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Burn survivor aims to be home by Christmas

Posted November 20, 2009

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— Robert Leffer spends about five hours a day undergoing physical and occupational therapy at the Jaycees Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

Every step, every grip, every push, he says, takes excruciating effort.

"Sometimes, I felt like I wanted to just give up," the 49-year-old says. "If I gave up, I'd just be useless."

But the former truck driver from Sanford is not one to quit after undergoing five surgeries and a hospital stay that lasted nine months.

Leffer was involved in a fiery five-car collision in January that left him with second- and third-degree burns on 80 percent of his body.

The wreck happened Jan. 26 while Leffer, a truck driver, was driving along Interstate 40 near Wade Ave., when authorities say an SUV driven by Osmar Guillermo Perez Vicente cut across multiple lanes, hit a tractor-trailer, causing a chain reaction of collisions.

Leffer's truck landed in the woods and burst into flames. He might not have survived, authorities said, had it not been for a passerby who risked his own life to save him – a husband to Amalia and father to now-2-year-old Robert Jr.

"The wall of fire came up so quickly around my truck from the leaves," Leffer recalled. "I felt heat come in, and I turned my head and took a deep breath. I went to go out the door, and I just cried out, 'God, please don't let me burn. Please help me.'"

Witnesses saw Leffer walk out of his truck, covered in flames.

After they put the flames out, Leffer was conscious enough to ask one of them to call his wife and son.

"They put the phone to my ear on speaker, and I just told my wife quickly, 'I love you and the boy so much.'"

Leffer says his family and his faith have helped him endure.

"I don't pity myself," he said. "To my wife, I'm just as handsome. To my little boy – he's not afraid to hug and kiss me."

"I never wished I had died in the crash," he continued. "I'm here to see my son grow up."

That's why Leffer says he will never give up. He hopes to be back in his Sanford home by Christmas.

And on Saturday, he'll join other burn survivors for an annual reunion, "The Celebration of Life," which gives others the chance to share stories of their struggles.

"He really epitomizes what we're here for," said Dr. Bruce Cairns, director of the Jaycee Burn Center. "He inspires us all."

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  • Just the facts mam Nov 20, 2009

    If I remember correctly, it was an illegal immigrant that caused this crash. Just another reason why illegals need to be sent home to their own country. It is sad to see this innocent gentleman have to suffer so much due to someone who should not have been in this country to begin with.

  • Skywatch_NC Nov 20, 2009

    God bless you, Mr. Leffer and family! ((((HUG)))) Prayers and thoughts with you as you continue your recovery.

  • donnaferguson Nov 20, 2009

    Robert, God Bless you and your wonderful family. What a wonderful story. Thanks for your courage in sharing with all of us.

  • JAFOinWF Nov 20, 2009

    Would like to know what happened to the person who caused this and if he was an illegal. But that would be too much biased journalism towards common sense, huh?

  • Rocky Mount Tarheel Nov 20, 2009

    Best Wishes on your brave recovery! Attitude has much to do with your recovery and it sounds like you are well on the way.

    My daughter spent many months at the UNC Pediatric hospital and the Jaycee Burn Center due to a Drunk Driver hitting their vehicle head-on. UNC hosptial is the reason our daughter is alive and functioning today. What a wonderful hospital. Also Hats off the the Ronald McDonald house for all they do also!

  • liskm Nov 20, 2009

    Keep up the good work Robert. I too had a family member that was at the JC Burn Center. High 5 to those folks! What a great, dedicated team that helps the patients. It's an amazing place. Dr. Cairn's is a JEWEL Director. We, in NC are so LUCKY to have that facility. One wouldn't likely appreciate that comment, until they have experienced it's great need. God's speed to you Robert, in your continued recovery...and Merry Christmas ahead of time!

  • DeathRow-IFeelYourPain-NOT Nov 20, 2009

    devaus, I'm right there with you. Congratulations to this man, husband, and father for a courageous fight. Congratulations to the UNC Burn Unit for the many patients you successfully help to heal. Congratulations to this family for sticking it out in VERY tough circumstances. I hope you all have strong faith. Many prayers for everyone involved.

  • AtALost Nov 20, 2009

    Sad to think of all he has to go thru because of an illegal alien. Glad he may be home in time for Christmas.

    An earlier story mentions that the driver at fault couldn't speak english and had no driver's license. Would be nice to know what was done to punish him.

  • devaus Nov 20, 2009

    Great story! I was glad to see I wasnt the only one that was teary eyed!