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Sculptor helps heal young burn victims’ scars

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

By Mike Dyer

ST. ANDREW DEANERY — For more than two decades, John Keehnen has worked to help heal the physical and emotional scars of children with burn injuries at Shriners Hospitals for Children-Cincinnati.

Keehnen is always willing to help the young patients that see him. His official title is medical sculptor and supervisor of appliance services at the Clifton-based facility.

In Keehnen’s occupation, the Milford resident makes face masks and pressure appliances for children who are recovering from an acute burn injury. There are four seamstresses in appliance services that make individual pressure garments for each patient, which reduce the amount of scarring after a burn is healed. The delicate work requires Keehnen to pay great attention to detail on properly fitting the patient to help recovery.

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John Keehnen, a medical sculptor, makes a face mask for a child with a burn injury. (Courtesy photo)

“The main thing I keep a focus on is that they are still kids,” said Keehnen, a 1971 graduate of Purcell High School.

Louise Hoelker, director of public relations at Shiners Hospitals for Children-Cincinnati, said Keehnen’s experience and expertise in the field is second to none.

“John is one of the most experienced medical sculptors in this field in the country,” Hoelker said. “It’s a craft as much as it is an art for him. His whole purpose is a better outcome for kids.”

Shriners Hospitals for Children-Cincinnati treats children up to the age of 18 and sees patients from all over the world. The care is without financial obligation to patients or their families. As a regional referral hospital, the Cincinnati facility serves children who live within a 1,000-mile radius, which is approximately 22 states. The Shriners Hospitals for Children- Cincinnati is one of only four freestanding hospitals dedicated to the treatment of pediatric burns for acute injuries and rehabilitative care. Boston, Galveston, Texas, and Sacramento are the other locations.

Keehnen realizes families’ lives are often turned upside down with an injury, so he understands the situation is difficult. But with the children, Keehnen tries to inject humor into the situation as much as possible during the fitting process.

“I’m the clown with the kids,” said Keehnen, who has been known to sing with some of the children.

Keehnen said there is a lot of teaching the child and the family how to take proper care of the pressure appliance. He will sometimes modify the cast in order to be sure it properly fits. Often, a child will see improvement in scarring in about a week.

Keehnen also said there is a process to getting the child prepared for going back to school or to just going out in public, whether a mall or restaurant, where they might encounter a stare.

“Our burn population grows up very quickly because they are forced to being very mature about their injuries,” Keehnen said.

Keehnen, 57, admits it took him a while to get acclimated to the treatment of children with severe burns when he first started as a medical sculptor 31 years ago. But, once he looked deeper to realize the patient was a child, he didn’t have the worries.

Keehnen attended the College of Mount St. Joseph and was a freelance artist after college. He was an actor in Hollywood for a while before he was introduced to the medical profession through a family connection.

A member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Milford for about 16 years, Keehnen says his faith has always been near the forefront of his profession.

“My faith is very important to me,” he said. “There are a lot of prayers to get through whatever happens here, a lot of prayers for patients I see.”

Keehnen has been married to his wife, Vicki, for 24 years. The couple has  two daughters — Sarah, who just started at Bowling Green State University, and Erin, who is in junior high school. He doesn’t take the value of family for granted. Sometimes his faith is tested when he sees a child badly burned and family members lost in a tragedy.

“You wonder, ‘why in the world would God do that to us?’ Then you see the extended family that gathers around the patient. I guess you learn what God throws at us. It makes us stronger. It also makes you more cautious about letting your guard down,” Keehnen said.

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