'Miraculous' recovery for Kitty Hawk sailor
Stars and Stripes June 27, 2003
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — With his family by his side, the USS Kitty Hawk sailor who was found in a coma on the ship last week now is conscious, walking and on his way to a full recovery, officials said Wednesday.
Fireman apprentice Jeff Burtis’ parents — who were awakened at 2 a.m. by a call from Kitty Hawk commander Capt. Thomas Parker on the night of the accident — called his recovery “miraculous” and credited Naval Hospital Yokosuka and the Kitty Hawk’s captain and crew.
“On the phone, he said our son had been hurt and that he was in critical condition. The next day, the Navy flew us out to Washington, D.C., to get passports, since neither of us had one,” said Nancy Aufdengarten, Burtis’ mother from tiny Brule, Neb.
“Neither of us had ever been on an airplane before and the next thing we knew, we were on a flight to Japan to get to our son,” she said. “It was quite an experience.
“The chaplain met us at the airport and we went straight to the hospital. I cannot say enough to thank everyone involved for how they have treated us.”
When the Aufdengartens arrived, Burtis still was in a coma, hooked up to a respirator. Hours earlier, on June 14, a Japanese worker on the dry-docked Kitty Hawk had discovered Burtis unconscious in a waste pump room.
A team of Kitty Hawk emergency responders, dressed in special suits and breathing gear, retrieved the 19-year-old Burtis from the pump room and started treatment. An investigation into the incident is ongoing.
“When we first saw him, everything that could have a tube in it had a tube in it,” Nancy Aufdengarten said.
“We were told he had been out at least 20 minutes before he was found. He was in bad shape, with pneumonia in both lungs.”
A hospital spokesman said Burtis apparently was overcome by an unidentified noxious gas while working on the Kitty Hawk, which is undergoing extensive repairs during a summerlong dry-dock period. Ship officials said Wednesday that the incident is under investigation.
Burtis was brought to the hospital with extremely limited brain functions, the spokesman said, and it was unclear at first whether doctors could revive him. In the days after the accident, however, his condition improved markedly.
Medical officials say the long-term prognosis for a complete recovery is good.
But during those first nights when their son lay unconscious, the Aufdengartens said, they were surrounded by Navy support personnel, Burtis’ shipmates and hospital staff. Parker and his wife spent two full days with the family at the hospital; 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Robert F. Willard visited; Navy spouses brought meals and comfort items so the family would not have to leave Burtis’ side.
“The first night, we stayed and talked to him, even though the doctors said he couldn’t hear us or know we were there. I kissed him on the forehead and said, ‘Mom will come back,’ and I saw a tear coming out the corner of his eye,” Nancy Aufdengarten said.
“They brought him out of the coma the next day, and it has just been a miraculous recovery ever since.”
The recovery has gone so well that Burtis is being discharged from the hospital and will return to Brule with his parents on Thursday. Burtis will have a few weeks for recovery before returning to duty.
Brule is a town of 350 people, the family said. In contrast, the Kitty Hawk itself has 10 times as many sailors on board. Of the 15 seniors who graduated high school with Jeff Burtis, five joined the Navy.
Coming from such a small, tight-knit community, the Aufdengartens said, they were unsure what to expect, especially in a time of crisis.
“Back home they’re all rooting for us, calling every day and bringing meals to our other three children who are still at home,” said Kyle Aufdengarten, Burtis’ father.
“Here, you don’t know where to start saying ‘thank yous’ and where to end, because it’s just like one big family here, too.”
Nancy Aufdengarten said everyone was so helpful that Navy officials even suggested they bring umbrellas, as Japan is in the midst of its rainy season.
“The hospital staff have all just said they were only doing their job,” she said. “They might think they were just doing their job, but that was my son they saved.”