With faith and a plan, Esbenshade continues his amazing recovery

By on July 12, 2017
Ephrata’s Tyler Esbenshade has many reasons to smile these days. Photo by Cindy Cowan

Ephrata’s Tyler Esbenshade has many reasons to smile these days. Photo by Cindy Cowan.

Eighteen-year-old Tyler Esbenshade seemed to have it all.

He just graduated from Warwick High School, where he had been an above average student and athlete and was ready to attend Johnson College in Scranton to major in business. And he planned to follow in his family’s business, Esbenshade’s Greenhouse in Brickerville. He had also just completed a mission trip.

But then June 30, 2013, his future went up in flames, literally, before his eyes.

“I did something that I know was stupid,” said Esbenshade, now a resident of Ephrata. “I was at my family’s cabin in West Virginia and I was starting the fire in the stones by using a can of starter fluid. I squeezed it a couple times and I suppose because it was old, it didn’t take right away, but on the third squeeze, it flashed and completely engulfed my legs and I breathed in a lot of smoke and heat.”

It was determined later the vapors from the lighter fluid actually ignited and exploded, causing most of the damage to Esbenshade’s legs and backside.

“My family said there were two explosions and, since I was crouched down, the first explosion got my face and then I stood up to run and turned around and the second explosion got the back of me,” he said.

Tyler, the oldest of eight children, immediately started to go into shock and didn’t feel the pain associated with the burns he suffered.

Esbenshade remembered what he had been taught in school, to “stop-drop and roll.”

“I did that in stones and I remember looking down and seeing brown skin just hanging off my legs,” he said.

Esbenshade said he remembers walking into the cabin and seeing his Grandmother cry.

“It was the first time I ever saw her weep. Meanwhile, my Father heard the commotion and came into the basement bedroom and looked at me and said, ‘We better get you to the hospital,’” remembered Esbenshade.

Esbenshade still didn’t feel the pain, but could see his legs still smoldering and the skin hanging off from what was determined to be third and fourth degree burns.

When the fire happened, Esbenshade was wearing just a bathing suit, which was consumed by the blaze.

“I never wear flip flops, but that evening I had them on and that is part of the reason my feet were burned so bad because they melted,” he said. “Where we were in West Virginia was in the middle of nowhere and, of course, there was no cell phone reception, so trying to call for help was out of the question.”

Esbenshade wrapped himself in a blanket and, along with his Father, set off to the nearest hospital in Keiser, W.V. He said it was a 30-minute drive, pouring down raining and they got stuck behind a slow car and couldn’t pass on the wet mountain roads.

Because of the extent of his burns, Esbenshade couldn’t put on a lot of clothing and had only the blanket to keep him warm. With most burn victims, pneumonia is always a concern and Esbenshade started to shake, partly due to the burns and partly due to shock, which was setting in rapidly. At one point during the drive, Esbenshade looked at his father and asked permission to sleep, to which his father said, “No, you need to stay awake.”

They finally arrived at the hospital and Esbenshade was in so much pain that he asked his father to carry him in, but his father said no to his request so he wouldn’t contaminate him.

But this time, Esbenshade’s condition was going downhill fast. His face started to swell while they were wrapping his legs. At one point, there was a concern he may not make it to the nearest burn center.

“Since my face was swelling,” said Esbensade, “they put a tube down my throat so I could breathe in case my throat would swell shut and at that point they put me out. That’s when they decided to airlift me to West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh.”

For the next 17 days, Esbenshade endured numerous skin grafts and operations. He eventually left Pittsburgh and transferred to Leigh Valley Hospital, which was considered his “home” hospital.

To date, Tyler has had at least eight surgeries and that doesn’t include laser surgery to help with the skin grafts and the condition of his legs. He also received six blood transfusions.

One of the most painful things Tyler had to endure was the skin grafts.

“Twice they took skin off my back. That was actually more painful than the burns themselves, it’s like intensified road rash,” he said.

The worst part for Esbenshade was just lying in a hospital bed.

“I woke up with like a week to go in West Penn and didn’t realize I had been there that long. But my Mom, and my Aunt from Ohio were there for me the entire time. They were my angel warriors.”

“It may surprise a lot of people, but by the end of August, beginning of September 2013, I started driving box trucks for my Dad while my legs were still in the healing process,” smiled Esbenshade.

Esbenshade had to learn to walk again, before he could even attempt to drive.

“I started with a walker and then crutches, but it was my Dad who encouraged me to start to walk again without using anything.”

There was a point when Esbenshade had to battle depression, along with his physical wounds.

He eventually did attend college in Scranton, but didn’t like it. He then came home and went to Lancaster Bible College. This lasted a year before Esbenshade decided to try something different.

“So I transferred to a college in Wisconsin to study auto mechanics, but I didn’t like that either, so I came back to work at the family business.”

A trip to Camp Susquehanna, located in Refreshing Mountain, Stevens, put things into perspective for Tyler. “It’s a Christian retreat center for burn victims,” Esbenshade said.

“I always like to look nice and be fashionable with the way I dress,” he said. “And people stare at my legs, (and) I was very insecure.”

That all changed when Esbenshade attended Camp Susquehanna for the first time. His first year at the camp was one year after his accident.

“I realized there are kids out there that were three or four time worse than I ever was,” he said. “I realized God blessed me because I got to keep my legs.”

“I was born and raised in a Christian home and I am a Christian and now attend Victory Church in Lancaster and, if I wouldn’t have had my faith, I wouldn’t have been able to get through this,” he said. “That was my clincher. Don’t get me wrong, my family and friends were there, but it was God who was there for me. It was His timing and his grace. This was not just a freak thing that happened to me. It was part of the story that God has written out, part of His plan for me.”

Besides working at the family business, Esbenshade is still going to Camp Susquehanna, but this year will be his first as a counselor.

“I want to be more involved with the burn community at Lehigh Valley burn center, as well as Camp Susquehanna,” he said.

As for the future Tyler has a plan.

“I’ve always admired my family business and my Grandfather was my role model and he passed away seven years ago, so I would eventually like to take over the family business,” laughed Esbenshade.

In the end, he looks at his encounter with death as a chance to witness to people.

“I see people looking at my scars,” Esbenshade said. “But instead of feeling angry, I look at it as a chance to talk to people about God and what His plan is for them.”

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