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After watching a Chicago Cubs’ game at Wrigley Field last April, Beau Zanca crashed on a friend’s couch. Hours later, he woke up to an apartment full of smoke. Zanca, then 22, rushed to get his friend and helped her jump out of the window. He went back into the apartment to help her roommate, but was met with intense smoke and couldn’t escape. Minutes later, firefighters arrived to rescue them.
The next thing Zanca remembers is waking up at Stroger Hospital in Chicago.
“I woke up ... three months later to kind of realize what was happening,” he told TODAY. “I wasn't walking. I lost about 45 pounds. All (of my) leg muscle mass was gone from lying in bed that whole time.”
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After he arrived at the hospital, doctors placed him in a medically induced coma to treat the third- and fourth-degree burns he suffered over 60 percent of his body. While third-degree burns affect all three layers of the skin, fourth-degree burns reach underlying tissues, such as muscle, tendon and bone. Zanca cannot use his left hand to grip because of these burns.
Upon waking, he felt helpless because he couldn't walk or talk. He had a tracheotomy to help him breathe, which meant he had to re-learn how to speak. He felt incredibly overwhelmed.
“There was some heavy stuff to deal with,” he said.
By July, he moved to Shirley Ryan AbilityLab where he started inpatient rehabilitation. While the therapists encouraged him to walk using a walker, it still felt challenging. Zanca always played sports, practiced yoga and ran. Suddenly, making it across the room felt impossible.
Not only did his body feel different, his looks had transformed dramatically. When he first saw himself, he felt stunned.
“I looked a lot different and couldn’t really recognize myself,” he said. “I just wanted to lay in bed and hide.”
During his recovery, Zanca met two people who also experienced significant burns and healed. They told him it would get easier and showed how their scars lost their bright red hue. Suddenly, he had proof of what his doctors and therapists were telling him.
“It (was) instilled in me that you have to trust the process,” he said. “It is going to take time to get where you want to be.”
During his month of inpatient therapy, Zanca went from wobbly walking to a steady gait to slow running, and even enjoying the outdoors by himself. When he went to outpatient therapy at Wheeling Day Rehab, he dedicated himself to improving.
“My full-time job now was my recovery,” he said. “I found that so much of my recovery has been a mental battle.”
He began practicing yoga and Pilates, which helped him build physical and mental strength while also stretching out his tight scarred skin.
“I was starting to see improvement in so many areas,” he said.
His therapists and doctors were impressed by his quick progress.
“His recovery is outstanding. Anyone who is burned to that degree has really significant impairment. The fact that he could recover is great,” said Dr. Mark Huang, an attending physician at the AbilityLab. “It shows his resilience.”
As he healed, Zanca also set audacious goals, such as running a 5K only six months after his accident. He also returned to graduate school to study social work. After mastering running and biking, he challenged himself again by participating in the SkyRise Chicago, a fundraiser for the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab where people climb the 103 floors of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). To prepare, he jogged up and down the three flights of stairs in his apartment building.
“It was harder than I expected. I wanted to do it in 22 minutes, but it took me 30,” he said of the approximately 2,000-step trek.
Zanca’s recently decided on another challenge: To run the 2018 Chicago Marathon. After that, he wants to do a 100-mile endurance race.
“I kind of want to continue pushing the bar higher and higher,” he said.
Zanca will likely need to have more surgeries. He attributes his incredible recovery to the support of his family and community, as well as his faith in himself.
“Just because my outside change(d) didn’t mean my inside changed,” he said.