Long before health care and bioscience became a $37 billion San Antonio industry, Charles Martin Wender – “Marty” to his friends – emerged as a strong, vocal supporter.
A prominent real estate developer, Wender served on the boards of the San Antonio Medical Foundation and the University of Texas Health Science Development Board. He supported the Texas Biomedical Research Institute. He invested in medical startup companies. He touted the industry in speeches across the city and state.
After decades of support, Wender learned firsthand how well hospitals and medical professionals serve burn patients. Two years ago, he nearly died after a steam shower accident at his home, one that caused second- and third-degree burns over 20 to 30 percent of his body.
“If it wasn’t for my wife Rene, the San Antonio Military Medical Center, and the world-famous burn ward, I wouldn’t be here talking to you,” the 71-year-old Wender said from his third-story office on Northwest Military Highway. “I’m a very, very fortunate person to have lived in San Antonio and had those facilities available.”
Wender’s rehabilitation and recovery puts a new face on his long-repeated claim: San Antonio is Medical City, USA.
On the evening of Jan. 21, 2016, Wender did not come down for dinner. His wife went to check on him and found him inside the shower, crumpled on the floor.
“Marty, wake up,” Rene Wender pleaded. “Wake up!”
He did not move.
No one knows why Wender collapsed. As he lay on the floor, running steam caused burns on his head, back, arms, and hands. Set to a seven-minute timer, the steam had shut off by the time Rene found him. When paramedics arrived, they thought Wender was dead.
“Steam will burn you just like fire,” he said.
After one first responder detected slight breathing, an ambulance rushed him to University Hospital, a nearby Level 1 trauma center. A doctor said told Rene her husband had a 50-50 chance of survival.
Richard Perez, CEO and president of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, sent an email to members, requesting prayers. Wender’s name appeared on a prayer list at his synagogue, Temple Beth-El.
He spent the next three months in intensive care at the San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC). In a comatose state, Wender dreamed that he was given a choice between life and death, and that life would be the harder choice.
“I chose life,” he said.
He had other dreams – “crazy dreams,” he said – including one in which he awoke in a hotel suite and was told a lawyer would come to write his obituary.
“When I came out of the 90 days in intensive care, I had a hard time deciphering between what was a dream and what was reality,” Wender said. “My wife had to put me on cell phone timeout for several months. One of the first questions I had was, ‘When is the [Spurs’] rodeo road trip?’ She said, ‘That was months ago.’”
Wender awoke to a disfigured body. He lost two fingers on his right hand. Doctors performed numerous skin grafts on his hands, arm, and back, leaving him scarred. His scalp was burned. His already slight frame had shriveled to skin and bones. Through it all, Wender recalls one incredible detail.
“I felt no pain,” he said.
After leaving the ICU, Wender spent three months at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center in San Antonio. Afterward, he underwent one year of rehabilitation at SAMMC and University Hospital.
“I still had no pain,” he said. “Believe me, I feel very lucky.”
After completing rehab, the SAMMC staff threw him a graduation party. His recovery and positive attitude led UT Health San Antonio to create a video, which was shown at a gala in 2016.
“We were so fortunate to have wonderful doctors and nurses and therapists at SAMMC,” Rene Wender said. “We are so blessed to have that facility. Without it, I don’t think he would have made it.”
One friend in the business community teased with this: “Marty, you’ve given so many speeches about the wonders of our medical community and centers. But we didn’t mean for you to go out and test it.”
Seated in a conference room at his office, Wender exudes contagious energy. The only visible sign of his accident are the missing fingers on his right hand.
For Wender, who has weathered bankruptcy (in 1991) and the occasional controversy in his business dealings, this was a particularly challenging, and personal, trial to overcome.
“The good news is I can still sign my name and sign checks and eat with my right hand,” he said. “So it’s really not an issue. At first, I was very conscious about it. But after a while, you realize people don’t care.”
Since the accident, Wender has embraced more volunteer work. He serves as chair-elect of the Board of Governors for the Mays Cancer Center at UT Health San Antonio, supports the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio, and continues to give speeches.
“I am amazed,” said Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl, Emeritus, Temple Beth-El. “I think he’s found new meaning in life and gotten involved with more activities that will be beneficial to the community, like the Holocaust Memorial Museum.”
As for business, Wender continues to recruit companies to Westover Hills, his fast-growing, mixed-use development, which has attracted Microsoft, Valero, and other major data center facilities. Two other developments, Fawn Meadow in the South Texas Medical Center and Crownridge at Interstate 10 and Camp Bullis Road, are fully built out.
“Marty’s nickname is ‘Mr. Fix It,’” said friend and restaurateur Louis Barrios. “If it’s his health, his business, family, or a friendship, he’ll do whatever he needs to do to fix it. That’s why everybody loves doing business with him. He’s the consummate optimist. He’s the best patient, has the best attitude. Marty Wender is the truest good guy in the city.”
Two years ago, Rene Wender spoke with urgency to her husband who lay in a comatose state. “You better buck up,” she said. “I plan to be married 50 years.”
On June 7, the Wenders will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary.
“It’s such a blessing to me that he is born again and able to do all these things,” Rene said. “I say to him, ‘You’re back. You’re back!’ It’s a gift.”