218 Love, Truth, and Miracles – A Boy’s Healing Story: John O’Leary

What You Will Hear:

  • As a nine-year-old boy, John was burned over 98% of his body and given less than one percent chance to live. His amazing journey of survival illustrates the incredible power of the human spirit.
  • Hear the strength in his mom's voice
  • The amazing love from his family and people he didn't know.

Listen to ReLaunch Show on iPhone or Android App

More about our featured guest

John and his family kept their experience private, until his parents wrote a book, Overwhelming Odds, to thank the family and friends, who supported them, on their journey of healing.

This book led to organizations, around the world, requesting to hear, first-hand, how John defied the odds.

The book that rocked John's world

Overwhelming Odds

Full Transcript

[00:02] Joel: Welcome to ReLaunch. Your daily dose of inspiring stories, fresh ideas, practical steps and solutions. And you can think of this show as being your personal prescription for relaunching into the life and business that you love. And if you're a daily listener, welcome back to the show. Thank you for tuning in and thank you for being involved in the before and the after show online conversations. You know, if you're new to the show, welcome. Thanks for tuning in and just know that you're among friends. And joining us on the show today, Pei, this man has a powerful message. And you weren't with me a few weeks ago, but I watched his keynote the other day on DVD, and it's called The Power of One. Let me tell you about this guy before we bring him in. When John O'Leary, our guest today, was nine years old, as a result of a freak accident, he was burned over 98% of his little nine-year-old body, and he was given less than a 1% chance of surviving.

[01:10] Joel: And for a while, and who could blame him right? But for a while his family decided to keep his near-death experience private to just kinda… That's family stuff, so nobody could blame him there. But then when they wrote this wonderful book called Overwhelming Odds, and they wrote it as a thank you for everyone that supported John and family during that journey. Well, once they wrote that book, it lead to an incredible opportunity for John to share his message of hope, of healing, and of human potential with audiences all over the place. And, guys, can't wait to hear his story. Welcome to ReLaunch, John O'Leary. Happy New Year to you also, by the way.

[02:01] John O'Leary: Joel and Pei, welcome. I feel very welcome. I'm honored to be on your program. I'm also a huge fan of it, so this is a thrill for me.

[02:10] Joel: Well, I really appreciate that. Thank you for listening. Thank you for making time to be on our show today. And, gosh, the message was amazing in your presentation, so thank you for sharing that with me. You and your team got that over to me as soon as you got on the calendar. And, wow, that was a gift to me. And as, John, this show is all about the relaunch. And, god, how do we get right in to talking about this accident that happened to you in your home as a child, and then we'll just kind of unfold the story from there if you will.

[02:50] John O'Leary: Yeah, perfect. The word “Accident,” it's appropriate, and I think also sometimes we overuse it. When I was nine, I ran an experiment. I saw other little boys in my neighborhood, in the weeks leading up to my own experiment, playing with fire and gasoline. And as so often the case as children, and really again as adults; frequently we see what others are doing, and we think if they can do it, so can we. So, that weekend, it was a Saturday morning, January the 17th, so we're coming up on the anniversary. I figured I would do this in my parents' garage. My dad was gone. My mother had just left with a couple of my sisters. The house was mine. I walked over to a five gallon container of gasoline, bent over next to it, lit a piece of cardboard on fire. And before I could even really tip this can, the fumes grabbed the flame, pulled it back into the container, created this massive explosion that splits the can in two, picks up the little nine-year-old boy you talked about in your beautiful introduction, and launches him 20 feet against the far side of the garage. And so, for us that was the beginning of this really difficult journey.

[04:01] Joel: Now, what happened? You were there alone? You talked about your brother a little bit and how, thank god, he was there when he needed to be there. But, yeah, unfold a little bit. What happened right after the impact?

[04:15] John O'Leary: I'm in the garage, trapped at first, surrounded by flames, covered in gasoline, actually burning myself. Nowhere to go, so I just kinda ran through the fire to the far side of the garage, opened up the door that led back into the kitchen. We all know on this call, you're supposed to stop and drop and roll.

[04:33] Joel: That's what they tell us.

[04:34] John O'Leary: And we also know when we're actually on fire, what we all do is run like heck. We all do it. All of us. The training goes out the window. I run through the house. Eventually end up in the front hall just screaming for my life, praying for a hero. And my brother, Jim, who was asleep in the basement, comes sprinting up the steps, sees his little brother with flames leaping three feet off of my body in all directions, he picks…

[04:57] Pei: How old was he?

[04:57] Joel: Jim was only 17, Pei, and he had no training in this at all. To be honest, he was a pain in the neck as an older brother as a child. He'd never done anything nice for me. He was my typical older brother. And yet that day, to use your phrasing, he relaunches. He completely changes who he was and becomes… So, I think, he was ultimately always called to be. He's a hero now. He picks up the rug, wraps me in it, burns himself in the process, carries me outside, throws me on the ground, jumps on top of me, saves my life. And then, he runs right back into this smoky, burning building, calls 911, and checks all of the other rooms to makes sure no one else is home. One of the great heroes in this story is my brother, Jim, 17-year-old-boy who relaunched.

[05:46] Pei: How long… Sorry. How long were you in the hospital?

[05:49] Joel: Right.

[05:49] John O'Leary: Yeah, perfect. So, I'll answer that in two ways. The short way is five months. The longer way, I think, it's important to add a little bit of context is when I was brought into the hospital. I'm laying in the gurney in the emergency room. The staff is around me, they leave the room, my father walks in. And as a child, I was convinced of one thing when I was laying there by myself before dad walked in. And my thought was, “Oh, my gosh, when my dad finds out he's gonna kill me. He is absolutely gonna kill me.” So, when they…

[06:20] Pei: So you never lost consciousness?

[06:23] John O'Leary: Oh, never. And these memories, these stories I share are mine. I mean, I remember this all vividly.

[06:28] Joel: Wow.

[06:29] John O'Leary: So, my dad comes in, he walks over to the side of the bed, and the first thing he says is, “John, I am so proud of you, and I love you so much, I love you so much.” And it just changed… I think everything that happened afterwards. And after he leaves the room, my mother walks in. She takes my hand, she also says that she loves me. And I remember looking at my mom and saying to her, “Mama, am I gonna die?” And when I asked the question, I'm looking for hope and encouragement and a pat on the back, but instead she provides truth. And when you relaunch into whatever you're trying to relaunch toward, truth is critical and sometimes it's painful to hear. But that day my mom gave me cold, love-centered truth in the form of a question and for me that question was, “Baby, do you wanna die?” Which is a bold question for a mother or for a leader to ask someone they truly love.

[07:25] John O'Leary: I remember guys looking up at my mom and saying to her, “Mama, I do not want to die.” And her response was, “Good, look at me. Take the hand of God, walk the journey with him, but baby you fight like you have never fought before.” And that day, like I said earlier, it was January the 17th, it's about [7:30] in the morning. We made a covenant to fight on, no more excuses, no more pity parties, no more looking backwards. The fight was on forward collectively in love, and the journey continued like I said Pei for five months in the hospital. Ups and downs along the way, skin grafts and surgeries and bandage changes and therapy and amputations but at the end of it a homecoming and a true miracle and a great celebration.

[08:11] Pei: What did the doctor say before? Did they mention any prognosis as far as the long term effects?

[08:22] John O'Leary: That's a great question. So, I'll put it to you in today's terms, now almost three decades later. The way they figure out mortality is they take the percentage of the body burned, they add the patient's age and that's the percentage likelihood of mortality. So, this is almost 30 years ago. It would have been 98% plus the age of nine which means absolutely there is no chance.

[08:43] Joel: Wow.

[08:44] John O'Leary: The way my doctor explained it to my mother, and he tried to do it as lovingly as he could. Great man named Dr. [08:49] ____. He said to her, “I'm not a betting man, but if I had to put odds on John's chances of survival, I would say that he has less than one half of 1% chance to survive the first night.” And then, he says, “And those odds will not go up in time.” Which was his way of very lovingly telling a grieving mother, “Prepare for the worst. Be there with him and love him during it, but don't expect a happy ending here.”

[09:17] Joel: My goodness.

[09:18] Pei: I still can't get over the response from your mom when you asked that… Did you ever talk to your mom about that conversation?

[09:31] John O'Leary: I have and it's been years subsequently and that's my mom. She is this incredible person.

[09:37] Pei: Sure.

[09:37] John O'Leary: I use the word love a lot, and I don't usually use it in the puppy dog style, the sweet little tongue out. I mean, love is hard, love is sometimes painful, love demands accountability. To add another layer of contexts to my mom's ability to love this little boy forward, not only did it happen the day I was burned, it happened the day I got out of the hospital. We were celebrating this little boy's miraculous, triumphant homecoming. The friends and family are there, they then go home; now it's time for the family of six, and then my mom and dad to have dinner together. She makes my favorite meal, it's in front of me. And the problem that night was that I could not even eat it, 'cause my hands weren't working. I had no fingers, they were all amputated. And my sister, Amy, this sweet gal, leans over, she grabs my fork, starts grabbing the potatoes, putting it toward my mouth. And then, my mom says, “Amy, put the fork down. If John's hungry, he'll feed himself.”

[10:35] Joel: Wow.

[10:35] John O'Leary: And so, there's my mom for you. It's not the day I was burned, it's not just the day I get out of the hospital, that's my mom throughout. And it's even my mother today. She is a great, vibrant lady who demands accountability for mothers, and it's all done beautifully in love.

[10:50] Joel: We're talking with John O'Leary today. Gosh, The Power of One is his story and we're gonna kind of unfold the story and talk about other ones, if you will, that have really been impactful in your growth and recovery. But right there the power of one, your mom was your one, or she was one of your one's at least at that… And she did a tremendous favor for you is what im getting.

[11:22] Pei: And, ultimately for herself, right? I mean, love doesn't serve one's own end, but it seems to never return void. And so, I think part of the reason the miracle took if you will is not only because this little boy was a fighter, and not only because my brother, Jim, was brilliantly heroic, and not only because my dad came in with those kind words, and my mom demanded me to choose the path forward. We refer to those choices as inflection points. The choice to play with fire and gasoline, the choice to pick up a rug and beat down the flames, the choice to greet someone else in love. These are all inflection points. You refer to them as relaunching and either way we're going in the same direction. We're trying to take what happened yesterday or a moment ago and then take the next best steps going forward. So I've been blessed with individual after individual stepping into my life and then walking with me to the next best opportunity.

[12:18] Joel: John thank you for sharing that. There in your presentation… There were two remarkable individuals in your growth and recovery that that taught you some things that you either didn't know were within you, or that you had to learn again. Can you talk about these a little bit?

[12:38] John O'Leary: Yeah. I mean… There's so many actually that I'll give you a couple of my favorites and if I don't hit on it you let me know and we'll share more.

[12:45] Joel: Sure.

[12:46] John O'Leary: One of my favorites was a gentleman who showed up the day after I was burned. It's important that your audience understands that these burns are so serious that this little boy is wrapped from head to toe with bandages. They have him tied down to the bed to control contractures and to control, kind of, twitches. So he can't move. He can't really feel anything, but human touch. His eyes are swollen shut so he can't see and his lungs are burned. So there's a trach in his neck so he can't breath on his own. He can't eat or drink on his own and he can't communicate. He can't speak.

[13:19] John O'Leary: And so in this difficult state I was able to feel, fear, dream, pray, imagine and listen. When your eyes are shut, and I hope some of your listeners right now have their eyes shut, what a great way to take in a message with your eyes shut. I had months with my eyes shut which is beautiful. Any great spiritual teacher will tell you the importance of stepping away from the busyness of each day to really listen just for a few moments just listen, listen to life.

[13:51] John O'Leary: Well I had all this time. So I'm laying in this bed and as a child my favorite thing to do before being burned, was to follow my baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals. Those are my guys. I love baseball. And back in the 80's the way we used to watch baseball was to listen to it. And into my room, the day after I come into the hospital, comes the radio announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals. A man named Jack Buck. He's a huge celebrity in St. Louis. He's a Hall of Fame announcer. He's my childhood idol. I love this man.

[14:22] John O'Leary: He walks in, he sits down, clears his voice and then into my darkness he breathes life. He breathes lights and his voice says clear as day, “Kid wake up. Wake up. You are going to live. You are going to survive and when you get out of here, we are going to celebrate. We'll call it John O'Leary day at the ballpark.” and then he says, “Kid are you listening?” And then I remember trying to nod my head and then the man says, “Good. Keep fighting.”

[15:00] Joel: Wow.

[15:01] John O'Leary: Keep fighting. He walks out of that room. He leaves me tied down in darkness on Morphine, by myself, and yet absolutely transformed… Absolutely lit up. One person, to use your now paraphrase Joel, one person again came in and changed my life, Jack Buck.

[15:21] Joel: And gosh. Just to expand on your story, I mean he was there Jack for, starting to cry here, but for the duration and he… And you expand this in your key notes of the book. Get this…

[15:36] Pei: I'm gonna put in a link our show. It's okay.

[15:38] Joel: Okay… Good. And he expands on this and this man Jack, what was actually with him the whole time, helped him learn how to write again. No fingers…

[15:45] John O'Leary: Yes.

[15:46] Joel: And he did some other amazing…

[15:49] Pei: So, sorry. Sorry to interrupt I'm just way too curious. So, did your parents invite him to come?

[15:57] John O'Leary: Pei, that's not on any of the videos and frequently it's one that's asked in live audiences. Like how did Jack hear? Was he a family friend?

[16:06] Pei: Right.

[16:07] John O'Leary: The way he heard… And this is… You talk about the power of one this is it. It's seldom the announcers that make the great differences in life. It's seldom the politicians and God bless the one's listening today, I think they need to listen to this just as much as anybody else. It's usually kind of like the least among us who show up and do the best work among us. So how did Jack Buck hear, this guy who's gonna radically change my life? And I hope everybody does go and they watch the videos. They can go to your link. They can go to our website Rising Above. There's a whole lot places to watch these videos on Jack Buck.

[16:37] John O'Leary: But the way he heard was the night before he visited me, a random gentleman at a charity auction went over to him and said to him, “Mr. Buck a little boy in our city, St. Louis, Missouri was burned in a house fire today and my hope is that you'll go by the hospital at some point and visit him.” So Jack gets the news that some random person in St. Louis, Missouri, a two and a half million was burned. He knows nothing else. It starts snowing that night. It's not gonna stop snowing for 24 hours. It's dangerous to be on the road. He's a busy guy. And the following day, Sunday afternoon, he shows up at a strangers bedside and whispers encouragement. It's one… I think it's one of the great stories of love out there.

[17:22] Joel: My gosh. Yes.

[17:24] John O'Leary: And then you can watch the videos, and it will expand upon it.

[17:27] Joel: It's the power of one. Yeah sure.

[17:29] John O'Leary: It is. It's a beautiful story.

[17:31] Joel: It's amazing things that one person can say or do that can empower people in a tremendous way. Talk about nurse Roy because I loved this story. I laughed, I went through the entire range of emotions and you…

[17:52] John O'Leary: Right.

[17:52] Joel: And you told it perfectly. But tell us about this guy named nurse Roy and what he meant to you.

[18:00] John O'Leary: Well then Joel, you watched the video so you have the kind of a picture in your mind of Apollo Creed with the nurse gear on. He's this huge, beautifully built man named Nurse Roy, he's a CNA and encouraged by the doctor to do more, and this is the section that we called “The power of the why”, which is like your mission and meaning for life. Nurse Roy is coming into my room, he's unstrapping me from the bed, he's picking me up into his big bear arms and he's moving me back toward the bandage change. That's his job. If he was doing his job right, he'd be putting me in a little wheelchair and just rolling me back. But Roy always took it step further. He would grab me and hold me upright, my little legs would dangle between his, swinging back and forth. And on the walk back, he would say to be, “Boy, you are going to walk again. You might as well get used to it.”


[18:56] John O'Leary: So I can't support any weight, I have no muscle mass. My legs are completely burnt up, it's a mess. But he was whispering this encouragement from the first time that he could pick me up and carry me back into this room. And the first time Nurse Roy offered that encouragement, I hated him because I knew he was wrong. I knew I would never, ever walk again. That was where I was in my mindset. And the following day he comes back in to my room, picks me back up, gets me back on my feet and says the words again, “Boy, you listen to me. You are going to walk again, you might as well get used to it.” This goes on for the five months I'm in hospital, I still don't walk under his care, but about half way through that time in hospital, something switched. It's hard to look back and realize exactly when we decided to change, but something for me changed in my mindset, and I knew I would walk again. I knew someday down the line, I would walk. Roy was right.

[19:57] John O'Leary: Roy was part of that, he was part of this change. It would take me maybe nine months before I would actually walk again. And I remember later on in life wondering whatever became of Roy. We in fact, much later on, I got married to this beautiful gal named Elizabeth Grace, she's my wife, we've been married eleven years. We invited the entire staff to our wedding, and everybody comes to this wedding except for one man, Nurse Roy, unable to make it. We weren't able to track down where he was. So we never see Nurse Roy again. And then to tighten the story up super quickly, about two and a half years ago I'm speaking in Alabama. And the client who has heard me speak now thirty times, Alabama Power Company, they wanted to do something super special for me, so they tracked down this nurse. They paid a Private Investigator three week's salary to find Nurse Roy, they fly him down, they bring him to the presentation, they surprise me. So when it's coming down the Nurse Roy story, all of a sudden from the loudspeaker I hear this huge voice that says, “Boy, you are walking again and I am proud to walk with you!”

[21:10] John O'Leary: And then these guys, they pull back the drapes behind me, they bring out Nurse Roy and this big, beautiful, athletic, gorgeous man walks out on the stage, we give each other this bear hug back. They reunite this incredible hero with his little patient. So Nurse Roy is alive and well and still touching lives.

[21:31] Joel: Incredible!

[21:32] Pei: Wow! I mean just listening to this I just wonder, honestly I never watched Power of One before this interview, but I'm just thinking any one of us could be the one person and any action, any words we say could change lives. This is amazing.

[21:53] Joel: Absolutely.

[21:53] John O'Leary: And it's profoundly changed lives. And Pei, one of the unsung heroes, the custodian. The most important person in a burn team is the Janitor. It's the male or the female that cleans the floors, washes on the bed and brings in the clean sheets. And if they do their job perfectly, there's an okay chance the little guy is gonna survive. And if they miss any of these steps, if they forget to clean out the bucket just right, if they don't do it at a set time, if it's not done perfectly infection will kick in, bacteria will pick up. The little boy's not gonna survive. And so you can celebrate doctors and the nurses and the announcers and the parents and the brother, a whole bunch of great people. It takes everybody doing their job perfectly for things like this work. And I think that's true not only in a burn center, it's true in your own work, it's true in your coaching and speaking and radio program. It's true in everything and every endeavor in life.

[22:50] Joel: Well said, very well said. Okay, so thank you John. Wow! Powerful, powerful story. Still they get me right here, so thank you for sharing. Okay so from a practical perspective, you talked about Power of One, that's your message, but you also talked about the “Power of why”. So how do we tie this in a bow so that people can not only be empowered, but can put it to work for them immediately after they hear our show?

[23:21] John O'Leary: Yeah, awesome. I like questions, I think it's the best way that we learn. So rather than me telling you what to do, I'm gonna invite you to ask yourself and then answer a couple of questions. The first question is to ask yourself each morning, this is what I do, ask yourself each morning the question, “Why me?” It's the perfect victim's question that we love to ask ourselves when things are going wrong. But it's also the victor's question. So victims wanna know, “Why are things going so poorly? Why do I have such horrible luck? ! Oh my gosh, me again!” Victors ask the same question, “Why me?” From a different standpoint, from a different lens.

[24:00] John O'Leary: And in doing so, the question doesn't change, but the result of it does entirely. So the first question I want your listeners to ask today is “Why me?” And then make a list of things today that they're grateful for. It's an awesome way to start a day. Just a gratitude list. What are you grateful for? Why me? For your citizenship? Your health? Your faith? Your family? Your job? The last breath? The food in front of you? The ability to listen to programs like this? Why me? Start with that, okay? Why me? What you'll notice the first time you do it, it may take a while to come up with 10 or 15. The second time you'll do it faster. The third time, the list will grow and grow and grow and grow. Stretching spiritual muscles.

[24:41] John O'Leary: This is a big deal. It's a great way to start your day. Why me? And the way I encourage you to end it is the question that Jack Buck asks each day of himself. So that great announcer we spoke briefly about, and I encourage your listeners to go to Risingabove.com and watch the rest of that video. Here's the question he asked every single day: “What more can I do?” What more can I do? What one more thing can I do in my marriage, in my finances, again in my faith life, in my health, in my business, in the community, as a custodian, as a bus driver, as a radio host, as a parent, as a daughter? What more can I do? And to end each night, with that question and then a single statement, “I commit to this.” I commit to this. And I think if your listeners walk away today from this program with the question to begin your day with, “Why me,” and one to end your day with, “What more can I do,” their lives, their loved ones, their businesses, their God will be greatly encouraged and better off because of it.

[25:41] Joel: I love that. Very practical tips and great questions to kind of bookend your day, to use a term that Darren Hardy likes to use. You do something meaningful and significant at the beginning of the day, and then you bookend it on the other end of the day. John, this is incredible. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us today. Risingabove.com, the place to go to watch the videos and just to hear the stories again. And John, I'm gonna leave you with the last thirty seconds. I normally don't do this, but I'd love for you to just any parting thoughts, words, or just an idea that we need to walk off with today. It's all yours.

[26:28] John O'Leary: We're gonna run out of time while I'm speak, because I wanna make sure first I split you. Last year you both touched 300,000 lives. That is worthy, and so my hat's off to you and your great work that you're doing through relaunch. It's worthy, and it's touching people in ways you'll never know.

[26:42] Joel: Thank you.

[26:43] John O'Leary: The encouragement is this I don't think any of us realize just how big we are. How much the words and the smile and the gentle nod and quietly sitting with a friend, the audacity to hold the door open for a stranger, the risk to take a chance in a new area in life, the opportunity to step fully and boldly back into your faith life. This is valuable stuff. My encouragement is people, to kick off the new year, is to not say “I'm gonna lose two pounds.” Play big. Go all in. Take off the restrictive play that maybe you've been living by for too long, and know for a matter of fact that the best is yet to come. That's a choice. Each day provides an opportunity to relaunch. This is your day, so I hope your listeners and each of us on this call, that we take it.

[27:29] Joel: Awesome.

[27:30] Pei: Thank you.

[27:31] Joel: Thank you so much, John O'Leary. Welcome back on the ReLaunch show any time. God bless you in a powerful way. Thank you.

Follow John on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit his site.

Joel Boggess

Keynote Speaker | Corporate Trainer | Award-winning podcaster I help teams ignite their courage, take bolder steps, and get greater results. Together, we create possibilities that bring empowerment, meaning, and financial impact.

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