Hunterdale man survives burns over 95 percent of body

Published 9:59 am Saturday, October 20, 2012

MECHANICSVILLE—Raleigh Dowd calls Lon Bickham her Miracle Man. Doctors at MCV in Richmond would likely agree.

Lon Bickham and fiancée Raleigh Dowd -- SUBMITTED

The 32-year-old Hunterdale man, whom Dowd will marry on June 1, survived an April 7, 2011, explosion at a logging site in Greensville County that left the worst degree of burns over 95 percent of his body. Only his face, which was covered by a welding mask, and his feet escaped injury.

“MCV has never had anyone survive this severity of burns,” said family friend Pam Saunders of Chuckatuck. “It’s truly a miracle. He’s come a long, long way, but has a long way to go.”

Saunders credits the grace of God and the loving support of family and friends for Bickham’s survival.

“He is my miracle,” said Dowd, who knew the first time she met Bickham she wanted to marry him.

“I don’t think he ever wanted to give up,” said the 21-year-old from Smithfield.

Since the explosion, which killed co-worker and father of five Gary Pierce, 32, of Emporia and seriously injured Jeremy Everett, 34, of Courtland and Trent Kimbrell, 38, of Chester, Bickham has undergone more than 35 surgeries to remove burned skin. He lost several fingers, and suffered numerous infections and complications with his kidneys. The 6-foot-2 Bickham at one point dropped to 106 pounds.

He was hospitalized for 13½ months, on a ventilator for a year and laid on his back for more than a year.

Nearly 19 months later, Bickham remains at Sheltering Arms rehabilitation center in Richmond.

“He’s had physical therapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists,” Saunders said.

Dowd rarely leaves his side, sleeping on a cot in his room.

“Once he got out of ICU, I was sleeping in his room,” she said. “They had a bed by his bed.”

Bickham cannot walk and requires 24-hour care. He has limited mobility and needs a wheelchair to get around.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he will walk again and he will do what he wants to do,” Dowd said. “In physical therapy, they can make him walk 55 feet with two people (helping).”

A senior human development major at Virginia Tech who took off the fall semester for a break, Dowd helps feed her fiancé, dress him and brushes his teeth.

“He’s my best friend,” she said. “I have my whole life planned with him because if you know Lon Bickham, you know it’s worth it.”

The couple met 3½ years ago at Dowd’s sister’s wedding.

“The first time he met me, he told his cousin he was going to marry me,” she said.

Saunders called Dowd the “glue that has held Lon and everyone together,” although Dowd hates to take that kind of credit.

“Many ladies her age would not have stuck with their fiancé in a situation as dire as this,” Saunders said. “Lon’s, nor Raleigh’s life will ever be easy. Lon will always face pain, flexibility and mobility issues. His is a most difficult road.”

Dowd’s family has been a huge supporter as well, Saunders said.

“Her mom has lived in Richmond with Raleigh much of the time,” she said.

The son of Carolyn and Ed Bickham of Chuckatuck expects to go home around Thanksgiving.

He will be staying with his parents.

“He will need round-the-clock care,” Saunders said. “He cannot feed himself, he cannot attend to his physical needs.”