Varnum attorney draws from two careers to fight for burn prevention

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PHOTO COURTESY OF VARNUM

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Caring about clients who have suffered burn injuries enough to work intensively in the burn prevention area just comes naturally to Bonnie Sawusch.

The Varnum attorney had a full career as a registered nurse prior to and during law school.

In addition to a number of other initiatives she was already involved with, Sawusch has recently been named to a national task force through the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), where she will work to develop a national burn injury awareness campaign.

“I think that caring is just part of my nursing background,” Sawusch says. “I never disliked it; I just wanted to do something different, so I?expanded into law. But at the bottom of my heart, I still care just as much about people as I did when?I was a nurse.”

That is not to take anything away from her effectiveness representing her clients in catastrophic personal injury cases.

Sawusch  has achieved resolution for clients in such areas as truck, airplane and automobile accidents, fires, explosions and electrocutions, including through litigation. As a result, she has been honored time and again: named the Best Lawyers in America® Lawyer of the Year for Kalamazoo in Personal Injury Litigation 2014 and 2016; listed in Michigan Super Lawyers since 2006 and the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers as well as Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™.

Sawusch has also often played a leadership role in her 20-year legal career. She served as the State Bar of Michigan Litigation Section Council Chair from 2009-2010, as well as the SBM Litigation Section Chair from 2008 to the present. Also admitted to practice in Florida, Sawusch holds memberships in the Michigan Association for Justice, the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group, and, formerly, the Brain Injury Association of Michigan.

That is all in addition to her broad involvement with issues stemming from her observation of the struggles of people facing burn injuries. She publishes and lectures widely on burn injury (as well as other legal aspects of representing people who have suffered personal injury). Formerly a member of the Disability Resource Center of Southwestern Michigan, she continues national work with the American Burn Association — on the Ethics Committee from 2006 to 2009, and currently on the Burn Prevention Committee — the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, and the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.

Now the IAFF will benefit from her passion and expertise, as it moves forward with an awareness campaign aimed at both the general public and at burn care providers.

The work is of a piece with what Sawusch and others are doing nationally to prevent fire and burn injury.

“Even when I went through the rotation during my nursing training, it was really troubling to see the really devastating results of burn injuries. It’s so long and so life-affecting. With my legal practice, I know the medicine and I know how to help the injured, but I kept thinking, so many of these are preventable injuries,” Sawusch says.

She was a trauma unit nurse at Ann Arbor St. Joseph Hospital, where she spent all of her 15-year career after graduating with high honors from Mercy School of Nursing as a Registered Nurse. She later received her B.S. in Nursing from Eastern Michigan University, again with high honors. At Ann Arbor St. Joe, she says, she did not do day-to-day burn patient care because the burn unit was centralized at University of Michigan, but she would see the worst of it before those patients were transferred.

When she decided to attend the University of Detroit School of Law, eventually graduating magna cum laude with her J.D., she originally thought she might end up in medical malpractice defense, but after clerking for Michigan Supreme Court Justice Patricia Boyle, wound up in personal injury on the plaintiff side.

A period of time at Howard and Howard in Kalamazoo was followed by a group starting their own small personal injury firm, but about three years ago the whole team moved to Varnum’s Kalamazoo office.

“We end up staying in relationships with people we’ve represented for years. The problems go on and on for survivors. I was really pleased when I saw burn support groups and other groups for survivors becoming more widespread, but I realized I really want to help in prevention most of all,” Sawusch says.

She is not alone. Members of the American Burn Association Burn Prevention Committee, she says, have  taken as a starting point analysis of data from care providers. “A lot of the burn centers were seeing certain type of injuries, but nobody was really putting it together.

“A really simple example would be scald burns. People saw increases in them so a campaign was started:?‘it can happen in a flash,’” she says.

The campaign’s website, www.flashsplash.org (which can also be reached from the Burn Prevention website, www.burnprevention.org), notes that there are simple solutions to avoid liquid and steam burns, which affect older adults and account for 70 per cent of burns in children under four. One, as Sawusch explains, is to set water heater temperatures to 120 degrees F. and no higher.

Sawusch says that, in a similar way, analysis has shown patterns indicating the dangers of glass doors in front of fireplaces and, now, e-cigarette explosions. Committees are now working on safety with industry.

One focus of the IAFF task force will be popularizing safety habits that prevent burn injuries, in part through reviving Burn Awareness Week, which takes place in February.

“That’s been around for years and years, and used to be more popular, so we’re working to put some life back into that week of awareness. Every year we’re going to try to get broad focus on a different kind of injury, to make people aware how these terrible terrible injuries can be prevented.

“I?liken it to the campaign to get people to use seatbelts. Prevention education has to start young — let’s coordinate efforts and messages and do a mass media blitz, so that it becomes automatic,” Sawusch says.

The task force will help to come up with a toolkit for communities looking to reduce burn mortality and the negative impacts of burn injuries. Sawusch points out that there will be easily accessible websites with custom materials available.

The group will also work on gathering national standards for burn care, to help emergency care providers know what resources and specialized care is available.

The IAFF represents over 300,000 firefighters and paramedics in the U.S. and Canada

 “The firefighters are really awesome people to work with,” Sawusch comments, and the feeling is mutual.  IAFF Assistant to the General President Patrick Morrison called Sawusch “a leader in the industry.”