Matt Dolson puts on a hat and heavy jacket – covering all exposed skin – before he steps into the Florida summer heat. He only has to walk about 100 yards from his front door to stand in the place where, three months ago, an explosion nearly killed him.
His recently grafted skin is more sensitive than a newborn’s and constricts his limbs in a restrictive embrace.
“Because of all the brand-new skin and scars, my skin wants to contract,” Matt said. “Every day is a battle.”
Matt’s fight to live a normal life began May 17, when he was severely burned in a bonfire accident. The details of that night were unknown as he lay in a coma for more than two weeks after the incident.
“There was a lot of speculation, a lot of rumors,” he said. “It was kind of up in the air, what really happened that night.”
Matt and five friends had spent that Saturday night preparing a large bonfire on his father’s tree farm in Dade City.
“We were just having fun,” he said. “There was no drinking that night at all.”
The friends piled fresh tree clippings in a large pit, 20 feet in diameter and several feet deep.
“When it’s fresh, it’s really hard to get the fire going,” Matt said. “It doesn’t burn at all.”
To ignite the pile, they always use diesel fuel, he said, since it burns slower and cooler than other accelerants. It gives people time to get away.
That night, Matt entered a dark storage shed to retrieve a can of diesel fuel, which was kept next to a can of gasoline. In his haste, he mistakenly grabbed the gasoline.
“I knew better, and that’s what kills me to this day,” he said. “It’s that one time you make that mistake.”
Still unaware of his error, Matt proceeded to douse the burn pile a more than four gallons of gasoline. As Matt returned with a lighter, he toyed with it, flicking it on and off. About five feet from the pile, his lighter ignited the gasoline fumes.
“The pile exploded, and it just flash-burned,” Matt said. “It just hit me.”
Somehow, the flames did not enter his nose or mouth and destroy his lungs. Somehow, the flames spared his eyes. Somehow, his sleeveless T-shirt and shorts protected his torso and thighs. Everything else burned.
The explosion was heard by Matt’s father, Arthur Dolson, inside his house over 100 yards away.
“I was scared to death,” Arthur said. “You can’t be emotional at that point. You have to be active.”
Matt collapsed as Arthur rushed from the house. He doused his son with a garden hose as a friend dialed 911. Matt lay on the ground, conscious and aware, for 15 minutes until an ambulance arrived.
“I’m sitting there in just agonizing pain,” Matt said. “I can see my skin bubbling and just peeling off.”
Despite his severe burns, Matt was able to stand up and pull himself onto the paramedics’ stretcher. Inside the ambulance, paramedics cut off his clothing as he convulsed in shock.
He then slipped into unconsciousness, where he would remain for 19 days.
Matt awoke almost three weeks later in the burn unit of Tampa General Hospital. He had been placed in a coma, the only humane way to recover from such severe second- and third-degree burns.
Several skin-grafting procedures had transplanted the tissue from his torso and thighs to his arms, legs and shoulders.
Matt’s injuries would have killed many people, his doctors said. However, he had spent time bulking up his 210-pound frame.
“That’s really what saved my life,” he said.
Any of his smaller, lighter friends would likely have been killed by the blast.
Nearly three weeks of lying motionless had left his muscles useless. When he tried to move, his atrophied limbs refused to respond.
“It wasn’t just recovering from the burns when I woke up,” Matt said. “It was learning to do everything over.”
His healing skin tightened across his body, limiting his movement even more. Physical therapy began immediately to restore his range of motion.
“There’s therapy from day one,” said Arthur, who cared for his son in the intensive care unit.
Matt returned home in July, after more than three weeks in the Tampa General Burn Center and another three and a half weeks in an inpatient rehabilitation center.
It would take constant care to preserve his range of motion and prevent infection.
“I was Matthew’s nurse,” Arthur said.
“And he still is,” said Matt.
Matt has struggled to relearn his daily routine. Even simple tasks can be difficult after his injury.
“The first time I shaved was just horrendous,” he said.
Skin-tight compression garments cover his limbs to reduce the scars. The sun poses a threat to his delicate skin, and he must wrap himself from head to toe before he ventures outdoors.
“There are certain things he can do,” Arthur said. “There are certain things he can’t.”
Despite his hardships, Matt doesn’t consider himself unfortunate.
“Life is truly a gift,” he said. “Walking around the hospital, you just see so many people who aren’t as lucky as you.”
When fall classes begin, Matt is determined to be at USF. While he will continue his physical therapy, he doesn’t anticipate any more surgery. He plans to move back into his fraternity house and continue working towards his business degree.
“It’ll be good to get back to school and see friends,” he said. “You have to live life.”