David Herndon’s license plate neatly sums up his life’s work: “BURN DR.”
As a professor of surgery and the Jesse H. Jones distinguished chair in burn surgery at UTMB, and chief of staff and director of research at Shriners Hospitals for Children-Galveston, Herndon wears many hats but has only one goal — improving the care of burn patients. Whether it’s clinical treatment, directing research that improves lives or teaching new physicians, it has been his passion as a surgeon during the course of his nearly 30 years at UTMB.
Yet treating burn patients was not what he envisioned. As a medical student at Duke University, his intent was to become a pediatric heart surgeon. But a low draft number during the Vietnam War eventually meant that he was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, the place where all military burn victims were taken for treatment.
“The challenge of this immense injury in terms of pain and infection and misery and death was daunting,” Herndon said. “And few surgeons were interested in the challenge.”
He was keenly interested in science and studying the responses to surgical injury, and decided he could do more caring for burn patients than as a heart surgeon. That decision led him to UTMB, not surprisingly, in 1981.
UTMB has been a global leader in burn care since the Texas City explosion of 1947 when a French freighter loaded with ammonium nitrate exploded in the harbor, killing about 600 and injuring thousands in the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history.
Dr. Truman Blocker, who had served as a surgeon during World War II, raced to the scene and many of the injured were treated at UTMB. Following the accident, Blocker organized and developed the department of surgery into a multidisciplinary burns program. In the following decades, the Truman G. Blocker Burn Center has been recognized as a world leader in burn treatment, research and education.
“It was a terrible accident that shaped our community and the conscience of our medical center since that time,” Herndon said.
Herndon was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1950, the second son of Charles and Kay Herndon. His father, who was born in Dublin, Texas, in 1915, was chairman of orthopedic surgery at Case Western Reserve University and a pioneer in bone banks, transplantation and pediatric orthopedics.
There are echoes of his father’s life in Herndon’s journey, having returned to Texas for his career, and as a pioneer of medical treatment and research in his own right. He literally wrote the book on burn care. “Total Burn Care,” first published in 1996 and now in its third edition, has been translated into Spanish and Arabic, with more than 10,000 copies sold worldwide.
His older brother, Charles, is an artist of note, working primarily as a sculptor in stone, who lives on a remote island in Lake Erie. Their mother, Kay, 91, also lives in the home where they spent summers and played as boys.
Herndon and wife, Rose, have three children. Chris is an entrepreneur and business owner in California and Heather is a social worker who lives nearby on the Texas coast. Their youngest son, Ben, is a student at the University of Houston.
In his limited spare time, Herndon enjoyed deep-sea fishing, going out into the Gulf 100 miles or more, until Hurricane Ike put an end to his boat.
“After Ike, my wife bought this little tin row boat and named it ‘Big Boat’ and said ‘that’s as far as you’re going buster,’” said Herndon, explaining that she worried when he was far out in the gulf when storms blew in.
He also likes golf. “I still have the golf clubs. I look at them frequently but we’ve been a little busy since the hurricane.”
Like most on the island, the Herndons have spent a lot of time rebuilding. For Herndon, that wasn’t just personal – it was fighting to keep the Shriners hospital open.
“It is their greatest and best burn treatment facility and also their greatest center of research, teaching and education,” he noted.
He has spent a lot of time working to have the Shriners maintain their support and reaching out to philanthropies across the country.
“There are very few universities that concentrate on burns. This institution does and, through doing so, it’s been able to make a real impact on mortality from burn injury, as well as the pain and suffering and misery from burn injury. It’s made a lot of discoveries,” said Herndon. “We’ve done things that have really changed burns.”
Those discoveries extend beyond the world of burn treatment, he noted. “It’s made life better not just for burn patients, but for people in many different areas.” From growing skin in the lab, to the development of air beds and pioneering the use of ketamine, an anesthetic that doesn’t require an endotrachial tube and is commonly used in Africa and Asia for major operations.
That expertise is one reason the World Burn Congress will be holding its annual meeting in Galveston, Oct. 20-23. “The inspiration and insight that this group brings to healing and reintegration into society is inspirational on an individual basis and mightily so as a group,” said Herndon.
Brimming with energy, Herndon is an educator, researcher and physician. But his focus is always on the patient. He recently told a young physician waiting to see him, “Walk with me. My patient just had a heart attack.”
For Herndon, his patients help him keep constantly on the move. They are his inspiration.
“The survivors of major burn injuries are heroes in almost every way.”