ANKENY, Iowa — A toddler’s body was badly burned in a Fourth of July celebration that turned into his parents’ worst nightmare. It’s been a month since that accident and the Conlon family is still shaken up. They say what happened to their son could be been avoided now they are advocating for change when it comes to the state’s legalized sale of commercial fireworks.
“We keep telling him how brave he is,” smiles Ilyssa Conlon. She’s the mother of two and a half year old, Leo. On July 4th, Leo was laying on a rubber innertube in the driveway of his family’s Ankeny home watching fireworks, when the Conlons say their neighbor’s firework tipped off its based and headed straight for the young boy.
“When it happened, I saw It shoot out of the corner of my eye and hit Leo. It sat there for a second. He turned and rolled and it exploded. As it exploded, I grabbed him and essentially me picking him up and grabbing him is what put out the fire on his shirt. I ran into the house,” described Ilyssa.
Leo received second and third-degree burns on his back, ankles, and arms. Doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinic burn center are surprised the burns weren’t more widespread.
In 2017, Iowa lawmakers legalized the sale of fireworks. In the three years before the legislation went into effect, the state averaged between ten and twenty firework-related injures a year. After 2017, that number has doubled, to nearly 40 injuries a year, according to a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics report.
The report also finds more Iowans under the age of 18 are being hurt by fireworks and the severity of those injuries is worse too, with 18-percent of patients needing an amputation. Before the legalization, the report did not find any patients needing surgery to remove a limb.
“These are serious fireworks being sold on the side of the road and brought in our neighborhoods and being shot off with not really understanding where they are going to end up or what the outcome is going to be,” says Sean Conlon, Leo’s father.
The Conlons say that needs to change. They are proposing Leo’s Law and calling for lawmakers to stiffen enforcement of current laws, implement state-sponsored safety initiatives and create financial punishments for those found using fireworks negligently. It’s catching the eye of an Iowa legislator. Senator Jack Whitver tells WHO13;
“I was deeply saddened to hear about Leo’s accident. I hope he has a full and quick recovery and I appreciate the updates from his father. The severity of the incident reminds us all of the importance of fireworks safety. They must be used in an appropriate and responsible manner. I appreciate The Conlon’s reaching out with his thoughts about potential changes to the fireworks laws in the state. I will keep his thoughts in mind for the upcoming session next year.”
Meanwhile, doctors say Leo’s skin shouldn’t scar but he will have pigment loss for a while. Leo’s parents say the mental recovery will be a lengthy process too.
“He still shows signs of fear. Bedtime is very hard for us right now. He does not want to be alone at all. He says mommy keep me safe. Daddy keep me safe when we put him to bed because he knows he’s going to be alone.”
The Conlons say another added stress of getting Leo the medical attention he needed was made worse due to a metro hospital’s emergency room full of other patients with firework-related injuries. They spent hours in the hospital before being told UIHC would be better suited to help them. It took the family 48 hours before they were able to successfully talk with someone from the burn unit then another 24 hours after that before Leo could be seen by doctors. In their proposal to lawmakers, the Conlons are also asking for more research and training to better equip medical personal in emergency rooms and urgent care facilities to respond immediately to firework trauma.