John O’Leary Celebrates the Blessings Born from the Tragedy of Fire

In Honor of National Burn Awareness Week, Burn Survivor John O’Leary Celebrates the Blessings Born from the Tragedy of Fire

Phoenix Society is immensely excited to welcome John O'Leary, world-renowned motivational speaker and burn survivor, as our newest guest blogger. John writes from the heart—with a unique understanding of the reality of the daily struggle of living with burn injury, to rising above those struggles and offering others real strategies to live inspired lives. He was a keynote speaker at Phoenix World Burn Congress 2015 in Indianapolis, IN, and received an overwhelming response from the Phoenix WBC audience. This is John's first post to the Phoenix Society blog and his personal letter to all of you in honor of National Burn Awareness Week to "shine the light on the many gifts in your life today." We hope you enjoy and find inspiration...


By John O'Leary


Phoenix Society Friends,

As I shared with many of you in Indianapolis at the Phoenix World Burn Congress last fall, when I was 9 years old, I suffered burns over 100% of my body and was expected to die. Today, I am blessed to share my life story as a “backdrop” to encourage over 50,000 people each year to live radically inspired lives. As a Phoenix Society Ambassador, I am honored to join you as a contributing blogger, fellow burn survivor, and friend today and all year.

Today’s blog post is a very special one in honor of National Burn Awareness Week 2016.  My message is to share how I am able to celebrate the many gifts that were born from the ashes of my house fire and resulting burn injuries nearly 30 years ago.  But I didn’t always see them as gifts…….

The message is an excerpt from my new book ON FIRE: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life.  Read on to find out what I mean—with hopes to help shine a light on the many gifts in your life today, too.

Excerpt from On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life





“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.” 
                                                               —Marshal Ferdinand Foch



It was a simple answer.

And it wasn’t the one he was expecting.

I was standing in the front of a crowded auditorium in Shanghai and had just finished sharing the defining story of my life. For the previous hour during my keynote speech I’d described the day I was terribly burned as a child, the months I spent in the hospital, and the vast challenges I faced afterward.

It was a devastating, transformative, and tragic experience.

So this man asked a question with a seemingly obvious answer:

“John, if you could go back in time, go back to that Saturday morning, go back to that moment when you picked up the gasoline and got burned, would you do it all again?”

I looked at him, thought about it for a moment, and answered honestly.


He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

Would you really choose to almost die? Would you choose to be burned on 100 percent of your body? Would you actually opt in to the desperate fight for life, or spending five months in the hospital or being barely functioning for another eight months after that? And would you seriously choose to walk through life with scars covering your body, fingers amputated, and whispered glances and pointed fingers every day of your life?


And I’ll tell you why.

The fire was devastating, almost killed me, and certainly sparked a lifetime of challenges.

But it also molded me into who I am today.

So while it is true that if I’d not been burned, I’d remove all the difficulties caused by the fire. It is also true that I’d destroy all the gifts galvanized because of it.

You see, everything beautiful and enriching in my life today was born through the tragedy of those flames. Through the painful ashes of recovery as a child, I grew in character, audacity, compassion, faithfulness, and drive. It galvanized a clear perspective on what actually matters and a bold vision for what’s possible. Because of the fire, I don’t take things for granted, am grateful for each day, and am certain that the best is yet to come.

The fire matured my grade-school community. It transformed little kids into compassionate, helpful classmates willing to serve their fellow classmate with some special needs. It later guided the decisions on where I went to high school and to university, which led to a fortuitous meeting with a beautiful lady named Beth, which led to four little kids.

I live an awesome life; a radically inspired life.

A radically inspired life is when you embrace the lessons from your past, actively engage in the miracle of each moment, and ignite the limitless possibility of tomorrow. Now, it certainly doesn’t mean a painless existence of error-free living. Far from it. But a radically inspired life means you possess the ability to learn from past mistakes, rise above personal challenges, and thrive in life, no matter your circumstances.

I wouldn’t know this—and wouldn’t be living this—had I not been burned in that fire.

Do I have scars?

You bet. They cover my entire body.

Did I lose my fingers?


Was it devastating for my family?


But we overcame.

It no longer defines us.

We’re significantly better because of it.

If you’d like to read more of John’s upcoming book, please click visit and preview the first two chapters for free.  @JohnO'LearyRisingAbove

When John O'Leary was 9 years old, he suffered burns over 100% of his body and was expected to die. He is now an inspirational speaker and author, teaching more than 50,000 people around the world each year how to live inspired. John's first book, ON FIRE: The Seven Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life (, publishes March 15, 2016 by North Star Way, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. A member of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, John is a proud husband and father of four and resides in St. Louis, Missouri.

From ON FIRE by John O’Leary. Copyright © 2016 by John O’Leary. Reprinted by permission of North Star Way, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Recent Comments

Jeanne    Moderate:
10:51am - Mar 4, 2016

Hi Feike - thanks so much for sharing your personal perspective on this piece.  We will be sure to share your comments with John, too.  If you are interested in sharing your voice for prevention efforts, you may wish to read more about our advocacy efforts at or view the advocacy training at  Stay in touch!

Feike van Dijk    Moderate:
2:03pm - Feb 4, 2016

Thank you John,
Very inspiring, this is also how I look at it but (yes, there is a but) if I could have saved my children that perished in our house fire and I would have lived with severe burns my whole life, dealing with an incredible physical pain, I rather would have that happened.
The fire molded me to the person I am now, and it’s still fresh… continuous to hurt and continues with the emotional damage.
I know that I will be a better father, husband and human being, but (yes another one) I would not say that I would like to happen it that exact way if I could turn back time, which I sadly can’t.
I would do anything to prevent it happening all over again in our community if it will happen again.