A tragic fire prompts career shift to surgeon-scientist

Dr. Gibson (right) and Dr. Faucher (left) of the UW Health Burn and Wound Center

Five months after finishing nursing school, Angela Gibson reported to UW Hospital’s burn unit for a night shift that changed her career and her life. A Madison Metro bus had been set afire when a mentally ill man experiencing a hallucination poured gasoline on a couple and lit a match. The fire badly injured four passengers and the bus driver. Dr. Gibson, who was five months out of nursing school at the time, spent months caring for the burn victims, two of whom had burns on 90 to almost 100 percent of their bodies. The healing process involved the delivery of excruciatingly painful wound treatments, an almost year-long stay for most of the victims, and the near death of the most severely burned man.

The experience was intensive for all and forged emotional connections between Dr. Gibson and her patients. Dr. Gibson also became enthralled by the skin’s capacity for regeneration and wanted to understand more about how burns and burn victims heal. She began talking about pursuing advanced training to become a nurse practitioner or physician assistant

When Dr. Michael Schurr, then co-director of the burn unit, overhead her, he said, “Why not just go to med school?” That question prompted Dr. Gibson to pursue a medical degree, surgical residency, and a PhD at the University of Wisconsin.

Now, twenty years after that tragic bus fire, Dr. Gibson is a surgeon scientist investigating skin graft surgeries as well as conducting lab studies that seek better ways to repair burned skin.

One of the most traumatic aspects of treating burns is that severe burns require surgery, and the removal of skin from a “donor site” on the patient’s own body for a skin graft to another area causes another wound as well as great pain.

Dr. Gibson wants to prevent the need for those skin grafts and the wounds and pain they create. “I think we often remove too much [tissue],” Gibson said. “If we could take less … and let the wound heal in on its own, the patient wouldn’t need to suffer an additional whole wound.” To that end, she is studying skin samples in her lab that are removed from burn patients. She and her lab partners want to determine if enough healthy cells remain in apparently dead tissue to justify leaving it on the body.

Dr. Gibson is also collaborating with a company called Stratatech, which develops skin substitutes that can treat burns and other wounds; one substitute is called StrataGraft; another is tilapia skin. Last year, veterinarians placed the fish skin on the paws of black bears injured in wildfires in California, resulting in quick healing and posing questions about other potential applications.

Ultimately, the powerful healing capacity of the body following a burn is something Dr. Gibson wants to use to its full capacity.

The tragic bus fire in 1998 and the strength exhibited by the burn survivors injured in it profoundly changed Dr. Angela Gibson’s life. Now that she’s seen the healing powers of the body up-close, she won’t stop searching until she discovers all she can about the healing powers of science and surgery.

Learn how you can support the UW Burn and Wound Center by visiting www. uwhealth.org/burn.

Learn more about Dr. Gibson’s burn research lab.

By Dana Maya