Burn survivor enjoys reunion a long time in the making

By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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It has been seven years since the night Chris Cvitanov nearly ceased to exist.

Burned and mangled on the side of roadway, Cvitnaov screamed in pain as Roseville firefighters worked to keep him breathing until pilots could whisk him across the sky to the rooftop of UC Davis Medical Center. Doctors would later say Cvitanov had a 3-to-5-percent chance of survival at that moment from the vehicle crash. It was an assessment the Roseville firefighters were never told, but they nonetheless felt it in their guts as the helicopter blades began to turn.

The fateful moment happened on a night in June 2005. On Thursday morning, Cvitanov cruised into Roseville Fire Station 1 on silver crutches, coming face to face with the emergency responders who had helped buy back his future. Cvitanov was meeting with the Roseville firefighters partly to bring awareness to Firefighters Burn Institute, a nonprofit group the survivor now does volunteer work with.

Jim Doucette, executive director of the organization, said it was Cvitanov who sought him and his colleagues out.

“Chris just walked into our office one day and said he wanted to help,” Doucette recalled. “He’s stuffed envelopes, got us donations and done outreach in the community. He really wants to help other burn survivors.”

One of the reasons Cvitanov cares so much about Firefighters Burn Institute is the role it played in his recovery. Cvitanov was the passenger in car that overturned, throwing him from its confines before rolling over the top of him. Cvitanov’s lower body was twisted into the car’s exhaust system, his flesh being charred. There is much he still cannot remember about the agonizing chaos that followed, and on Thursday the Roseville firefighters were able to fill in the blanks for him. Cvitanov stood amazed at the details of the incident they shared with him — the steps and circumstances lost from his own memory, though they played a vital role in saving him.

“When we looked at everything that had happened, we didn’t know if you were going to make it,” Roseville Fire Captain Jeff Carman admitted to Cvitanov.

After personally thanking each firefighter, Cvitanov explained why he’s on a mission to help Firefighters Burn Institute.

“Had it not been for Cliff Haskell having the vision to open a burn center in Sacramento, I might not be here,” Cvitanov said to the group. “We flew over a lot of hospitals that didn’t want to take me.”

Haskell was a Sacramento firefighter who founded the city’s first burn unit in 1973 and then later helped establish UC Davis Medical Center’s burn unit in the 1980s. Haskell passed away last month. It was the team at U.C. Davis Medical Center’s burn unit that dealt with the extreme third degree burns across Cvitanov’s lower body, amputating his leg and launching other major procedures to stabilize him.

Cvitanov is currently writing a book about that covers a troubled younger life, the night of his accident, the road to recovery and the search for a new purpose. He said he hopes to work out an arrangement where some of the proceeds of sales go to Firefighters Burn Institute.

“My life has been a constant journey of ups and downs,” Cvitanov told the Press Tribune. “It’s been about learning life’s lessons the hard way – but I did. Now I want to help as many other burns survivors as possible with my life.”