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Burn victim becomes counseling hero to others

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Published:   |   Updated: October 22, 2013 at 06:15 AM

TAMPA — Seven years and three months ago, Joe Versaggi, a third-generation shrimp fleet owner and Vietnam War veteran, got a fevered introduction to the burn unit at Tampa General Hospital.

“I woke up after five weeks in a coma,” he says, chatting in front of the nurses’ station in the unit on the sixth floor of the West Pavilion. The fiery airplane crash that put him there on July 16, 2006, also killed his wife, Estelle.

After he opened his eyes, he spent three months in the unit, five weeks in intensive care and a year-plus in rehabilitation to heal the burns that covered 35 percent of his body. He didn’t know it then, but the burn unit would become his second home.

Now, Versaggi, long healed from his burns though he still carries telling scars, remains a fixture at the hospital, volunteering 30 to 40 hours a week, interacting with burn patients under treatment as only someone who has been there can.

The former Marine helicopter pilot tells patients how he took the helicopter ride from the Wimauma plane crash site to Tampa General.

He tells them the story because many took the same ride. He mentions that his mission in Vietnam was to evacuate the wounded from the battlefields.

“Thirty-eight years after Vietnam,” he says, “I got my ride and I didn’t enjoy it.”

Patients can relate, and many times hearing that is the first step in a long physical and emotional recovery.

More than 30 surgeries later, Versaggi speaks with experience when he counsels patients about what is happening to them and what to expect. He’s a living testament that even those with severe burns can return to normalcy.

The 70-year-old Davis Islands resident had never intended to take this course in his life. He is a third-generation co-owner, with his brothers, of a shrimping empire that includes six boats that sail out of Tampa to all over the Gulf of Mexico. For more than a century, the family has been shrimping in New York and Tampa.

One day while he was in physical therapy, Versaggi was chatting with another burn victim, “talking about how lucky we were and that we were going to get over this.”

Though he was just expressing his own optimism, Versaggi’s talk was visibly uplifting to the other patient. The therapists asked Versaggi to come back to talk with other burn victims mired in pain and depression over their burns.

Doing so made him feel good. He became a familiar face in the burn unit, offering upbeat advice that buoys patients and their families.

And there are a lot of patients.

The burn center at Tampa General is the only one in West Central Florida. It is one of three in the state and one of 63 in the nation to earn verification by the American Burn Association/American College of Surgeons. The center treats more than 300 critically burned patients a year, from initial emergency admission through reconstructive surgery and follow-up care, and Versaggi has become an important part of patient recovery.

Versaggi is certified by the hospital to counsel patients and he became the first member of the local Survivors Offering Assistance and Recovery, or SOAR program, which offers support for burn victims.

“It’s just talking to people, survivors and their caregivers,” he says. “The real heroes up here are the nurses. They are dealing with all of this every day.”

Among those he counseled this year is Vinnie Bruno, who was severely burned in a boat explosion in Cape Coral on July 28.

“I spent three weeks in the ICU,” says the 60-year-old New Jersey native, “and the rest of the time in rehab.”

He and Versaggi, originally from Long Island, became friends and keep in touch, even though Bruno has since been sent home.

“We just clicked,” says Bruno, who returned to Tampa General this week for a scheduled appointment and to visit with Versaggi.

“Joe was there for me and my family from Day One,” he said. He visitited with Versaggi in the burn unit, chatting with nurses and therapists there. Both got hugs from the nursing staff and handshakes from therapists. They all made a point of saying how great Bruno looks.

“He’s like a hero to all of us,” Bruno said, nodding to Versaggi. “He’s an inspiration not only to me, but to the whole community.”

While he was being treated at the hospital, Bruno drifted in and out of consciousness, but he recalls Versaggi being there when he emerged from the fog, offering words of encouragement.

“He always would ask if Joe was coming around,” says Bruno’s wife of 37 years, Deborah.

“This is not a casual acquaintance,” Bruno says. “This is a friendship.”

Together, Versaggi and Bruno strolled into the room where Harley Cutlip lies. The 33-year-old Brooksville man has his right arm wrapped loosely in a gauzy bandage, the right side of his face a blotchy purple red. He is dressed, ready to head home, but he looks like he could use a pick-me-up.

Versaggi and Bruno introduced themselves and shake hands, left hands, with Cutlip and ask how he got burned. Cutlip explains he was lighting a bonfire on Sunday afternoon, something he had done “millions of times,” but this time, the fire flared up, scorching him and setting his clothes on fire. Bruno pipes in that he, too, had started the twin-engine boat hundreds of times, but the last time a spark ignited fumes in the engine compartment and flames blasted into his face.

Versaggi tells Cutlip that he has undergone about nearly three dozen surgeries and says the most important thing is to be diligent in doing his physical therapy.

“Don’t get lax on that,” Versaggi says. Cutlip nods, promising he will.

Bruno rolls up his sleeves to show Cutlip that his wounds have just about healed.

“Wow,” Cutlip says, encouraged by the sight. “You can hardly tell.”

“You look great,” Bruno tells him. “Keep your spirits up.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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