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Julie VanSpall – Home Front

Burn survivor turns ‘victim’ into ‘victor’

Voices Feb. 26, 2019

Silvia Havas and Julie VanSpall pose with John O’Leary, author of On Fire: The 7 choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life at the 2019 Catholic Educators’ Conference. O’Leary encourages people to ask the question “Why me?” from the attitude of victor rather than victim. (Rose Pillay photo)

I recently had the privilege of hearing John O’Leary speak at the Catholic Educators’ Conference in Vancouver. To say the talk was inspiring would be a gross understatement. On so many levels, his story touched me.

After his keynote address, I purchased his book, On Fire: The 7 choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life, and devoured it in less than 24 hours.

O’Leary was severely burned as a child and not expected to live. With burns to his entire body, the risk of infection threatened every initial moment. His fingers needed to be amputated, and he had to learn to walk again.

In both his talk and his book, O’Leary shares memories from his experiences. He describes everything from his first moments in the hospital, to communicating with tongue clicks due to a temporary tracheotomy, to agonizing therapies. Each story is heart-wrenching; yet, he has found faith, hope, and gifts in every experience.

In fact, O’Leary says if he could re-live the past, he would not change a thing. As traumatic and excruciating as his burns, therapies, and emotional battles were, he recognizes the people and the life lessons he gained and the direction his life took as a result have led him to where he is today. Happily married, with four children, close bonds with his parents and siblings, special friends made along the way, and deep faith, O’Leary is grateful for his life and knows the physical fire played a pivotal role in setting his soul on fire with optimism.

O’Leary, with his impressive and miraculous triumph over adversity, truly inspires me to overcome my comparatively small problems and to develop more tenacity, resilience, and perseverance. He spoke of the triumph of choosing to be a “victor” rather than a “victim” when asking the basic question, “Why me?” in any circumstance. This small change in attitude is a simple solution to the “martyr trap” many of us fall into far too often.

Rather than living his life asking “Why me?” in a defeated way, O’Leary gratefully chooses to ask “Why me?” knowing that God let him overcome for a reason.

He continues to live as a victor, recognizing the gift of his survival and sharing his story with others. For instance, instead of giving up and avoiding fine-motor tasks, he not only re-learned to use a fork, but to write and to even play the piano – without full-length fingers! As a piano player, this revelation deeply moved me.

This just scratches the surface of what I have learned from O’Leary. One final inspiration is the way he acknowledged every person who played a role in his recovery. He described many moments from the initial events right after he was burned to events which ensued during and after his recovery.

After describing each occurrence, O’Leary stated that person “saved” him. The brother who smothered the fire with a carpet saved him. The sister who poured water on his face, cooling his skin, saved him. His father who told him he loved him and was proud of him saved him. His mother who made him learn to use his “new” hands saved him. The sports announcer who visited him, let him announce a game with him, and had professional ball players send him autographed baseballs (if he hand-wrote them a thank-you note) saved him. The person who told the sports announcer about his injuries in the first place saved him. The nurse who made him learn to walk again saved him. The janitor who sanitized the hospital room to prevent infection saved him.

The list goes on, and O’Leary acknowledges the significance of each contribution and each person as if they were the sole contributor to his survival.

None of us achieves anything alone. In truth, God used many individuals to save John O’Leary, and he calls us, through “the seemingly routine, normal stuff of life,” to save others as well.

We must strive to notice and honour everyone who crosses our paths. When we reach a place of gratitude, we are sure to be victors in life, greeting each day with hearts ablaze to eagerly ask, “Why me?”