Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining me for another episode, and it is an honor to be your host here on Pain to Purpose. I hope you’re having a fantastic week, I hope everything in your life is going exactly the way that you want it to…and if it’s not if you could use a little more inspiration…then stay tuned because I have a fantastic person to do just that for you. My friend John O’Leary is joining us on the show today. For those of you that don’t know, John, at nine years old, was playing with fire and gasoline and created a massive explosion that burned 100% of his body. Not only that, but John was given less than a 1% chance to live.
Now I want you to really think about that for a minute.
If you were in his shoes, and 100% of your body was burned. And you have all of the odds that against you and you’re lying in a hospital bed…fighting for every breath that you still have in you…
What would be going through your head? How would you fight? When you did survive, how do you survive the rest of it?? The aftermath of having to live your life in such a different way?
Well, we’re going to find all that out and more from John today. I also want you to know that John is such an amazing inspirational speaker. If you haven’t looked him up on social media, I encourage you to do that. He’s also the author of the number one national bestselling book, “On Fire.” And he released another book in May of this year, so I encourage you to check that out also. He is the host of an amazing podcast called Live Inspired – and that’s exactly what he is going to teach us about doing today is how to live inspired in our own lives. So without further ado, here’s John O’Leary:
Click to Read Transcript
Well, John, you have inspired hundreds of thousands, if not millions by now, and it all started when you were a little boy, and who would have thought you would have done everything that you’ve done. So let’s dive in, and let’s talk about the initial incident that changed your life.
Sure, so for those who aren’t looking at my face, where my story from other experiences, at age nine, I was burned in a house fire on 100% of my body and what happened was I went into the garage on a Saturday morning, my mom and dad were gone. Just a few days earlier, I witnessed little boys in my neighborhood playing with fire and gasoline, and when you’re little, and I’ve learned even as I’ve grown, even when you’re older, ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ You want to be like the people around you, so you’ve got to be very intentional on who you want to be like…who’s lead you’re following. But I was following these little guys, and I wanted to be just like they were, and I lit a piece of cardboard on fire, walked over to a can of gasoline, bent down next to the five-gallon can try to pour a little bit of gasoline on top of this innocent seemingly little piece of paper that was burning. And Rebekah, before the liquid even came out of that can, a huge explosion erupted. It split the metal cans in two, and it launched me 20 feet against the far side of the garage. It set my world on fire. And as you know, my friend, I found myself with burns on 100% of my body, 87% of those burns were third degree.
Wow. 100%. You hear a lot about people being burned, but not often is it 100% of their body at such a young age… After that, you obviously spent quite some time in the hospital. What were your parents thinking? How were they feeling? What were they going through? As a mom of two kids myself, I cannot even begin to imagine.
First off, I’m the recipient of some of the most amazing parents. And two of the greatest leadership examples I’ve ever read or heard about, I call mom and dad. They were wonderful to me as a little boy, but I don’t think I realized how incredible they were until I got burned and decades of reflection later, recognizing what we went through together as a family.
My dad was the first one to the emergency room. Rebekah, he walks in, I’m nine years old, and I just blew up the family house. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, my dad is gonna be furious. My dad is gonna kill me.’
I see this old veteran walk in, shoulders pulled back, he marches over to me, he points down and says, ‘John, look at me when I’m talking to you. Look at me when I’m talking to you.’ So I look up and then he says, ‘I have never been so proud of anybody in my entire life. And my little buddy, today, I’m proud to be your dad.’ And then he said, ‘John, I love you.’
As a kid, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, nobody told my dad what happened? My father clearly does not know I burned down his house…’
And yet, what he is revealing…it’s just grace. It’s mercy. It’s love. It’s understanding. It’s compassion. And it’s awesome. It started to change the way I felt about my body, about my life, and about what was going to happen next.
And right behind my dad came my mom… You know, she’s not ready for this. You said you had two, she’s got six children, her world is busy all the time. I was playing in the garage because she was out with a couple of my sisters. That house was mine for a moment. Then she gets the call that her house is on fire. Then she gets a second call at the store that our little boy was raced to the hospital. We’ve never been through anything as a family, and now she’s got this to deal with, and she walks in, and you mentioned a moment ago… 100% burned. That’s a lot…that’s a big number. But it’s even a bigger number when it’s your little boy. It’s the biggest number in the world when that little boy you kissed two hours ago, is now laying there in an emergency room bed with no clothes and no skin…
Then, this wonderful mom of mine walks right over to me, doesn’t miss a beat. She takes my right hand in hers. My hand is burned terribly, my whole body is, but my hands are the worst burned at that time. She pats my bald head, and she says, ‘Baby, I love you. I love you.’
And I look up at my mom and say, ‘Mom, knock it off with the love, am I gonna die?’
And she looks at me, and she goes, ‘Baby, do you want to die? It’s your choice. Honey, it’s not mine. I can’t do this for you. Do you want to die?’ And Rebekah, I looked back at my mom and said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to die. I want to live.’ And her response, I think it’s sage advice for nine-year-olds, or for all of your listeners…her advice was ‘Good. Then baby take the hand of God…walk the journey with him, and you fight like you never fought before. Your father and I will be with you every step along the way, but you got to fight, you got to own this thing. You got to decide what your next step is going to be and recognize you’re not alone in it.’
So you asked me how my parents what their mindset was, I think they were in a storm. But I also think that they were serving as a lighthouse to a little boy who needed them desperately back then.
I really connect with that, because I think about laying in a hospital bed right after I woke up from a medically induced coma. And the first person that I saw was my mother. I didn’t know how she had gotten from Texas to Boston, nor did I care.
And I didn’t know what my life was going to look like. But I knew that I had my mom, and she was almost taking me into the world a second time and saying, ‘You have to decide that you’re going to live, you have to decide that you’re going to fight.’ And that’s what I love so much about your story because you said you’re laying there with no skin. You could have died that day. There’s no rhyme or reason, other than there was a bigger plan for your life. So as a nine-year-old, I don’t know if I could comprehend all that because I was 26 when this happened to me, and I still could not process what was happening…
I think it takes decades, whether it’s a bombing, as you have experienced, whether it’s a terrorist event, as you’ve experienced, whether it’s a crisis like we face right now in our nation… that all of us are experiencing, or whether it’s a burning event that I went through personally, as a child… I don’t think you can figure it out in the emergency room. I spent five months in hospital searching, and I did not have it figured out. Over the next two years of surgeries and therapy, I did not have it figured out. And I’m even sure today 34 years after that event that I still don’t have it figured out…but I’m starting to.
For me, the turning point, if I’m being really transparent with you, was at age 27 when my mom and dad wrote a book about it. Because Rebekah, we never ever, ever talked about our experience of being burned, why would you? Why would you talk about amputations? They’re ugly. They’re sad. They remove something that was once yours… I had to have all my fingers amputated. We never talked about bandage changes… why would you? Two hours of the worst kind of torture imaginable? Every day for months? Why would you write about it…It’s horrible. So we never wrote, we never talked about it. Why would you talk about going through life with scars? Scars are ugly. In Disney, they name bad characters scars, because everybody knows scars are ugly. Now I’m stuck with them. Why would you talk about this? So we never did. Ever.
Then they wrote a book about it, and I got to read it. They printed 100 copies. It’s an Unauthorized Biography of John O’Leary. It changed my life because, for the very first time along the way, I realized that something that I’d always viewed as being bad was, in fact, something redemptive, something beautiful, something filled with grace. Something that had been packed with a lot of courage and love. And before their little story came out, I never knew it. So that’s one piece.
The second thing Rebekah, and I know you can identify with this… I had always viewed it as happening to me. Which means if it happened to you, you can be a victim of that. But once you realize it’s not only you, it affects everybody. I started to realize what my mom and dad went through during the time that I was recovering. And I started to realize for the very first time what my brother Jim went through seeing me on fire and burning himself to save my life, and never once cared much about Jim what he went through… because I was the victim here. I never once thought about my four sisters and what they went through, having their mom and dad gone for five months, having their house burned down, having to live with different family members and strangers, like why would I worry about that? It was all about me. And then I read my mom and dad’s words, and it just changed my whole heart about this experience from being one that was self-centered and secondly, one that was negative into being ultimately one that was selfless, and one that was life-giving. So it was a radical change that changed not only my history but also my future.
Did you ever have one specific moment where you just felt, I can’t do this…This is too much for me…? You said it took until about 27 until your parents wrote the book. In those 27 years prior, where was your head, and how much did mental health play a factor in your life?
Mental health for me – I see part of that being spiritual health. So for me, it’s very difficult for me to separate the two. It’s hard for me to put a wall between spirituality and mental health. As a little boy, my mental health, my spiritual health, was if you get out of the boat in the midst of a storm and Jesus called you towards the shore, man, a nine-year-old boy can easily walk on water. And so my mother told me, ‘Baby, get out of the boat, take the hand of God, walk with him and you’re going to be fine. But it was a hard journey… for the waves were tall, the wind was blowing strong, it was really hard.
The most specific singular moment of pain was about a month and a half in, when I woke up from surgery, my dad was over me, and he was crying. I’d never in my entire life seen my father cry. Midwest guy, veteran, you know, a great guy but not a crier, and he’s crying. I can’t figure out why my dad’s crying. I’m waking up from anesthesia. I’m like that ‘What’s up? What’s up with the tears?’
And he’s like, ‘Baby, they had to amputate your fingers.’
‘What do you mean they had to amputate??’
And then I’m asking questions, like, ‘Well, will they grow back?
Your grass grows back, and hair certainly seems to grow back, so will my fingers grow back, Dad?’
And he’s still crying, ‘No baby. They won’t grow back.’
And then I started grilling them on why would you allow them to do this... And he’s like, ‘Baby, they did it to save your life…’
‘You didn’t save my life. You just took my life. No girl will ever take my hand, and I’ll never hold a pen. I’ll never go back to school, never get a job. What kind of life is this dad.’
And that was about as dark spiritually and emotionally as I can ever remember being.
Then later on that evening, this little physician, he was a five–foot–two burn doctor, he comes into my room, it’s like 11 o’clock at night. Can you imagine the day that this man has had? And he’ll have a repeat day, the following day, and the following days, these incredible leaders in our healthcare community.
So he’s on my bed, and he looks at me, and he says, ‘John, I understand that you’re sad about what happened today. And I understand. But I need you to understand that there are things in life that you CAN still do.’ And then he went through this long list.
He said, ‘John, you may not become a courtroom reporter. You may not be able to become a typist in a courtroom, but you can become an attorney. Or you can become the finest judge that ever was. John, I know you wanted to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. You may not play baseball, but you can manage them. You can become a general manager of them… John, you can own them; you can become a baseball owner. John, there are things in your life today that you may not be able to do, but there are still an unlimited amount of things that you still can. You got to believe that your best days remain in front of you.’ And then he bent down this guy who was tough. He was born in Syria, he grew up in Lebanon, got burned as a little boy himself, and then came over to the United States to learn medicine. He’s tough. He bent down, and he kissed my forehead. And then he stands up, and he walks out of my room.
And it was a powerful difference, it was a big day to go from sad about having no life in front of me, which I was sure of, to 12 hours later, recognizing… maybe it’s just different than the life I had originally planned.
I’ve had the opportunity to watch some of your speeches and listen to what you say. One thing that really sticks out to me is that you say if you could go back and do it all over again, that you would… And that’s very powerful because, for me, it’s taken me a long time to get to that acceptance. Here we are seven years later, and I’ve always said, ‘of course, I would go back, I would not have my son and that I wouldn’t be there.’ But I look at my life now, I look at my family, I look at my daughter who is a miracle when they said I couldn’t have any more children after the bombing… look at my husband I reconnected with. I wouldn’t go back and do things over because I don’t know where that would have led me, and I couldn’t imagine my life without them. So talk a little bit about that, because I think that that’s really strong. And it comes from a place of faith and courage that some people just can’t comprehend.
So when I first submitted the manuscript for that book, the editor in New York said, ‘John, listen, I’ve got to encourage you strongly to edit this out because no one’s going to believe that.’
It was the introduction of the book begins with a question that I received in Shanghai, China, from an Australian travel agent saying, ‘John, if you could go back in time and do it again, mate, would you blow out the flame? Would you save yourself?’
And my answer to him and to the readers? Absolutely not.
And he’s like, ‘Oh man, what? Why not?’
And my response to him was, ‘If I blow that out… If I blow out the experience of being burned and being radically transformed… In some ways, negatively, don’t kid yourself, and I’m in pain all day long, too. I know you’ve got struggles, too. But I’m also blowing out the fact that you and I are on this call right now. I’m blowing out the fact that I get to work in this incredible organization called Live Inspired. I’m blowing out the fact that I get to do work every day that I think elevates the lives of those that we serve. I’m blowing out the fact that I’ve grown in my faith strongly, my character, compassion, and empathy for those around me. It impacted where I went to school, which impacted a chance encounter with a brunette named Elizabeth Grace, which then led to four little kids coming along behind us and this incredibly blessed life that we have together. And so if you go around blowing out all the bad, you also you have to then also go around the blowing out the good… your child daughter, you got to get a renewal in your marriage that you currently are on fire with… You gotta blow out the fact that you and I are on this podcast right now, and the fact that you’ve been able to give this speech around the country and around the world and the lives that you’ve touched… and the learnings that you’ve experienced, and the way you reconnected with your mom, and now your husband. Wow.
So if you start blowing out the bad, you’re also blowing out an awful lot of good. So part of that as a faith context that I think God has the far better plan than my own shallow one. That’s all about what I can get out of situations. That’s one piece. But the other piece is if we’re honest about it, we can look back over the course of time and recognize the blessings that have also come from the storms.
Tune in to hear even more gripping stories, experiences, and uplifting insights from my interview with John O’Leary. To learn more about John and his organization, head on over to http://johnolearyinspires.com/