When it came to treating Jay Leno‘s extensive burn injuries following an accidental car fire at his garage, doctors knew they had to act quickly.
“When he came in, his burns were deeper than I had anticipated and in the next 24 hours they became a lot more concerning,” says his surgeon, Dr. Peter Grossman of the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital. “Functionally and cosmetically I had serious concerns. Jay ending up with permanent disfigurement was a big worry for me.”
Leno was working on the undercarriage of his 1907 White Steam Car on November 12, inspecting a clogged fuel line, when gasoline spilled on his face and then ignited with a pilot light used to create steam. In an instant, “my face was on fire,” he says. Leno’s friend Dave Killackey, who helped pull him to safety recalls the comedian “engulfed in flames…I couldn’t even see his face.”
Leno entered the Center with second and severe second degree burns on his face, chest, hands and left arm and was treated for nine days.
Grossman explains the process of attempting to restore viability to damaged skin.
“The top layer of our skin is the outer protective layer,” he says. “But the functional layer of our skin is the dermis — oil glands, sweat glands, hair glands, nerve endings, regenerative cells. When the dermis is badly injured, the body doesn’t always have the ability to regenerate so it forms scar tissue.”
Continues Grossman: “The problem with scar tissue is that it doesn’t have the same functionality, so as burn surgeons we want to minimize the production of scar tissue and maximize the regeneration of healthy tissue. The faster you get a wound to heal, the better chance you have.”
In order to promote faster healing, doctors performed two skin grafting surgeries. In the first, “we shaved off ultra-think slices of the burn off his face and then put human cadaver skin on him as a temporary biological bandage,” says Grossman. “It tricks the skin to increase blood flow and help the healing process.”
Jokes Leno: “I was hoping to get the Clooney face, but that wasn’t available…luckily I didn’t make my money being handsome so that’s not a dealbreaker for me.”
During the second surgery, pig intestine from the lab was used as another biological skin substitute, creating a “closed protective environment” for skin to heal. Within a week of Leno leaving the Center, his body shed the pig intestine. “The skin he has now is all his,” says Grossman.
Leno also had sessions in a hyperbaric chamber, which increases oxygen to healthy skin. “If you want to know what sitting in a coffin feels like, that’s it,” says the comedian.
Ultimately, “I’m very happy with the outcome,” of Leno’s healing so far, says Dr. Grossman. “But considering the severity of his injuries, Jay is definitely an outlier. I wasn’t expecting him to heal as quickly as he has so far.”