Local News

Burn survivor aims to be home by Christmas

Posted November 20, 2009 1:22 p.m. EST
Updated November 20, 2009 7:36 p.m. EST

— 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."