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Derek lights up during a walk around the burn center with friends Sarah Bogart, left, Gen Cruzan, his sister Kayleen Thomas, and Molly Dohoney. Every week, his visitors are the ones who make him laugh and feel the most normal again.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Derek Thomas is weighed by nurse Jennifer Karle in his room at the Grossman Burn Center. Months ago the simple action of getting onto a scale wasn't possible for Thomas, who has had to learn again how to stand, walk, breathe, swallow and speak.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Thomas has his bad days, but most of the time, he makes everyone around him laugh. After he leaves the hospital, he will need need months of physical therapy and more surgery.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Derek Thomas, center, and his mother Paula Thomas are surrounded by photos of hospital staff, family and friends that he keeps on a bulletin board in his hospital room.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Derek works out his good arm with therapist Josephine Custodio in his hospital room. He had to practice for months before he regained the ability to touch his nose with one finger or scratch his head.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Derek Thomas throws a ball to another burn unit patient as his father, Randy Thomas, looks on.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Therapist Josephine Custodio helps Derek Thomas bend his finger.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Eleven months since his injury, Derek Thomas still has his legs wrapped in bandages. He has had 42 operations since the accident that burned 85% of his body.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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Derek Thomas, 19, had been heading home to San Diego from a high-altitude training camp in Mammoth when the vehicle he was in crashed. When he arrived by emergency jet at the Grossman Burn Center in West Hills, he was unconscious. Third-degree burns covered more than 85% of his body — his face, his neck; his back, his arms; his stomach, chest and legs.

Doctors gave him a 1% chance to survive.


  1. July 19, 2011, 4:51 am

    Hi Derek:

    Just read your story. You are brave beyond words!! I had 65% burns when I was 33 from an accident. I had a husband and 4 small kids. I spent 11 mths. in burn ward in Ontario. The love of my family & friends gave me determination to make it. You’ve made it this far, Derek, and I know it’s been really hard but you WILL make it and you will lead a productive life and be happy again. I worked fulltime for 20 yrs. with handicapped adults and seniors after I recovered. Today I am 66 and have no health problems. It just takes a little time, Derek, but you WILL be a better person – you WILL have more compassion for others, BE more patient and KNOW what real love is from those who have helped and supported you along the way. My prayers and good wishes go with you. You are incredible!! Email me anytime you want.

    Love Sandra

    By: Sandra Evans
  2. May 10, 2012, 9:46 am

    I remember those 11 months well, Sandra. You faced them with courage and determination. I worked on that Burn Unit and just this morning read a note you sent me after your discharge. Awesome to see you reaching out to other burn victims.

    By: annette236
  3. July 19, 2011, 7:00 am

    This young man should be applauded for his courage, love of life, and desire to return to as full a life as possible. I have known a few people that have been severely burned. All say that if they had to go through the recovery again they would have rather died.

    This is truly an amazing story, and I hope that he can achieve all of his reconfigured dreams and life goals.

  4. July 19, 2011, 10:28 am

    Wow, best of luck to you. Keep beating the odds!

    By: David
  5. July 20, 2011, 2:54 pm

    I had a 3rd degree burn from a motorcycle when I was 14 it was about the size of a half dollar and it hurt horribly – Derek I can hardly imagine the pain from the extent of your injuries. The good news is that your a survivor and God continue to give you the strenth and courage to carry one – looks like you'll not only make it, but that your on your way to being a wonderful man.

    By: Hayjudy2
  6. July 20, 2011, 8:22 pm

    Derek,__I live in Bishop and have been praying for you for a year. You are in the thoughts and prayers of all of the residents here in the Eastern Sierra. We have been keeping up with your progress and are so very happy that you are making such an amazing recovery. Please know that we are always here with hearts full of love and support.__Gail

    By: 1Gertrude
  7. July 21, 2011, 12:10 am

    the story bring tears in my you derek.have good healthy life.

    By: drdang12
  8. July 26, 2011, 9:07 pm

    Derek, I feel blessed and honored to have shared in some small way your remarkable recovery. My son, also a former football, track and rugby player ( more recently a boxer) was on the burn unit just shortly before your recent discharge. You and your Dad were inspiration to us. Your presence and interaction with your Dad showed us the way….I cannot leave it unsaid…THANKS a BUNCH… Doc

    By: C. W. Stotler
  9. October 6, 2011, 8:35 pm

    Hey Derek,

    I’m so happy to hear of your progress! You give us all hope.

    Ive run into your story through John . John was my youth director while I was going up in Texas. He meant the world to me. Im glad y’all were such good friends, too.

    Big hugs and lots of love, ashley

    By: Ashley
  10. October 20, 2011, 8:26 pm


    You are a very brave young man! I pray that you will continue to improve to a full recovery!
    I pray you have an amazing, happy and joyful life.


    By: Suzan
  11. December 3, 2012, 11:04 am

    Thanks to all the love, prayers, and support from our community and from people all over. I just read some of the comments on here and it warmed my heart and brought on happy tears. Much love to everyone,

    Derek's big sister, Kayleen Thomas

    By: thoma10

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