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In the News and Out: Badly burned young man stays upbeat

Monday, December 23, 2002

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Eric Hilliard recently signed off the Internet as "the sexiest burnt guy alive."

Eric Hilliard, 19, rests in his bed at home, where he is recovering from burns over 60 percent of his body after being set afire during an argument at a Lawrenceville gas station. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

In the news and out, 2002

People make the news. But after their 15 minutes of fame, they often disappear from view. Starting today and running through New Year's Day, the Post-Gazette is revisiting 2002 newsmakers to see how they have fared since their moment in the spotlight.

Day One: Hit by school van, Katlynn still healing

Day Two: Badly burned young man stays upbeat

Day Three: Injured ironworker still finds accident site too hard to handle

Day Four: A trio of tots makes holiday a triple joy for proud parents

Although the 19-year-old Morningside man suffered burns on more than 60 percent of his body last summer at a Lawrenceville gas station, his sense of humor appears intact.

Hilliard, a tall man with a shock of red hair, has needed it since the evening of Sept. 1. That's when, police say, Thomas Risko doused him with gasoline and set him on fire as he sat in the passenger seat of his 1995 Ford Probe.

"I dove straight out of the car onto the ground. I remember looking at my arms and seeing skin hanging off my arms," Hilliard said.

Moments earlier, two of Hilliard's friends had traded insults with Risko inside the Sunoco A-Plus Mini Market, then continued the argument outside near the pumps. Risko, who is in jail, will stand trial April 22 on charges of attempted homicide, arson and risking a catastrophe.

When he arrived at West Penn Hospital, Hilliard was conscious. A priest administered last rites.

"If he'd died, we would not have been surprised. The mortality rate for burns and smoke inhalation averages 60 percent nationwide," said Dr. Harvey Slater, director of West Penn's Burn Trauma Center in Bloomfield.

Nurses ushered Hilliard's friends, two by two, in to see him.

"My friends have stuck by me through this whole thing. They were there just as much as my mom," Hilliard said.

His mother, Pam Hilliard, who spent three weeks at West Penn after the incident, said, "They were at his bedside. They have been with him this whole time. That really helped him accept himself the way he is."

The way he was included a boyhood in Morningside and education at Immaculate Conception Elementary School and Schenley High School.

On the night he was burned, Hilliard was earning money as a restaurant busboy and in fast-food places.

His favorite pastime was partying with his friends in his attic room of his family's home.

Youth and a clean liver and lungs all weighed in favor of Hilliard's survival, Slater said.

"They put a mask on me in the ER and told me to count backward from 10. I woke up in October," Hilliard said, adding that the drug-induced coma kept him from feeling the unbearable pain of second- and third-degree burns.

"I thank God every day that he didn't have to be awake," his mother said.

In October, Hilliard awakened from the coma but could not eat for an entire month.

He was fed through a tube in his stomach and, because doctors had also performed a tracheotomy, he had to be suctioned periodically, causing difficult coughing jags.

He also realized that a long, painful rehabilitation lay ahead. He left West Penn Hospital in mid-October for Health South Harmarville.

For about six weeks, he worked at learning to walk, write, sit down, get into a tub and get into a car.

"I'm more grateful for things in life just because I'm here," Hilliard said during an interview at his home, where he was recovering from his sixth skin graft surgery, this one on his right elbow.

A physical therapist comes three days a week to assist him with stretching, lifting 2-pound weights with his arms and ankles and playing with bolts to improve his fine motor skills.

"I've gotten a lot of my strength back," he said.

Eventually, he will spend a year wearing a body suit. The suit, which Hilliard will wear 23 hours a day, will put pressure on and smooth out the skin on his hands, arms, legs and feet.

He seldom thinks about Risko or dwells on the bizarre incident.

"I'm too busy trying to get better to be angry," Hilliard said.

In a few weeks, he will have a General Educational Development diploma and then plans to attend Community College of Allegheny County.

Hilliard also hopes to pursue a law degree.

"I never lose arguments so I think I'd be a pretty good lawyer," he said.

When he isn't doing physical therapy, taking medication or having a dressing changed, Hilliard sleeps, watches television and chats online with his friends.

When the Steelers played the Carolina Panthers Dec. 15, the living room was jammed with Hilliard's friends and the family's two affectionate dogs, Eve and Sam, short for Sambucca. Hilliard sat on his bed in the living room, eating pizza.

"I eat like eight times a day," he said.

During the day, his brother, Brian, looks after his needs. At night, his sister, Lori, 26, and his mother change his dressings.

His approach to recovery is matter of fact.

"What choice do I have? There is no choice," Hilliard said. "You have to deal with it. I still think I'm sexy. My face didn't get burned."

Even as a priest administered last rites to him, Pam Hilliard refused to consider the possibility that her son might die.

"It's difficult for me to say my son almost died," she said. "Him walking out of there was the only acceptable outcome."

Tomorrow: Injured ironworker Walter Pasewicz Jr.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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