Boise brewer burned in accident looks forward to returning to work

Friday, July 10, started out as a normal work day for Kerry Thomas, head brewer at Boise’s Edge Brewing Co.

She was working on a batch of her favorite Obligatory Double IPA, a popular ale crafted at the company’s combination brewery and restaurant on Steelhead Way, near Emerald and Maple Grove roads. Hours later, a brew kettle boiled over, spraying the 36-year-old with molten liquid on her right side. Thomas spent nearly a month in the burn unit at a Utah hospital and underwent a series of skin grafts. She returned home to Boise two weeks ago.

Full recovery could take a year or more. Thomas must limit her exposure to the sun and has to constantly wear long-sleeve shirts and pants, along with undergarments. She battles constant pain and is taking so many prescription drugs that she has a phone app to tell her when to take each one.

Thomas began that Friday lugging bags of malted barley, hops and other grains. The grains were added to hot water. In a process known as mashing, they were allowed to cook for an hour to break down the grains into sugars that can be fermented to create alcohol.

After the water is removed, what’s left is called wort, a sweet, sticky liquid full of sugar from the grains. The wort gets boiled for an hour in the 500-gallon brew kettle. Hops and spices are added.

The accident occurred near the end of that boil. Thomas was on the brew stand, which wraps around the kettle 5 feet above the ground. The stand gives brewers waist-high access to the top of the brew kettle. Hot liquid spilled out of the 18-inch opening at kettle’s top like water from a stovetop pot of noodles.

“I slammed the lid shut on the brew kettle, because I thought that would help to keep the boil down,” Thomas said. “It just made it worse. It just started spraying right at me.

“I remember screaming and just screaming and screaming and screaming, like in a horror movie.”

Boilovers are not unusual in brewing. Typically, the liquid runs down the side of the kettle but poses no danger to someone on the brew stand, she said: “They’re really easy to contain. We just spray it down with a hose, and it tends to put it back in line.”

But no hose was immediately available. Assistant brewmaster Jack Yates had the hose with him at a nearby mash vat.

Yates ran to Thomas’s aid. “I told him to spray me with the hose,” she said. “I just thought, ‘I’m covered in this sticky, syrupy, hot liquid.’ I was like ‘Just spray me down.’ ”

Thomas did not understand how badly she was injured. Yates told Thomas he needed to call 911 and she needed to go to the hospital.

“I told him it was just a burn and I was going to be fine. I didn’t need to go to the hospital,” Thomas said. “I just needed to get myself hosed off, and once I cooled off I’d be fine.

“Then I looked down and saw that my skin was kind of peeling off and realized it was probably worse than that.”

Co-workers drove Thomas to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, where she was treated briefly. Then a Life Flight plane took her to the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City.

Thomas remembers little of the plane ride. She said the pilot was a man and there were two paramedics, a man and a woman. “I just remember being scared and being in pain,” she said. “And being on Life Flight, it makes you realize, when you’re semiconscious, how badly you must be injured if they want to put you on this plane right now. It went from being just scary and painful to ‘Am I going to die?’ ”

Not until Thomas was ready to check out of the hospital did doctors tell her that patients with second- and third-degree burns on 30 percent of their bodies — what Thomas suffered —have a 66 percent mortality rate.

“That was pretty shocking to hear,” said Cory Thomas, 36, Kerry Thomas’ husband, who kept vigil at the hospital along with her parents, Steve and Robin Caldwell, of Boise. “We knew it was dire at certain times when they came and told me to watch the monitors and to call them if the numbers dropped to a certain point.”

Initially, the burn center doctors could do little for Thomas except to pump her full of powerful painkillers. It took more than a week for damaged skin to die and peel away so doctors could evaluate the extent of her injuries. Her bandages were changed twice a day. Nurses kept an eye on her to make sure no infections developed.

They also tried to keep her comfortable.

“Keeping me comfortable was keeping me from not screaming,” Thomas said. “You could hear when they were doing bandage exchanges in other people’s rooms. Screams were ringing around the hallways. You could hear adult men screaming. You could hear children screaming. It was pretty awful.”

On July 20, doctors used seven postcard-sized pieces of skin taken from Thomas’ left thigh for grafting. The pieces were stretched, perforated, placed over her worst injuries and anchored with staples. They covered the back of her right hand, above her elbow, above her knee, her right thigh and right hip.

She remained in the Utah hospital for 25 days and spent a week in outpatient care in Salt Lake City before returning home Aug. 12.

Last week, sitting in her North End home, Thomas removed a compression sleeve that covers her right wrist. She showed a reporter the graft between her fingers and her wrist.

“My skin is turning back to normal color already,” she said. “You can see where it’s pale and it used to be redder.”

The areas with third-degree burns aren’t that bad, she said, because no nerve sensations are left. But spots that received second-degree burns are quite painful.

“Just the top layer of your skin is gone and your nerves are so exposed. It’s like if you had a really bad blister and you peeled the back of the blister off and there’s that really raw skin underneath. It’s like your whole body is just that raw.”

Thomas attends physical therapy sessions three times a day. The therapy involves a lot of stretching to keep the grafted skin from becoming too tight.

She hopes her doctor will clear her in a few weeks to return to Edge at least part-time. She looks forward to going back.

“Everybody is ecstatic that Kerry is back, and we eagerly await her return to the brewery, whatever capacity that might be in,” said Steve Koonce, Edge’s sales and marketing manager. “The Boise craft brewing community has also been super-supportive during this tough time, and we wish to thank everybody for all the thoughts, well-wishes and prayers.”

Friends, acquaintances and many people she didn’t know sent letters, cards and balloons and donated to her GoFundMe benefit fund, which has collected $30,949 from 514 donors.

Treatment could end up costing several hundred thousand dollars. So far, the only bill Thomas has received is $59,000 for the Life Flight trip. That bill was turned in to Edge for submission to the company’s workers compensation insurance carrier.

Other medical expenses will be submitted through Thomas’ medical insurance policy provided by Edge. She does not know how much of the total for inpatient and outpatient treatment will be covered and how much she and her husband will have pay out of pocket.

“If we should be found responsible for the bills, we would be forced to file bankruptcy,” she said.

Thomas said she is grateful for all of the support she’s received since the accident.

“I’m extremely humbled just that so many people care,” she said. “People have held benefits for me across the country — people who have never met me. It’s been really touching.”