Superbubba shows strength battling third-degree burns
6-year-old moves forward, back in school after accident
In the world of super heroes, every caped crusader has a villain, and for Damien Tarr — better known as Superbubba Layman — the world is a lot better without the likes of Mr. Tight, Mr. Scar and Sir Infection.
People who spend any time at Eunice Thomas Elementary School, or at the Cassville Walmart, may have seen Tarr. After an accident at his home in Cassville, Tarr suffered third-degree burns to more than 40 percent of his body, and now, he wears a full body compression suit, including a plastic mask.
Tarr’s story has been one of overcoming struggle since he was born. Not speaking until the age of 3, Tarr was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. His mother, Darcy Layman, said despite his early challenges, Tarr developed into a high-functioning child that is happy as could be.
“Damien is such a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving, fast-moving kid, and he has the best smile in the whole world,” she said. “Impulse control is an issue, and he has some sensory sensitivity. When he was young, he never slept, only in half-hour intervals. We did applied behavioral analysis and errorless learning, which is where you teach from the point of not allowing him to make mistakes. Like, instead of asking him questions like, ‘What color is that?’ I tell him. ‘This color is red.’ He excelled with that, and he’s overcome a lot. We did applied behavioral analysis all day, every day until he was 4-and-a-half. Most children stop it at 3, but he was doing so well we continued.”
The accident and immediate care
Tarr has remained his happy-go-lucky, fun-loving, fast-moving demeanor, but the early struggle with autism was a minor challenge compared to what he would face next. Tarr’s family moved to Missouri in June 2017, and after Christmas, the family began working on finding and restoring a 1981 Dodge truck.
“Damien liked old trucks like me,” Layman said. “On March 19, we brought a truck home and my husband, Gregory Layman, was working on the truck in the garage and it would just start and die. He asked me to come turn it over while he was below the front end looking for the vacuum leak that was causing it to die. When I turned it over, we heard a loud bang, and a ball of fire came shooting out from the engine bay.
“The door from the garage into the house was open, and that door has a backdraft into the house. Damien was walking through the doorway at the time the ball of fire flew out, and he was engulfed by fire. Gregory instantly smothered Damien to put the fire out. We got him inside to the kitchen and I splashed warm water on him to put the rest of it out. Gregory got on the phone with 911, and I just remember eventually screaming and finally crying after all the adrenaline wore off and what happened finally started to sink in.”
Despite the incident, Tarr seemingly did not know he had been burned.
“He was talking and kept saying he was fine, but he did not even look like Damien in that instant,” Layman said. “The fire was so hot, his skin almost looked like a shedding snake and had basically melted. It was the scariest thing ever, and there are still scorch marks on the wall.”
During an ambulance ride to Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Tarr remained awake, asserting nothing was wrong.
“The whole ride, he was telling the EMTs about his dogs and his trucks and everything he would be saying like a normal kid,” Layman said.
After a couple nights at Mercy, Tarr was flown by jet to Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati. During the course of his treatments, he had been placed in a medically-induced coma, but no doctor’s potion would be able to match Superbubba’s strength.
“Those were the worst days of my life, [when he was in the coma],” Layman said. But, that proved how strong he is, because every 30 minutes for the first 24 hours, he kept waking up out of the coma and pulling out his tube. He had to be medicated during the flight several times because he kept trying to come to.”
Even during surgeries, Tarr seemed determined to be awake.
“He had his first surgery at Shriners on March 22, a debridement to remove some of the burned skin,” Layman said. “For a while, I didn’t get a page, and I felt I had to go back to his room. As I walked down the hallway, Damien was being moved down and was covered with nurses and doctors, and I could tell something was wrong.
“He had woken up during surgery and pulled his tube out again. But, his doctor was jumping up and down like a kid in a candy store, saying instead of putting the tube back in.”
Layman said the worry in such a severe burn situation is there could be damage to the throat and esophagus that may lead to it closing and the victim not being able to breathe.
“But, thanks to the fast action from Gregory, he never breathed in any of the fire,” she said. “Gregory had giant blisters on his hands from when he smothered Damien and put his hand over Damien’s mouth to stop him from breathing it in.”
After the surgery, Tarr remained awake, except for a couple surgeries, the number of which grew rapidly. And, even some of those “knockout” attempts failed to bring Superbubba down.
“I lost count at his ninth surgery in the first couple weeks, all of which were to remove burned skin or to do skin grafts,” Layman said. “Damien remembered things from the operating table, even when he was knocked out cold. Like, he knew at one point the surgeon had the wrong tool. How could he know or remember that? The last surgery he had was for grafts on his chest, left arm and belly. They removed skin from his calf, leg and buttocks for those grafts. He had needed blood transfusions every surgery, but for this one, he didn’t require any blood.
“He’s kept doctors with 50 years of experience on their toes and just astonished them. When his eyelids were done, they put gauze over them to heal. After 24 hours, he pulled the gauze off one eye, and after 36 hours, pulled the gauze off the other one and both had already healed. It usually takes seven days for those to heal. all the doctors can tell me is, ‘Every child heals differently.’”
Despite how much of a trooper Tarr has been, Layman wishes she could do more.
“You can give your kid just about everything as far as organs, but you can’t give your kid your skin,” she said. “In that sense, you feel totally helpless.”
The family spent 33 days at Shriners, and Layman said it should have been more like 45 or 50, but Tarr’s recovery was so quick the extended stay was not necessary.
“He even received the Hero of the Month Award from the Kids Wish Network, based in Holiday, Fla., because he just beat every single odd,” Layman said. “But, 33 days in a hospital will make anyone go stir crazy, whether you are the one in the bed or not. One time, not long after we got there, I was with him while he had his feeding tube and IV in, and he was still really swollen. I got to play with him, and it brought tears to my eyes to watch him go from being such a hyper kid to being stuck in a bed. I just felt kind of lost, but always fought through for him.”
Gregory Layman also played a role in the fight. Having lost all his hair, including eyebrows from the fireball, Tarr looked substantially different. To help him feel more normal, Layman shaved his head an eyebrows, as well.
These days, Tarr’s look is much-improved, though eye-catching to those not used to seeing a burn victim.
“We were going back to Shriners every two weeks for him to be covered in gauze and wraps, and some days it would take three hours just to get everything off and get Damien washed,” Layman said. “Now, we go back every two months for follow ups. On the second trip back every two months, he finally got his garments. He has knee-high socks, pants over those, a shirt that zips up in the back and attaches to his pants with velcro, a neck collar, a face mask and a glove on his left hand.
“All of the garments are for compression, which helps to reduce the scarring. The doctors showed me pictures of kid who had used the garments and kids who hadn’t, and the ones who did use it had much less scarring. Damien will still have scars, but they will be much less aggressive.”
Because scarred skin does not grow, Tarr will have to continue receiving treatments until he is fully grown. Plans are for him to continue going to Shriners until he is 26.
“Every time he grows, we have to grow his skin with him,” Layman said.
With the growing has come pain. Tarr has had a couple issues with infection and fever, but mamma bear was there.
“At one point, he was fighting infections and they couldn’t get any blood from him to test,” Layman said. “He had beaten so many odds already, and I realized it was time for me to get him up and moving. That’s where my momma bear kicked in. He still had an IV in and a fever, but I got him out of his bed to get in his wheelchair a few feet away, and we ended up walking through the whole hospital wing. After that, he didn’t lay in bed for more than a few hours at a time. Ultimately, I think we got his blood flowing more, and that helped with the fever and his recovery.
“But, right when we were about to leave the hospital to come home, his fever came back. And when we did go home, he had an infection and we didn’t know because the signs were similar to what the skin grafts looked like. We were home for two-and-a-half weeks, and that was the most painful thing we’ve had to endure. It was painful for him to be touched because of the infection, so it hurt when I had to wash and lotion him.”
Extended hospital stays in cases of infection or fever, then bi-weekly and bi-monthly trips to Cincinnati, can put a pinch on the pocketbook, but in Tarr and Layman’s case, charity has stepped in.
“All the finances are covered as far as travel to Shriners and the medical care itself,” Layman said. “‘Love to the Rescue’ is the Shriners program that covers us, and the Abou Ben Adhem Shriners in Springfield covers our travel. If Shriners did not cover our travel and care, there would be no way I could afford to get it. I can’t afford to drive to Cincinnati that often, let alone buy a $1,500 plane ticket, or pay for his garments.
“Having an entire arm and face recreated is not something any doctor can do. And, if Mercy did not tell us about Shriners treating burn victims, we would have never known, never thought to seek them out. Any time you go to anything sponsored by the Shriners, you’re helping to pay for Damien to be treated. If not for them, my child would probably not even be alive.”
The hospital even has its perks, like spaghetti fit for a super hero.
“Shriners gives us food when we are there, and they have amazing food at their cafeteria,” Layman said. “Damien’s favorite is spaghetti. He would eat four plates of it. They don’t even give him the kids’ serving any more.”
Shriners offers in-hospital room and board, akin to a hotel stay, and there are play areas for children and parents to provide a sense of normalcy in what can be a difficult place to be for weeks or months at a time.
“There is a play room with other kids in the same situation as Damien,” Layman said. “He loves to play in their Batman cave. It also give a space for all the parents to support one another.”
That support is a big help, as some of the scenes are fit for no parent.
“The first time we were there, I was in and out, and a nurse can and will try to comfort you, but it takes another parent in your shoes to really provide comfort,” Layman said. “There was one surgery where they were working on reconstructing Damien’s face, and if your child is having face surgery, it doesn’t matter how many gruesome things you’ve seen or how strong you think you are. No mother is prepared for that.
“I saw his face and I couldn’t breathe. He was like a ghost — a sheet of paper. It was like nothing you could imagine. And, I couldn’t show any emotion in front of Damien because he was awake and I had to be strong. He didn’t have a mirror to see himself, and he didn’t know what was going on. I went outside, and there was another mother that was there who asked if I was OK. I just fell into her arms in tears. Her son had multiple face surgeries, and she was able to show me a timeline in pictures from start to finish, and even though it was bad now, what Damien might look like by the end.”
While his mother struggled with the emotional pain of the situation, Tarr suffered with more brute, physical pain — and that’s how Superbubba was born.
“We got into comic books at Shriners, and Damien’s therapy could be painful, so we started making this comic book of him as Superbubba, where he would fight against Mr. Tight, Mr. Scar and Sir Infection,” Layman said. “We also call his garments his super hero suit, and it’s like a wetsuit so he can swim in it. It only comes off twice per day so he can bathe and get lotion massaged in.”
Even with how positive the family has remained throughout their ordeal, Tarr’s re-assimilation as his super hero alter-ego has not been the smoothest.
“It’s been hard to go back into the community,” Layman said. “We get lots of stares, and at times, I’ve cried my eyes out because we can’t go into Walmart without being stopped and asked questions. Sometimes, you just want to go in and get a gallon of milk and not have to explain and relive the last six months to a stranger.
“We were in Walmart one time and told someone what happened, and she said to her child, ‘That’s why I tell you not to play with fire.’ That was a real kick in the teeth, because he wasn’t doing anything wrong or out playing with fire by himself. No one could have predicted what happened to him.”
Layman said the difference in treatment is confusing at times, but even though it’s difficult, she sees the silver lining.
“It doesn’t matter if they are young or old, people give Damien dirty looks, or just stare and stare,” she said. “He had tantrums in the store before, pulling things off shelves and screaming, but no one stared then. So, why now?”
Struggles at home from such a horrific event have also reared their ugly heads.
“Damien has PTSD, night terrors, mood swings and depression,” Layman said. “There’s times he cries and says he wishes he was never burned or asks why we saved him. There’s so much mentally that he has to deal with, and medical professionals have told me it’s all trial and error. But, we’ve been through hell and back, so how hard can it be?”
That pain extends to Tarr’s sisters, 5-year-old Harmony Tarr, and 8-year-old Sage Russo.
“It’s been hard on my girls because they don’t get nearly half of what they used to get,” Layman said. “Damien’s medical needs take time, which means less time I can spend with the girls. They were also both in the hallway when we rushed Damien in and he was still on fire. My 8-year-old was on the phone with her Vo-Vo (grandmother) and ran out of the house to the neighbors to get help.
“The girls still have nightmares, and sometimes my 8-year-old asks what could have happened if she did something faster. Our lives are not the same as before. We’ve had to pick up the pace a little bit more to help, and there’s some things they can’t do, like roughhouse like they used to. We had a structure and a routine before, and it’s not that way anymore.
Again, even though things can be difficult, Layman stays focused on the silver lining.
“I think I have the most responsible 8-year-old girl anyone could ever meet,” she said. ”She can dress Damien and put his mask on better than many medical professionals. It’s given her a different perspective, and it’s brought the whole group of siblings a lot closer.”
Back to school
All three of Layman’s children go to Cassville schools. Harmony Tarr is in her second year of Kinder Academy, Russo is in the third grade, and Damien Tarr, well, no amount of burns will rob first grade from him.
“Most kids in this situation do not go back to school for at least a year,” Layman said. “But, the teachers all listen, ask questions, and whatever has to happen, they make it happen. They don’t just stand in the door and stare at him, but get in there and play with him and treat him no differently than before. None of the teachers were taken aback by the change, and none of them have missed a beat. That gave Gregory and I the push to put Damien back in school knowing it would be OK.
“Damien started school on the same day as everyone else. We just brought him in a little later. Shriners has a program to help people understand situations like Damien’s, and all the students at the district were part of an assembly that explained his garments and why he looks like he does. I’m so glad they did that because Damien is really happy at school. Everyone waves at him and says hi, and kids aren’t asking questions or scared of him.”
The assembly and sensitivity presentation has also had an effect outside of the school walls.
“We’d go to Roaring River to play on the playground, and kids were all scared of him at first,” Layman said. “Now, many of the kids there were at the assembly, so they all know him and have learned about his condition. It makes for a way better transition.”
Tarr has even had the opportunity to leave Missouri for places with a lot more sun and sand.
“We promised to take Damien to Florida when he got out of the hospital,” Layman said. “That’s where his sisters were, with his grandparents down there. We finally took him down, and he swam and swam and swam and played in the sand. He was so happy, like we had our Damien back again.”
Layman said when it comes to everyday life in Missouri, getting things to be as normal as possible — for Tarr and for the whole family — is the top priority.
“Our lives have changed, and we have done well, but we’d like to be able to go out in the community without having to relive everything all the time,” she said. “Our goal now is to just see where this takes us. They say, ‘Things like this only happen to people destined to do something great.’ The only question I have is, ‘What is it?’ I think all my kids will do something amazing, and until that comes, we’re all just along for the ride.”
One ride the family won’t be taking is in that 1981 Dodge, which met its demise at the junkyard. Like super heroes do in the movies, Superbubba crushed it.