Sunday, June 29, 2008

In Some Hot Water

A large working kitchen, like many workplaces devoted to the fabrication of a physical product, is often a dangerous place. At school earlier this week, about an hour before the end of class on Tuesday night, one of my friends was seriously burned in an accident and went to the hospital, and will have to stay in the burn center for awhile, probably two to four weeks. Many of the things we work with inspire a healthy fear of injury that makes us careful when we are around them: large knives (especially cleavers), large pots with several gallons of screaming hot oil for deep frying that we sometimes move around the kitchen, meat grinders, stand mixers that you could fit an adult person inside if you wanted to, four-hundred-degree commercial convection ovens. But my friend was hurt by something we so commonly work with in the kitchen that I think we forget how dangerous it can be. A ten gallon container of chicken stock that was sitting near the floor fell over a couple of feet or so behind him, and the hot stock, which had just been strained from where it had been cooking all evening, poured down the back of both of his legs and soaked into his socks and shoes.

At first, no one realized how serious the injury was. We knew he was burned and hurting, and a lot of people ran to get ice and water. He ended up in a storeroom because it is cool and out of the way of traffic constantly moving through the kitchens we work in just behind the restaurant kitchens, and a chef there called 911. My friend who was hurt said, "We don't need to call 911, I'll just get a cab to the hospital." Fortunately, everyone ignored him and got an ambulance anyway, and by the time he reached the hospital, he was pounding the walls of the ambulance in reaction to the pain and he'd been given a lot of morphine. Both of his feet and legs are now bandaged from about halfway below the knee to somewhere in the middle or toward the front of his foot, and he and the doctors will determine this week whether he needs skin grafts around his ankles and feet.

I've seen him a couple of times in the hospital in the last few days, and he is always glad to see visitors and carries on normal conversation, and doesn't seem either worn out or beaten down. But if you know how he usually looks, you can see now that his facial muscles are always slightly tense in what looks like an involuntary response to the constant pain he is in from the burns. I can also tell that he loses track of a conversation easily as the topic changes, which I assume is because of the pain medication he is on at all times now. He says that when his feet are washed or the bandages are changed, the feeling is almost unbearable, the kind of pain that can make someone become unconscious in response. From the little half-inch blister burns I've gotten on my hands at school, I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to have that all around both ankles and under my heels, let alone having someone come in a scrub it once or twice a day. He is handling himself amazingly well.

We talk often about when he might be ready to come back to school to finish the program. Unfortunately for us, we are losing him as part of our team -- there is no way he'll heal fast enough to rejoin our class, or even the next class behind us (a new one starts about every 7 weeks), so he's hoping to get into the group that will start Level 4 (the one we are in now) on Tuesday September 9. It would be nice if he could make it into that group, because our class will be in Level 6 (the last one) cooking in the restaurant kitchen on the same floor where he will be in Level 4, and we would get to work together again a bit before we all leave the school.

I wonder how he'll feel about large pots of boiling water when he steps into the kitchen again. The pots we use to make stock are enormous -- they are about three feet tall (about as tall as most kitchen counters) and around two feet in diameter, and probably hold something like 40 gallons. They have spigots near the bottom, because it would be very difficult if not impossible to either lower them from the stove when they're full or get anything out of them from the top when they're hot. The recipe for the veal stock we make in them starts with a hundred pounds of veal bones and 15 gallons of water. Since the accident last Tuesday, I don't feel any fear working around them, but I have more of an awareness of when they're hot and full and what's going on with them, especially the ones right behind where I work since I've taken up my friend's spot next to them since he left. The first morning when he was in the hospital, the people bringing food to the rooms asked him if he would like some chicken broth, and he responded dryly but with his usual good humor that the ten gallons he'd just had was enough for awhile. I hope I and the rest of our group can be there to welcome him back into the kitchen when he's ready to return.

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