Joe Kinan: A Recovery Defined by a Desire for Independence

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By Nicole Acton

On February 20, 2003, Joe Kinan was severely burned in the devastating Station nightclub fire in Warwick, Rhode Island, which killed 100 people and injured more than 200. For the last 10 years, he has been on a long journey of recovery. 

Drawing on Strengths

Although Joe spent more than 3 months in a coma and has had more than 100 surgeries, he has remained remarkably strong throughout the decade following the night that changed his life.

Before the fire, Joe worked as much as possible—two or three jobs at a time. He ran the custom suits and tuxedo department of a men’s clothing store and had a business cleaning offices at night. He was also an amateur bodybuilder, spending hours working out and loving the mental clarity that it brought. “I was trying to figure out where I was headed,” Joe says.

On the night of the fire, Joe was one of hundreds of people in the nightclub. When the fire started, he immediately tried to get himself and his girlfriend, who did not survive, out.

“When I was in the building, it was thinking about my daughter that pulled me through,” recalls Joe. “I didn’t want her to not have a dad.”

“From the time it started until they came in and looked for people, I didn’t stop yelling for help,” Joe says. He didn’t run out of breath, didn’t lose consciousness.

Joe believes that his fitness as a bodybuilder was one of the main reasons he survived the fire. He also believes his mental fitness, which came from his dedication to working out, was his primary source of strength throughout the recovery process. 

Finding Support

Joe Kinan and his surgeon, Dr. Curt Cetrulo, Jr., MD, 3 months after the hand transplantation.It was nearly 2 months after Joe awoke from the coma that he was finally able to open his remaining eye, but still several months before he was able to speak or see. Unlike many who spend that much time in a hospital, Joe didn’t mind being there. In fact, he became so used to it that when he was finally discharged, he wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not. Often he felt like it was time to go back.

While Joe says he didn’t have a lot of support over the course of his recovery, he does remember that the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors was one of the only organizations that was there for him. A Phoenix Society SOAR-trained peer supporter visited him several times while he was in the hospital. Then, in 2004, Joe attended his first World Burn Congress in Raleigh, North Carolina, with a large group of other survivors from the Rhode Island fire. Now he returns every year to see the many friends that he made there. 

At the 2007 World Burn Congress in Vancouver, Canada, Joe met Carrie Pratt, a fellow burn survivor, and the two became close friends. Two years ago, Joe and Carrie began dating, and in October the couple became engaged. 

Seeking Independence

Joe’s recovery process has been defined by his desire for independence. He has always struggled with asking for help, preferring to do things on his own.

“If you only ask for things when you really, really need them,” Joe says, “it’s more appreciated on both ends. I wasn’t about to be greedy.”

Joe Kinan & Carrie Pratt Engagement PhotoFour months ago, after nearly a year of tests and counseling, Joe received a hand transplant. He’s now hard at work on the difficult process of developing its dexterity and relearning everyday tasks. The progress that he’s made thus far has been incredible. Only months after the surgery there have been many small victories. Joe can finally button his own shirt and make his own cup of coffee in the morning But he has struggled with challenges at every step of the process, whether it’s figuring out how to get a coffee filter out of the package or how to hold the container.

Things continue to look up for Joe. While he experiences a near-constant “pins and needles” sensation, the nerves in his hand are growing back. And although the nerve endings haven’t grown to the surface yet, meaning he doesn’t have much sensation in the hand, they are growing back healthy. Moreover, there are no signs of transplant rejection.

Joe has learned a lot about the process of healing through his journey of recovery. “Something I say to myself is ‘You ended up a patient—now you have to be patient,’” he explains.

He has also learned to own his injuries. “You can’t force a wound to heal, you can’t make a muscle do something it doesn’t want to,” Joe says. 

Planning for the Future

Although rehab will be a constant in Joe’s life, it is no longer his main focus. Joe has started a real estate company, something that he says will keep his mind occupied. He would also like to get back to some kind of bodybuilding, and since the transplant prevents him from training in a public gym he would like to install a mini-gym at home. There’s also a wedding to be planned.

This year, for the first time in a decade, Joe will be returning to the site of the fire—for the 10-year-anniversary memorial service. In October, he will again attend the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress (WBC), the first to be held in Rhode Island. For Joe, the 2013 WBC will be like any other, an opportunity to re-connect with many great friends, but he believes that those who were touched by the fire and are still struggling may find World Burn Congress to be a bright light in the city of Providence. 


Nicole Acton is a student majoring in creative writing and theatre at Knox College. She is a family member of a burn survivor and has attended several World Burn Congresses. 


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Issue 1, 2013. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery. All Rights Reserved
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