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Decades Later, Woman's Mask Still Helps Burn Victims

JACKSON, Minn. (WCCO) -- Thirty-five years ago, an invention was made in a Twin Cities hospital that's worked to heal the scars of thousands of burn victims.

Not only was the female inventor a Twin Cities native, so were several of her first patients. WCCO-TV introduces you to one of those patients and shares the story behind the device that's made an impact around the world.

When she was 17, Chris Gilyard's priorities were like most her age.

"We were going to go shopping for a killer New Year's Eve dress," Gilyard said.

But on her way to the shopping mall, her priorities would forever change.

"A car passed me on the left and blew the snow all over, and that's the last thing I remember was the white out," Gilyard said.

Gilyard's car was hit from behind, causing the gas tank to explode.

"My face had deep burns, kind of like, it was kind of like the fire wrapped around. They took skin from my stomach, and used that for my face," Gillyard said. "I looked in the mirror, and the first thing I thought was I don't look like a girl anymore, I look like a guy who's had the daylights beaten out of him. Then I thought, 'who is ever going to love me?'"

This is where Liz Rivers enters. Rivers started as an occupational therapist at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. It's there where she would craft an invention they still use today. Rivers first experimented with plastic used on snow mobile windshields.

The custom fit mask helps to heal burned skin that often shrinks, limiting facial movement.

"To keep those scars elongated and from getting thick, you have to have good pressure," said Nurse Head of the Regions Burn Unit Candyce Kuehn.

The clear color of the mask helps to monitor the healing progress. It's healing that Gilyard says wouldn't have been possible without Rivers' invention.

"They saved my life. They saved my face, they gave me back me," Gilyard said.

Burn victims wear the masks typically for one to two years.

By the way, Gilyard now works at Regions, offering psychological help to burn victims. As for the therapist who invented the mask, Rivers, she is in her 70s and still lives in the Twin Cities.

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