On October 5, 1979, my life changed in a way I could never have imagined. I was 20 years old—a good-looking kid with a decent job and a girlfriend. I had just moved out on my own. I thought I was on top of the world.

I was working as a millwright for an industrial contractor. We had just finished a job at an oil refinery in southern New Jersey when we got called back to dismantle an old water pump that hadn’t been used in more than 25 years. It should have been a simple job.

The bolts on the pump were so rusted I had to burn them off with an acetylene torch. As I worked on the last bolt, the pipeline exploded in my face, showering me from head to toe with hot crude oil. I burst into flames and the impact of the explosion threw me across the room into a steel column. The blast was later determined to be equal to eight sticks of dynamite.

The pump had been incorrectly labeled as a water pump, when in reality it held crude oil that was being superheated by the torch. My co-workers threw me in the back of a pickup truck and drove me to the gate to wait for an ambulance. As a contractor, I wasn’t allowed to use the on-site ambulance.

I was told that I continued to burn for the next 12 hours. I had second and third degree burns over 90 percent of my body, especially my face, arms, chest, neck and back. I lost my nose, both ears and lips. My eyelids were sewn shut and I wasn’t sure I would see again (I can, thanks to my safety glasses). My throat was seared and my lungs were damaged. My chest and arms were burned to the bone in some places. Through it all, I never lost consciousness.

I spent three months in a hospital burn unit, and was given Last Rites seven times. I still can recall the screams coming from the debridement room, and the horror of knowing I was next in line for this torture chamber. I left the burn unit for a rehabilitation hospital that had never cared for a burn survivor. I was kept behind a screen so as not to frighten the other residents.

I fell into a deep depression. I was 21, and suicidal. My parents recognized this, and brought me home. My father quit his job and became my full-time caregiver. He built me a workshop and gave me a reason to live. I would have surely died without my parents.

I have had 79 surgeries since the accident. I began waking up during surgery because I had built up a tolerance for narcotics. I needed to be “detoxed” in order to have more surgery, then would become dependent again. I needed narcotics to help manage the physical and emotional pain. I became a full-fledged drug addict, using heroin in North Camden, NJ and eventually on methadone maintenance. I had built what appeared to be a fulfilling life—marriage, children, successful business, community involvement—but I was wallowing in the depths of denial.

I have been clean since 1996, thanks to a 12-step recovery program and the unwavering support of my family and friends. My wife, daughters and grandson have shown me unconditional love and acceptance. I have had to dig deep within myself to discover a resilience, acceptance and compassion for myself and others that I didn’t know existed. I still struggle every day, but my new spirituality and perspective have helped me see that life and love truly are an inside job.

We burn survivors share a unique solidarity. We all are in various stages of healing all the time. We often have to deal with rude,ignorant and even cruel people who don’t know how to respond to us. This is one of the reasons for this blog and the book I am writing about my experience. To educate and enlighten people about burn survivors and those who look different. I work with the Phoenix Society, SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) at Lehigh Valley Health Network, and other support programs to help burn survivors reintegrate and learn to cope with a changed world. My hope is that all these efforts also will help society become more accepting of burn survivors.

While I am writing this blog primarily for burn survivors, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t faced some sort of adversity. Whatever your struggles, I hope you can find some kernels of hope here.

My lovely wife, Sonya, daughters Kayla and Carly, grandson Kaiden and oh yes....our friend Jerry playing peeka boo! Spirit of Courage Awards ceremony 2009


7 Responses to “My Story”


  1. 1 Melissa Bozeman
    March 21, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Here’s to bringing a more meaningful meaning to the letter entitled “Dear John”

    I met you yesterday evening at PEC. I was the woman who arrived late and left truly blessed to have been late rather than not to have made it at all (which was nearly the case) I walked in just in time to be moved by the kids questions and your answers. I was accompanied by my boyfriend and 9 year old son, Nathan. I camped out at the table engaging in conversation up until you packed up and headed out, I then followed you out to the parking lot and part ways to your car. The moment I felt your presence I knew you had something for me, I didn’t know what but I knew you weren’t going to say “Glad you finally made it, I’ve been holding this for you” So I was digging in thin air for something invisible. When I left I wasn’t empty handed but would prefer to have needed a wheel barrel. I read your blog and I believe I may have found the key to tidy up my estimated 10 years of foot work that leads up to the point that the healing process begins. I feel confident about this and will keep you updated but at this moment I’ve got to get my hands on a book or two. My ultimate goal being Self-Actualization.

    Thank You John for being “You”

  2. January 21, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    Everyone knows the computer always wins. The people who put these programmes together are very clever.

  3. October 27, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    I am so amazed by all of this. I have no idea what my son will go through as he grows up. Please keep going for all of us.

  4. October 25, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    John:

    Kudos to you and all who love you! I am truly interested in your work. Is it accessible, or for sale?? I am a wood worker, so to speak, as I carve wood (all types) with a chainsaw, here in Florida. We have an abundance of different types of wood. I appreciate talent, all types, and especially woodworking. Please respond.

    Best to you and your family!

    Sue
    sue_pelletier@yahoo.com

  5. September 22, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Hi John,

    My husband and I had the pleasure of meeting you and your wife this evening in Cincinnati. We were sitting on the wall waiting to start volunteering for the LLS Walk. I am going to share your blog with the young girl who is here in the US from Uganda to have her face re-constructed, I think hearing your story will help her through her journey.

    Thank you for sharing your story John.

    Meg & Mike

  6. 6 jeffrey jacuk
    September 20, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    John, I stumbled upon your site via tattoo research and Sailor Eddie…I am also a fellow survivor with a strikingly similar story. My accident was 1982, two days before my 19th birthday…
    Anyway, I just wanted to get this note out to you and hopefully speak further. After many years in the corporate world I am finally seeing the time to reflect and actually allow myself some additional healing.
    I hope we can talk at some point. Your work is beautiful.

    Best regards,
    Jeff

  7. 7 Catherina
    July 24, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    John, You are an amazing person…. What a touching story. I am so glad that I have had the opportunity to meet you and your beautiful family. I hope we can all get together soon. We miss you all very much!!!

    Catherina and Family


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Beyond Recognition

An intimate view of a burn survivor's life and recovery

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