s ordeal “definitely took a toll on us, as far as already going through something that was so traumatic,” Calah said.
Released from the hospital on Sept. 7, the couple is staying at Calah’s parents’ home, where they’ll be while building a house on the White County farm.
And as Karson recovers, he still shows the signs of fire roughing up his body. He’s wearing a compression glove on his right hand and the pig skin that was used to dress his wounds is peeling away.
“He’s healed tremendously,” Calah said.
Calah said other good news is Medi-Share, a Christian-based form of health care coverage, will cover Karson’s medical costs, which could run as high as $500,000, except for a deductible that will be funded through a GoFundMe account that was set up for Karson.
Otherwise, the daily routine has been a bit challenging.
“It takes about an hour to change out all the bandages, take a shower and get everything clean,” Karson said.
“But it’s getting easier,” Calah added.
“Yeah, easier every day,” Karson said.