St. John’s Rehab burn treatment spawns sports injury protection


Otis Wilson and Sina Kiamehr are both enthusiastic athletes who came to St. John’s Rehab in Toronto for its facemask services. But while Kiamehr, a 21-year-old burn patient, dreads putting on his thermoplastic mask, Otis, an amateur basketball player with a need for a nose guard, is more than happy to do so.

Both men are patients of occupational therapist Ken So, and both have had tremendous success working with the hospital’s mask-building technology to satisfy their very different needs.

Two years ago, Kiamehr, a budding personal trainer, was on vacation in his native Iran when an epileptic seizure caused him to lose consciousness and fall into a blazing fireplace. Suffering 35% burns over his body, he spent a harrowing two months in a Tehran hospital under deplorable conditions before his parents managed to move him back to Canada.

Twenty-seven surgeries later, Kiamehr was sent to St. John’s Rehab, the only hospital in Ontario dedicated to specialized burn rehabilitation. That’s where he connected with Ken So and learned about masks for facial burns and their scar management benefits.

Not without its discomforts, the transparent facemask provides a form of compression therapy where consistent external pressure is applied throughout the wearer’s face to lessen the build-up of scar tissue. It’s a technique that has been in use since the 1970s to treat the large, thick or hypertrophic scars resulting from severe facial burns.

For So, the notion of making masks for burns was not new (he makes approximately three masks a month), but applying these same skills to craft a form-fitting face protector for an NBA player was a challenge he couldn’t resist. In 2002, a trainer for the Toronto Raptors contacted So to ask if he could build some protection for power forward Jelani McCoy’s broken nose.

“We seldom make nose guards like this,” says So, explaining that St. John’s Rehab didn’t typically treat outpatients with fractured noses. But So’s skills were called into play once again in January of 2005 when Otis Wilson came to see him by way of a doctor’s referral. Wilson, an enthusiastic amateur basketball player had recently broken his nose for the fourth time and needed a protector.

NBA players with similar trouble have been wearing clear plastic masks since 1990 when Detroit Pistons’ Bill Lambeer began sporting one to protect an orbital bone fracture. Wilson knew the device existed, he just couldn’t find anyone to make it for him. After a month of searching, he found St. John’s Rehab and Ken So.

“I knew what masks were out there and I wanted to improve it,” says Wilson who helped So design a smaller mask that uses padding and a single strap to stay in place.

“Since I started playing again, I’ve had a ball thrown in my face, I’ve had an elbow hit me, and I didn’t feel a thing,” says Wilson.

Drawing on the same resources, patients like Wilson and Kiamehr are discovering the strengths that a niche hospital like St. John’s Rehab can bring to health care.

“It’s exciting to see how our efforts to stay at the forefront of burn rehabilitation treatment have helped us to discover the potential for a new service,” says Will Cachia, patient services manager for the Hospital’s Ambulatory Care department.

As the site of Canada’s only dedicated burn and transplant rehabilitation programs, St. John’s Rehab is recognized for its expertise in developing individually customized inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation programs.