Travis Barker and DJ AM Face Long Road to Recovery from Plane Crash

But infections can take their toll in widespread second-degree burns (down to the dermis skin layer where the hair follicles and sweat gland lie) or a third-degree burn (down to the fat layer) or a fourth-degree burn (down to the muscle, fat or bone).

Greenhalgh says key to changing the survival rate was research that showed removing the seriously burned tissue fast, no matter how painful for the patient, and doing a skin graft will keep deadly infections at bay.

"We have a much better track record of getting people well," said David Heimbach, a professor of surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle. "If you had 70 percent of body burned, now we have a 50 percent survival rate."

With the practice of a quick surgery and skin grafts, burn centers have made surviving burns the norm. Now, a top burn center such as the University of Washington Burn Center will lose only 4 percent of its patients.

While a skin graft saves lives, doctors say they do not prevent scarring or months of reconstructive surgery.

Burn Victims Face Scars On Skin

"Once you get a [serious] burn, the scars on their skin are there forever. There's always going to be a scar of some variety somewhere," said Dr. Paul Cederna, a plastic surgeon and associate chief of staff for the University of Michigan Hospitals.

Yet Cederna says plastic surgeons have various ways to narrow scars, expand areas of healthy skin and even hide the scars in aesthetically pleasing places.

"Once the skin graft is in place, a lot of times you can plan your operations so you can position the scar better," he said.

In a process called tissue expansion, the surgeon inserts a deflated balloon underneath a layer of skin and slowly expands it over three to four months to grow more skin. "Just like a pregnant woman's stomach grows skin," Cederna said.

Then in a procedure similar to a face-lift, the surgeon detaches a portion of the skin from the layer underneath and stretches it across other parts of the body.

"You can convert someone who has no hair on their head except for a little patch, to someone with a full head of growing hair," said Cederna. As the surgeon moves skin, the inevitable scar can be hidden in convenient areas such as below jaw lines as opposed to on the face, or in bathing suit areas as opposed to exposed ones.

But, the road to such recovery usually is a long one.

Cederna said, "It wouldn't be uncommon for someone with a big burn for me to operate on them eight to 10 times."

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