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Burn victim: Each one of us can change the world

At Impact Alexandria at the Lake Geneva Christian Center Tuesday, John O’Leary talked about his childhood recovery from life-threatening burns and the lessons he learned along the way. On the overhead screen is an image of his skin doctor. (Echo Press photo by Al Edenloff)

People can change.

Nine-year-old John O’Leary, lying in a hospital bed after severe burns scorched 100 percent of his body, saw his father change when he walked into the room to see him.

John expected his dad to be very angry and upset with him for starting a fire that burned the family’s home.

Instead, his father, who motivated others through fear, changed before his eyes.

“I love you,” he told John, who was given less than a 1 percent chance of surviving.

And his mother repeated those same words when she came into the room.

On Tuesday, 26 years later, O’Leary conveyed that message of love and change to about 1,000 people who attended the 11th annual “Impact Alexandria” event at the Lake Geneva Christian Center.

“Two things motivate you in life: fear and love,” he said.

O’Leary told the crowd that every person has the ability to change the world. He urged them to discover the power of love, the power of why and to always ask: What more can I do?

O’Leary’s powerful story began in January 1987 when he was 9. He watched some kids from his neighborhood near St. Louis, Missouri sprinkle gas on the sidewalk and throw matches at it, magically turning the liquid to flames.

That weekend, when his parents were away, he decided to light a piece of cardboard and pour just a tiny bit of gas on it. But when he opened the five-gallon container and started to tip it near the flame, the vapors ignited, triggering a massive explosion that blasted him 20 feet across the garage and set him on fire.

Forgetting the “stop, drop and roll” advice, he took off running into the house for help.

His lifesaver turned out to be someone he didn’t expect: his 17-year-old brother who, like many older brothers, seemed to take pleasure in tormenting him in the past.

His brother immediately picked up a rug and hit away at the flames. When the rug caught fire, his brother didn’t give up and kept swinging the rug, burning himself in the process, before the flames finally subsided.

His brother was the first of many who helped him through the painfully long journey of recovery.

Through five long months in the burn unit, a tough, burly nurse named Ray tried to get him to walk again. Every day, Ray would pick him up, hold him so his feet were dangling just inches from the floor, and say in a booming voice, “Boy, listen to me. You are going to walk again so you might as well get used to it.”

After leaving the burn unit, O’Leary eventually did learn to walk but he didn’t see Nurse Ray. Several years after that, when O’Leary met the love of his life, Beth, and the two were planning their wedding, they invited members of the burn unit to attend. O’Leary was hoping Ray would show up to see him walk down the aisle. But he didn’t show.

Then after O’Leary spent months helping people in Alabama recover from tornadoes, a small town of about 3,000 decided to give something back to O’Leary. They tracked down Nurse Ray and arranged an emotional meeting between the two of them.

O’Leary learned that Ray was living just eight minutes north of him in Missouri, but even more surprising was the fact that Ray didn’t even know that he had such a profound impact on O’Leary’s life. “I didn’t know that I mattered,” he told him. “I was just doing my job.”

Another one of O’Leary’s heroes was Hall-of-Fame baseball announcer Jack Buck. O’Leary spent countless hours listening to the St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio. One snowy January afternoon, Buck visited him in the burn unit. He told him, “Kid, wake up! You are going to live and we are going to celebrate with John O’Leary Day at the ballpark. Keep fighting.”

When Buck left the room, he broke down in tears, knowing that the odds were stacked heavily against the young boy. He asked a nurse about him and she said there was “absolutely no chance” he’d survive.

Instead of giving up, Buck asked himself a question: What more can I do? And then he followed up on it, visiting O’Leary at the hospital again and again.

Months later, they did have a John O’Leary Day at the ballpark. O’Leary even sat in the broadcast booth with Buck.

Buck’s encouragement didn’t end there. He gave O’Leary a signed baseball from the players and told him he could get a second baseball if he wrote him a note back, a tough challenge for a boy who had only nubs for fingers.

But O’Leary did learn to hold a pen and write, so he got a second baseball, along with a note saying he’d get a third baseball if he wrote another note. The challenges kept coming. That summer, he received 60 signed balls.

Later, when O’Leary graduated from college, Buck, now 74 and diagnosed with Parkinson’s and stage four cancer, was there. He gave O’Leary yet another special gift: The crystal baseball he received when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame – yet another example of Buck asking himself the question: What more can I do?

O’Leary encouraged the Impact Alexandria attendees to reflect on their own lives, commit to a personal goal, and then let the “spark jump off you.” He said the website, can help them accomplish that by guiding them through a 21-day challenge.

O’Leary ended his 90-minute talk with one more “little boy is burned” story, one that happened while he was lying face down on his belly because skin grafts were being done on his back. He received a visit from St. Louis Blues hockey player, Gino Cavallini. He told him he was going to score a goal for him that night.

O’Leary, not wanting Cavallini to fail and knowing that he was known more for his grit on the ice than scoring goals, told him, “Do us both a favor. Get in a fight instead.”

Cavallini ended up pummeling somebody in the first period of the game, but then later, with the score tied 2-2, he scored the game-winning goal.

The team had a huge celebration at the burn unit, not because of the victory, O’Leary said, but because of a promise that was kept.

In his wrap-up, O’Leary said that people’s ability to change themselves and others doesn’t come from motivational speakers; “it comes from you,” he said.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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