John O’Leary: Choosing to Become a Beacon of Hope

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By Nicole Dahmen, PhD

"Celebrate the scars.  Realize the incredible power that we have that others are starved to receive in their lives."     —John O'Leary

John O'Leary, burn survivor and motivational speakerJohn O’Leary walks onto an airplane. He has a cup of coffee in one hand, a sandwich in the other. He takes a seat, opens his laptop, and starts typing frantically. Then he looks up. People are staring at him. “Let’s be honest,” he says, “I’d stare too.”

People stare because his body is covered in scars. But the staring doesn’t bother John. To John, the scars, and the attention they bring, are a gift. “Once we embrace fully the gift of these scars,” he explains, “it gives permission to those around us to embrace the scars in their own life and to connect with us at a deeply human level.”

While John’s story does include times of deep pain and depression, his life exemplifies grace and resilience.

A Horrible Ordeal, A Moment of Grace

On January 17, 1987, at 9 years of age, John sustained burns to 100 percent of his body. He had been in his family’s garage experimenting with fire and gasoline. The fumes ignited, causing a massive explosion. He was trapped.

“I saw flames all around and orange flashes from within me,” John recalls. “I was covered with gasoline and burning. And I couldn’t stop, drop, and roll because everything was on fire.”

After he managed to escape the garage, a series of heroic acts by 3 of his 7 siblings set in motion a journey embarked upon by both his family and community to save the young boy’s life, both physically and emotionally.

His brother wrapped him in a rug and threw him to the ground to extinguish the flames. His sister ran back into the burning house to get glasses of water to pour over his body. Meanwhile, another sister kept him calm with words of encouragement and love.

“This horrible ordeal was a moment of grace where my siblings did the next best thing which gave me a chance and set me on the right path,” says John.

After a terrifying and painful ambulance ride, he arrived at the hospital. His parents followed soon after. “I thought my dad was going to be irate,” John recalls, “but instead he said ‘I love you, and I’m proud of you.’”

But John was scared. He distinctly recalls asking his mom, “Am I going to die?” Her profound response surprised him. Susan O’Leary asked her son a critical question, “Do you want to die? It’s your choice.” At that moment John made a choice—the choice to live.

“Take the hand of God,” Susan told her son. “Walk this journey with him. Fight like you’ve never fought before.”

After he came home from the hospital, John O'Leary's family decided to look forward, living life as normally as possible.John’s burn injury was extensive. He had third-degree burns to 87 percent of his body. All of his fingers on both hands had to be amputated. The only donor site available was his scalp. He underwent more than 14 surgeries to piece his body back together. It was a long and painful medical recovery.

As John slowly regained consciousness in those early weeks, he began to realize the extent of his injury. “I looked down and saw my feet and legs and thighs and stomach and chest and arms,” he recalls. “Everything was ruined. In that moment I realized my physical beauty, my normalcy, was forever ruined.” John sobbed over the loss of his body and describes feeling an “unbearable emotional pain.”

Comforted by a Familiar Face

But even in that dark moment, the 9-year-old was able to find a glimpse of hope. His mom held a mirror up to his face, and through his swollen eyes he was able to recognize his own face. “Seeing my face and lips and nose was enough to realize that I still had a little piece of me that I recognized,” he says, “and that was enough to bring calm.”

Recovery from a burn injury is long and arduous, both physically and emotionally. Through it all, John recognized the importance of “finding things to grab onto.” He explains, “Little glimpses of hope were enough.”

While in the hospital, with the support of his family and community, John says he never second-guessed life or death. He had faith in his doctors, his family, and God. And he had the encouragement of countless people. It was never a matter of if he was going to make it through, he says, “just a matter of when.”

The Decision to Return to a “Normal” Life

Once home from the hospital, John and his family made the decision to look forward. For them, that meant living life as normally as possible. John returned to school. He started playing soccer again. But it was difficult for him.

“It was tough to be wheeled back into school in a wheelchair. And I was out there playing soccer, but I could barely walk,” he recalls. While John acknowledges that the decision to live as normally as possible was valuable in his recovery, he has since realized that it also set him on a path to “hiding from his scars.” He spent years covering them, physically and emotionally, with everything from clothes to humor to partying to staying busy. He also used his scars as a crutch, an excuse for the difficulties in his life. But deep down he had fears—Will I ever walk? Will I ever date, marry, get a real job?

While John recognizes that “despair and challenge are normal in the arch of any lifetime,” he says that “when you’ve been wounded by a burn as badly as we have, those challenges are magnified.”

“They can be a seemingly insurmountable wall,” John cautions, “and we have to find a way to climb past.” Over time, he learned that using his scars as a crutch had kept him from fulfilling the possibility of his life.

The Message of Possibility

John with his wife, Beth, and their four childrenToday, at the age of 38, John exemplifies courage, grace, and resilience. He has been married for 11 years to his college sweetheart. They have 4 beautiful children, ages 3 to 9. He plays soccer. He loves to canoe. He owns his own business. He travels the globe, sharing his inspirational message.

John credits his success to his faith, his parents, and the kindness of strangers. John says that after his injury his parents encouraged him rather than enabled him. For example, they supported him in figuring out how to care for his daily needs rather than doing those seemingly simple tasks for him.

John laughs when he thinks about his first day home from the hospital. “My parents made me feed myself even though I didn’t have any fingers!” he recalls. This empowering love, he says, helped him moved past using his injury as an excuse.

The kindness of strangers has also been critical in John’s journey. One of those strangers was Glenn Cunningham, a burn survivor and an acclaimed distance runner. John recalls Glenn’s message to him.

“It’s not going to be easy,” said Glenn, “but never quit. Anything is possible.” John credits that as being a “huge moment” for him.

John embraced the message of possibility. He earned a college degree and later became a hospital chaplain, which opened the door to serving children in the same way he was served.

Today John’s message is simple but profound: We can go through life as a victim or a victor. It’s a choice. John gets up every day determined to make a positive impact on those around him.

He acknowledges that life is difficult, saying, “We all deal with challenges and struggles. We all get down. We live in a challenged, broken world.”

John doesn’t focus on the negative and ask “Why me?” Instead his response is “OK, God, what are you doing through these things and how can I become even better because of them?”

John O'Leary shares his story at Phoenix WBC 2015“We frequently stay so focused on the scar, the wound, the things we don’t have, that we don’t take pause to really capture the incredible gifts that we receive because of the episode,” he explains. The aspects of his life that John is most proud of today—his faith, his wife, his children, his work—are all a direct result of being burned.

For John, life is about “turning the light and lens from a negative on me to a positive on what it means for others.” So when John walks onto an airplane full of strangers, he welcomes the attention his scars bring and the opportunity they provide to truly connect with other human beings.

“Celebrate the scars. Realize the incredible power that we have that others are starved to receive in their lives,” he advises other burn survivors. “We’ve been through the worst. We survived. We endured. We chose not to die. We can choose to shine and thrive. We can inspire a community who is desperate to realize that the best is yet to come. We can truly be bright beacons of hope.”

Nicole Dahmen is a faculty member at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. She is also a burn survivor.


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support Magazine, Issue 3, 2015.  Burn Support Magazine is a tri-annual publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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