Working in the Bakersfield oilfields and not having a day off in over a month left Francisco Padilla exhausted. After finishing a 12-hour shift, he only drove a few miles before he nodded off on a late summer eve in 2012. What happened next changed his life forever.
“I fell asleep behind the wheel,” says Padilla of his accident. “So my car caught fire, so I was burned over 70% of my body, third degree burns, second, and first degree — mostly over my lower extremities.”
He also lost parts of his fingers on his badly damaged hands.
Padilla was rushed from Bakersfield to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno — the only comprehensive burn center and Level 1 Trauma Center between Los Angeles and Sacramento.
An ‘Ace’ in his corner during his toughest days
“I was in the hospital for like 10-and-a-half months due to these injuries,” Padilla says. “It was the toughest thing I've ever had to go through in my life. The pain I had to endure, the medications I was on weren’t helping any. I can't even explain how bad it was.”
Not only did Padilla have to endure treatment and procedures, but physical therapy was a big part of his rehabilitation.
Physical therapy is critical to a patient’s best outcome and starts at the very moment patients are admitted, says Burn Injury Prevention Specialist Shana Henry, RN.
“We are bedside doing range-of-motion exercises, stretching. Every day a patient is in the bed they experience muscle wasting,” Henry says. “So it's our goal to keep them at their proper mobility to ensure they don't lose strength.”
During those weeks and months, Padilla needed motivation to “push through the pain” of his injuries. His physical therapist “Ace” was a driving factor in his recovery — in more ways than one. He would soon be Padilla’s inspiration to transform his life.
“A lot of times he said, 'I can't do this, I can't do that' — I sensed I needed to drive him more,” says Ascencion “Ace” Santoyo, Padilla’s physical therapist in the Leon S. Peters Burn Center.
Padilla’s brother Fabian spent weeks at his bedside helping Santoyo persuade his brother to try harder. Years later, this experience with Santoyo would inspire Fabian to also go into healthcare.
“I can’t even use my phone. I can’t do anything like I did. I can’t even use my laptop,” Padilla told Santoyo.
But Santoyo wouldn’t give up and pushed Padilla at every session — and it worked.
“We motivated him by finding things he liked doing … he’s a football fan, he liked boxing, and we pushed him along to make him do things he was uncomfortable doing,” Santoyo says.
Because of this reassurance over months from Santoyo, Padilla started improving and thinking more positive — and he started watching Santoyo work with other patients.
Inspired to follow in the footsteps of his physical therapist
Inspired by Santoyo, an idea took shape in Padilla’s thoughts: maybe he could be like Santoyo. But he didn’t know where to start.
“I didn’t finish high school. I’d get in fights, I got involved with drugs, gangs, and went to juvenile hall,” he says. “I turned 18 and was in and out of jail, and then ended up going to prison for five years.”
Padilla says Ace knew this about his past and would always tell him, “Francisco, it’s not what you've done … you’ve got a bright future ahead of you. You're a smart guy, there's a lot that you could do with your life.”
Padilla said no one had ever believed in him like that. He’d never had exposure to career paths like physical therapy or nursing. He’d never had a role model to follow or look up to — until Santoyo.
And now he knew what he wanted to do.
“The greatest thing about Francisco is, he told us when he was in the hospital getting ready to be discharged that he had big plans, and that he had goals. A lot of patients tell us that, but his goals started to rapidly come to fruition,” says his burn nurse Henry. “And it started with getting his education.”
Henry says the next time she saw Padilla he said, “Hey I'm going to community college. I'm going to get my associate degree” … then, years later, “I'm going to Fresno State ... ”
“It seemed like a perfect fit for him to follow in Ace’s footsteps, who was a huge mentor and support system to his family, along with other burn team members,” his former burn nurse says.
When Padilla told him he wanted to be a physical therapist, Santoyo was thrilled.
“OK, then, let’s become a physical therapist,” Santoyo told Padilla. “Better yet, let's get you to become a physical therapist in the burn center since you have first-hand knowledge and experience being on this side of the coin.”
And so he did.
A dream realized after long journey — and help from burn team
This winter, Padilla graduates from a program in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he’ll earn his doctor of physical therapy. And his brother Fabian is in nursing school — all because of a team of healthcare workers in the Leon S. Peters Burn Center who believed in two brothers who didn’t always believe in themselves.
And though there were many hurdles with his past convictions, the team at the Leon S. Peters Burn Center offered support to Padilla with letters of recommendations and phone calls to educational programs in support of his pursuit of a healthcare career to help others.
Now, at the apex of his education, it’s Padilla’s dream to encourage patients like himself, who are enduring the same injuries and despair he did — and he can’t think of a better place than Community Regional, where the staff transformed his life and where he’s applying to the program.
“I want to work here at Community Regional Medical Center,” Padilla says. “Because a patient doesn't need just someone there to get him up and sit him down — they need someone to talk to them, to laugh with them, to get to know them. I learned that from the staff here and I’ll take that with me everywhere I go now.”
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