Little Curtis Cain IV knew he wasn't allowed near the stove when adults were cooking, so he was more worried about getting in trouble than the hot grease sizzling on him when he said to his mother, "I'm sorry, it was an accident."
That's how Latasha Thabet found out her son, then 3, had suffered second-degree burns on his shoulder, back and leg. Thabet had been working on a computer while her sister cooked for a family get-together. Her sister stepped away from the stove for only for a moment. That was long enough for Curtis to throw a toy up there. When he stood on tip toe to try to retrieve it, he bumped a skillet full of grease.
"I didn't realize how bad it was, at first, because he still had his clothes on," Thabet, 33, said. Then she lifted the preschooler's shirt and saw the raw, pink skin glowing in contrast to the dark brown of the rest of her African-American son. That's when she screamed.
Children comprise 40 percent of the patients treated at San Joaquin Community Hospital's Grossman Burn Center, and scalding is the most frequent type of injury the center sees. Most often, it's an accident in the kitchen or bathroom, where it only takes a second for little ones to get into trouble.
"Children move so quickly, even parents with the best of intentions to keep their children safe can have one get away from them," said burn center director Karen Garner.
The hospital has an ongoing campaign to raise awareness of burn injuries in children. It distributes a flyer with safety tips for babysitters, and last month began handing out bathtub thermometer cards to pediatric patients. The cards can be hung on a shower arm and dipped to test bath water, which should never be higher than 100.1 degrees.
If a child is accidentally burned, the first thing to do is cool the skin with cold water, but don't cover it, Garner said.
"Anything that you cover the burn with traps the heat and makes the skin burn more deeply than you would see otherwise," she said.
There are all sorts of old wive's tales about topical treatments such as butter or toothpaste. Those, too, could actually make a burn worse, Garner said.
Burns can become infected, and when they go down to a joint or muscle they can potentially restrict a child's ability to move for the rest of his or her life, so it's important to get medical help for serious burns right away, Garner said.
Curtis' mother called 911 after her son was scalded in May of last year, just two days before his fourth birthday.
The emergency dispatcher had her put cold water on the wound until paramedics arrived to take Curtis to the burn center, where he was admitted and ended up staying almost two weeks.
Thabet's son ultimately had skin removed from his scalp and grafted onto the burn area, where it healed over time with the assistance of a pressure garment he wore at night to keep the skin flat.
Some people are genetically predisposed to thick scar tissue that makes even minor cuts raised and conspicuous, but Curtis hasn't had that problem, said physician assistant Stephen Hanson, who examined the child Monday at a follow-up visit at San Joaquin's outpatient burn center.
There is still minor discoloration on the graft area that will be there for the rest of Curtis' life, but the skin is brown and smooth.
"This looks really, really good," Hanson said, touching Curtis's back as the boy played with a teddy bear named -- what else? -- Curtis. "We'll just keep an eye on it."
Complications can arise long after an initial burn, so patients typically have to come in for regular check ups for 18 months after the injury.
Curtis has the full range of motion in his burned shoulder, and the hair has grown back in the area of his scalp that was harvested for the skin graft.
"Hair follicles are very deep in the skin, so that wasn't affected," Hanson said.
Curtis' mother nodded gratefully. "You can't even tell," she said, stroking her son's black hair softly.
Thabet is now extra vigilant about keeping Curtis out of the kitchen when the stove is on. And she wants other parents to hear her story so no other children will have to endure what her son went through.
"You always hear about this stuff, but it's different when it happens to you," she said.