May 28, 1994. 8,500 gallons of gasoline. A split second when something goes wrong. A tanker rolls over and bursts into flames on a slow turn on Milwaukee’s Highway 45.
Bill Ester recalls the accident in amazing detail. “My initial thought was ‘This is how it ends.’ But survival is a very strong instinct. I jumped out a window and, thank goodness, ‘stop, drop and roll’ had been beat into me as a kid.”
Paramedics transported Bill to Columbia St. Mary’s Regional Burn Center where he began the long process of recovering from traumatic third-degree burns — the most severe kind — that covered more than 60 percent of his body. But what worried him most were his hands, which were critically burned. Not only was Bill concerned about being able to work again, he was also worried he would no longer be able to do what he loved the most: play the piano and climb mountains.
It was the desire to be able to continue to pursue his passions that drove his recovery. When the physical and mental anguish became almost too much to bear, Bill thought of his fingers dancing across the piano keys or the wind blowing through his hair as he dangled along the side of a cliff. It was more than two years of surgeries, therapy and hard work before Bill’s doctors cut him loose. And what he learned through that process, which he wouldn’t trade for anything in the world, are insights, lessons that have guided his life ever since.
Bill’s hard work, along with that of his physicians, nurses and therapists, paid off. Today he is a healthy, happy husband and grandfather who still plays the piano beautifully and continues to conquer mountains.
But it wasn’t always easy. After Bill’s first six months of outpatient therapy, the stress, pain and depression had taken a toll.
“Just at that moment, the staff called and asked if I would participate in a new burn survivor support group. After just one meeting, I found the strength to keep fighting,” Bill says. “I’m proud to be a source of support to the new victims. They look at me, and they see that they, too, can again have quality of life.”
According to Thomas Schneider, MD, the Medical Director of the Regional Burn Center, “We are extremely fortunate to have this level of care — this completeness of care — right here in Milwaukee. The CSM Regional Burn Center serves as a model, regionally and nationally.”
Since his accident, Bill has become an outspoken advocate for Columbia St. Mary’s Regional Burn Center.
“The relationships I’ve developed at the Burn Center are life-long,” Bill says. “Those people are my saviors. My angels.”
He is also a leader in the community for burn survivors in need, was pivotal in starting the Columbia St. Mary’s Burn Survivors Support Group, and is a volunteer with Columbia St. Mary’s Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery (SOAR) program, a national peer support program developed by the Phoenix Society. Bill is the local chairperson for the 2012 World Burn Congress — at which he was a keynote speaker — and was instrumental in getting the conference to Milwaukee.