Surviving sauna finalist Timo Kaukonen overcomes serious injuries
By Jussi Pullinen
The top of his hand is red, as is the skin on his neck that can be seen from under the hospital gown. A crew cut has replaced the long hair that he had in the pictures of the sauna competition.
The rest of his body is covered in soft garments that protect his burned skin.
His face is also red, but the features are recognisable, despite the loss of around ten kilos in weight. It is the sauna competition finalist Timo Kaukonen.
The place is a meeting room at Helsinki’s Töölö hospital.
Large areas of Kaukonen’s skin are covered with burns. He has difficulties in moving, but it is getting easier with each passing day. His voice is hoarse - his lungs also suffered considerable heat damage from the hot steam. But he is alive.
“I wouldn’t believe it, all this - from just one sauna session”, Kaukonen says.
The fateful session took place on a Saturday in early August.
Kaukonen recalls only the Friday, the day that the championships began. There were many people there, and many of them knew Kaukonen, the champion of previous years.
“That’s all that I remember.”
After that, it’s all black.
Kaukonen has no memory of how the finals turned bad and then tragic.
He has been told that he went into the finals, and next to him sat the Russian competitor Vladimir Ladyzhensky.
Water was poured on the stones of the sauna stove twice a minute. The temperature was 110 degrees Celsius. An ice-cold shower before each round made it easier to withstand the heat.
After five minutes the last of the other finalists had exited the sauna. Only Kaukonen and Ladyzhensky were left. And the stove hissed again.
Two minutes later Kaukonen started to waver and toppled forwards. Assistants rushed into the sauna and took the men out. Resuscitation began, but Ladyzhensky died.
Kaukonen’s injuries also looked terrible. There was a rush to get him to hospital in Helsinki.
In just two minutes, the steamy sauna caused injuries of the type that even Finland’s best burns unit rarely sees.
Head ward physician Jyrki Vuola says that burns that extend as deep into the lungs as the ones suffered by Kaukonen are typical of the aftermath of steam explosions.
More than 70 per cent of Kaukonen’s skin suffered burns.
The worst affected were his legs, which were close to the stove. His respiratory system suffered, and finally his kidneys failed. Vuola did not expect Kaukonen to survive.
The Lahti native nevertheless fought on. He was kept sedated on a respirator for six weeks. In late September it was already possible to reduce the medication.
“It is a mystery how the man pulled through this”, Vuola says.
A couple of weeks ago the sedation was lifted. Kaukonen finally understood what the final had led to.
“I should have quit earlier. I wouldn’t have wanted to do this to myself”, he says.
“A sauna competition is not such a serious matter.”
Psychologically, Kaukonen has not yet revisited the events of the day of the competition.
“It’s possible that they might start going through my mind, and at some point I will have to deal with them”, he says.
Kaukonen nevertheless seems alert, and even tells a couple of jokes during the interview.
“Now I just want to get into shape and go home.”
Recovering from the burns will take at least a year, and the final outcome remains uncertain. Recovery has proceeded so well that Kaukonen was transferred to a hospital in Lahti on Friday.
Rehabilitation continues there. His mobility could improve fairly rapidly, and he should be able to get home in the coming weeks to be with his wife and two children.
“I’ve always told them not to do stupid things, and then I go and do something like this.”
Back at home there are also saunas.
Kaukonen plans to stay away from sauna competitions.
“For me, it’s in the past”, he says.
But does he plan to ever go into a sauna again?
“I’ll go as soon as I can. I like the sauna so much”, Kaukonen says.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 23.10.2010
Previously in HS International Edition:
Man injured in sauna world championships does not blame competition organisers (25.10.2010)
Police finally question injured Sauna World Championship finalist (7.10.2010)
Police investigating circumstances of fatal accident at Sauna World Championships (16.8.2010)
Russian finalist dies at Sauna World Championships (10.8.2010)
JUSSI PULLINEN / Helsingin Sanomat