Hope Haven offers touching reunion between physician and burn victim

Hope Haven offers touching reunion between physician and burn victim
Kelley and Randy Highsmith with Dr. H. Warner Webb, Hope Haven Chief Executive Officer Stella Johnson, and Sherrie Webb.

More than 50 years ago, Randy Highsmith, then only 16 months old, endured severe burns over 40 percent of his body during an accidental kitchen fire at his family home. Wanting to thank the doctor who literally saved his life at Hope Haven Hospital in 1967, Highsmith recently contacted the staff at the St. Nicholas facility to see if it was possible to reconnect with now-retired pediatric surgeon. The result was a touching reunion between Highsmith and his wife, Kelley, with Dr. H. Warner Webb and his wife, Sherrie, of Riverside, at Hope Haven March 22. 

“Randy made a point of wanting to meet Dr. Webb,” said Nancy Weaver, a spokesperson for Hope Haven. “When I told Dr. Webb about it, he said there are people in his life that he’s always wanted to thank and didn’t. He said he regrets that, so he really wanted to give Randy this opportunity to speak to him.” 

Highsmith, who lives in High Springs, did not know whether Hope Haven still existed when he looked up the facility online in March. In 1967, when his accident occurred, Hope Haven was the only pediatric hospital serving the Jacksonville community. In the 1980s, Hope Haven sold its inpatient services to Nemours Children’s Specialty Care and realigned its mission to focus on children with developmental and special needs. It also moved its facility from Atlantic Boulevard to its existing location on Beach Boulevard.

“We have a grandson named Jude who turned 1 year old in September and that got me to thinking, he’s about the age I was when I got burned. Then I wondered if Hope Haven was still in existence, and I looked them up online and wrote them a note,” Highsmith said.

Dr. H. Warner Webb greets his former patient, Randy Highsmith, during a special reunion at Hope Haven March 22.
Dr. H. Warner Webb greets his former patient, Randy Highsmith, during a special reunion at Hope Haven March 22.

Too young to recall the exact circumstances of his accident, Highsmith said his mother told him he had already been put to bed before the accident, while the rest of the family socialized in the living room. “We lived on a chicken farm in Orange Park. There was a gas hot water heater going in the house with copper tubing. I had gotten out of my bed and was heading to the kitchen, which I associated with my mom. I was holding myself up in the doorway and the hot-water heater was to my right. The pilot light came on and gas that was in the kitchen ignited. My dad had recently painted the kitchen walls, so it immediately caught on fire,” he said.

The fire burned the back of young Highsmith’s legs, hands, and the side of his face. His parents immediately transported him to Baptist Medical Center, where he met Webb who injected him with painkillers and arranged to have him transported to Hope Haven. Over the following years, up until he turned 18, Highsmith endured more than 30 surgeries, with Dr. Webb conducting skin grafts on his legs and hands at least twice a year from 1967 to 1976. Eventually Highsmith’s family moved closer to Gainesville, and he resumed his medical treatment at Shands Hospital.

“He is the doctor that saved my life,” Highsmith said. “During one of the surgeries I died. My mother told me my heart stopped beating for something like two minutes. He literally saved my life.”  

Although Webb said he couldn’t recall the specifics of Highsmith’s condition so long ago, his young patient’s name was familiar to him when he was contacted by the Hope Haven staff. “I don’t recall the specifics of all that, but I’m glad things worked out,” he said. “You were a pretty sick child when you had extensive burns at your age. That’s a pretty tough battle to fight.”

Growing up disfigured was tough, said Highsmith, who added that he was teased and bullied in school. “It’s made me conscious of that when it comes to other folks,” he said. He eventually graduated from Santa Fe High School, received a degree in accounting and processing from Webster College and is currently employed by Moses Engineering.

Webb, who began practicing medicine in Jacksonville in 1966, said he was grateful Highsmith wanted to reconnect. “I’m very humbled. I practiced surgery here for 45 years and never had a day when I got up and dreaded going to work. I did what I loved to do. Part of that was taking care of you the best I could,” he said to Highsmith. “I appreciate the remembrance, I really do.” 

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