Brad Johnson: Overcoming Challenges; Encouraging Fellow Survivors

Printable Version

By Nicole E. Smith

Brad Johnson at workWhen we think of advances in technology benefiting burn survivors, most of us generally think of the physical recovery. But there are also recent technological advances that can contribute to the emotional recovery.

One of The Phoenix Society’s more powerful, yet lesser known resources, is its biweekly online discussion for burn survivors and supporter. One of the regular participants in these discussions is Brad Johnson—where he goes by the nickname "woodnfish."

Brad, a North Dakota native, served as a volunteer fire fighter from the time he was a teenager. While on military leave from the Navy in September of 1991, Brad, who was 25 at the time, responded to a routine fire call. Upon arrival, the firefighters found a crude oil tank fire. Although they had handled calls of this nature before, this particular one was different. The crew decided to regroup and formulate a strategy. As the fire truck was pulling away with Brad positioned on the back, the tank boiled over and the heat and flames overtook the truck.

Although he knew he had been injured, Brad said he initially felt no pain and didn’t realize the severity of the burn. It wasn’t until several weeks later while lying in the hospital that he learned he received third-degree burns to 85 percent of his body. He had lost all of his fingers, both of his ears, the tip of his nose, and vision in his right eye. While this would be devastating for anyone, Brad felt particularly discouraged because his life and livelihood revolved around hands-on work. Brad had been a construction worker and welder and was currently a flight deck troubleshooter for the Navy.

Brad spent the next 13 months being transferred to and from hospitals from Texas to Minnesota. After final discharge, Brad began physical therapy at a local North Dakota hospital. It was here that Brad would meet a woman who would change his life forever.Brad and Leisa Johnson, with their children Chase, Tristen, Brayden, and Ashlyn.

Brad’s physical therapist introduced him to a nurse named Leisa. Brad said that he wasn't sure what would happen, but just took it "day by day." Leisa said Brad’s burns never bothered her, and as they were dating, "his personality came through and the burns disappeared." They are now approaching their 10th wedding anniversary and have four children, ranging in age from 2 months to 8 years.

Several years ago, Brad was surfing the Internet one night and did a search for "burn survivor chats." He came across The Phoenix Society and learned about the weekly Online Peer Support Chat sessions in which he immediately began to participate. He said he gets "personal satisfaction" from chatting with other burn survivors, and he enjoys "getting people out of their ruts."

Amy Acton, executive director of The Phoenix Society says, "Brad is wonderful at ‘listening’ and helping new ‘chatters’ to feel comfortable. He values everyone’s feelings and uses his sense of humor in a positive way to discuss difficult issues."

Brad’s message to other survivors is "Don’t hide. Never give up. Life is too short and so enjoy the things that please you and don’t worry what others think."

Brad certainly takes his own advice. After the accident, Brad felt discouraged because he believed that he wasn’t going to be able to use his hands anymore due to the loss of all of his fingers. So he took a job doing quality control inspection at an electronics company. He said it was a "dull job," but it proved to be another turning point in Brad’s recovery. One day Brad needed something cut on a band saw, but no one else was around, so he started to work on the part himself. He said it took him a little while to get the job done, but he "took the time" and realized that he was still able to use his hands and do it by himself.

Today, with a little patience, Brad has found a new hobby in woodworking. Brad says that the biggest challenge was to find a way to hold onto the tools, but he overcame this by using a special strap and hook to assist with grabbing and pulling. Brad also had a toe-to- thumb transplant on both hands, which was enormously successful.

Brad makes a variety of pieces from tables and desks to boxes and pens. Brad said that he is "pretty fussy" about his work and most enjoys the "fine detail and carving work."

All of his pieces are his own creations, which he describes as the "arts and crafts era or mission style furniture." Brad has sold his pieces to friends and family, but is beginning to reach a larger audience by word of mouth. Pictures of Brad’s work can be found on the Web at

Brad is trying to increase business so his current goal is to start marketing his pieces at craft shows. But because of the amount of time it takes time to craft each piece, it is difficult to accumulate enough stock to bring to a show. Leisa has begun to get involved in woodworking also, and the two of them are now making carved pen and pencil sets to complement the larger pieces.

Leisa describes Brad as "the strong silent type." She said that he doesn’t dwell on his injuries, but he is also open about discussing his injury and journey to those who ask.

One of the bigger challenges that Brad and Leisa now face is the reaction of their children’s friends to Brad’s scars. Brad and Leisa do not want to see their children face any cruelty or awkward situations from their friends. Brad says that when he initially meets his children’s friends, they are "hesitant" to approach him. But, he said he lets them take their time and is happy to answer any of their questions. Brad and Leisa’s children know that "daddy is a firefighter and was hurt on the job." The kids tell their friends this, and Brad and Leisa generally find that the children’s friends are very accepting and just want to know that happened. After a few initial questions, the children become comfortable with Brad.

In fact, when Brad’s oldest son, Chase, now 8, was in kindergarten, Brad built a birdhouse for each of the students in his class. He brought the birdhouses to school and helped the children paint them. Initially, some of the students were hesitant, but Brad spent some time explaining his injuries and how he has overcome them. By the end of the class, Brad says, “they were coming up to me and showing me what they could do too.”

Today, Brad and Leisa reside in DesLacs, North Dakota, with their four children, Chase, Tristen, 6, Brayden, 4, and Ashlyn, 3 months. Leisa works full time as an emergency room nurse, while Brad cares for their children. "This situation works out great for our family," says Leisa. She is able to continue a job she loves, while Brad can work at home in the woodshop and look after the children. The kids also spend a lot of time in the woodshop working on projects of their own.

Brad enjoys living his life to the fullest and actively helping other burn survivors. He recalls one chat session in which he met a man who had recently been burned and also lost all of his fingers. Brad said the man "thought his life was over." Brad told the man he was talking with "North Dakota’s only furniture builder with no fingers" and "you can do whatever you put your mind to."

Brad said he enjoys helping others. He believes the online discussion groups are a "powerful resource" and would like to see more people become involved.

Phoenix Society online discussions occur every other Wednesday from 8:00 to 9:30 p.m. E.S.T. To participate in the discussion, look for the Community link on the Phoenix Society website ( For more information, contact Amy Acton at amy@phoenix- 


Nicole E. Smith is an instructor in the mass communication department at Louisiana State University, where she teaches courses in visual communication, research methods, and media writing. She is also a burn survivor. 


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Spring 2004. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
The Phoenix Society, Inc.® • 1835 R W Berends Dr. SW • Grand Rapids, MI 49519-4955 • 800.888.BURN •