Burn survivor John O’Leary’s story of unconditional love and commitment inspires all to live a life that can overcome fierce obstacles.
Walking confidently, but with a slight limp, John O’Leary crossed the dance floor. He was a junior at St. Louis University and, just moments earlier, had seen freshman Beth Hittler for the first time. John was smitten. He summoned his courage and made his way toward her, his heart pounding nervously. He wanted to ask her to dance. But what girl would take the hand of a fingerless man?
That’s a question he’d asked himself time after time for more than a decade.
In 1987, 9-year-old John awoke from surgery — his seventh in only a matter of weeks — to the whispers of his father and mother standing in the corner of his hospital room. Groggy from the surgery, he forced his eyes open. His mom noticed he was awake and wiped the tears from her eyes. His parents walked to his bedside.
“John, we have to tell you something,” his father said. He explained that gangrene had set into John’s fingers and threatened to spread throughout his body. “They were just too damaged by the fire, and the doctors couldn’t save them.”
In shock and fear, he yelled at his parents. “How could you let them do this to me?” Without fingers, he thought, he’d never be able to play baseball, write, go to school or find a wife.
“What girl will ever want to hold my hands,” he asked his parents, “if I don’t have fingers?” He thought that the doctors hadn’t saved his life. They had ruined it.
During the next decade, John fought these fears. And, on the dance floor in 1998, he took another step toward pushing them aside to discover a life and marriage filled with unconditional love. After walking up to Beth and introducing himself, John offered her his hand …
Today, John is no longer a shy college student but a renowned inspirational speaker and best-selling author. This transformation, however, hasn’t been easy. Choosing to live and love after a life-altering tragedy has become a defining characteristic of his life.
‘Do you want to live?’
On Saturday morning, Jan. 17, 1987, John was at home under the care of his 17-year-old brother, Jim. Having watched other boys in the neighborhood play with fire and gasoline, John went into the garage and set a piece of paper on fire. Then he tried to pour a drop of gasoline on the flame.
The explosion threw him 20 feet across the garage. Flames engulfed him, leaping 3 feet off of his body. He ran into the house, crying out for help. Jim raced toward him and beat the flames out with a rug.
“I had burns on 100% of my body,” John says. “Eighty-seven percent of those were third degree.”
Jim carried him outside, and they soon heard the ambulance approaching.
“I tried to run to it, but my legs would barely move,” John recounts in his 2016 book, On Fire. “So I hobbled. Naked. My skin and clothes had been burned off.”
Later that day, John’s mother arrived at the emergency room and came to his bedside. She took his hand and smiled. But John immediately burst into tears. He asked, “Mommy, am I going to die?”
She leaned close to her son, paused and looked into his eyes. “John,” she said, “do you want to die? It’s your choice, not mine.”
In that moment, he chose to live. To take ownership of his actions and say to himself, It’s my life, and I’m responsible for it.
But during eight months of the initial recovery, choosing life — even with a profound faith in God’s goodness — came with pain and hardship. “[Mom] insisted that I take back my life,” John says, “that I not make excuses … but that I embrace what I still have in front of me.
“She insisted that when I meet someone for the first time, I extend my right, fingerless hand,” he adds. “I would cup their hand with both of mine and shake firmly, looking them in the eye. ‘That’s what men do, John. And so that’s what you’re going to do, too.’ ”
Learning to love unconditionally
So when John first laid eyes on Beth in 1998, he took his mother’s advice and approached her confidently. And when he asked her to dance, she took his hand without flinching.
“He approached me like he didn’t have any injuries,” Beth says, “like nothing was holding him back.”
During the year that followed, John and Beth became close friends, but John wanted more.
“So, after about a year of being her friend,” John says, “I asked her out in the traditional sense.” But he was rebuffed. “She said to me, ‘John, you’re like a brother to me.’ ”
But, undefeated, John continued to pursue Beth, and one year later, he asked her out again. Yet, again, she refused.
“After the second rejection,” John says, “my heart started to change. I stopped pursuing her for what I could get, and I started to love her for who she was.”
In On Fire, John recounts that he began praying about what it meant to be in love: “I let go of my fear that I’d always be alone. I opened the door of my heart and loved her even though it wasn’t exactly the way I had planned.”
He served her much as he’d always done. He still gave her flowers, bought her a breakfast sandwich before she went to class and held the door for her. But no longer did he do this to gain a wife or to cover over his weaknesses. “It became unconditional love, giving and expecting nothing in return,” John says. “I think that’s an extraordinarily attractive love to be pursued with.”
Indeed, after another year of friendship, Beth confessed that her feelings for him had changed.
John and Beth married three years later. In sickness and in health, they’ve served each other with the same unconditional love that began their romance.
Only a month after the wedding, the wounds on John’s stomach became infected. At first John worried that Beth would be disgusted by the infection; he didn’t want to show her the sore. But she soon noticed he wasn’t feeling well.
So he finally lifted his T-shirt and showed her the infection.
“Rather than running into the other room,” he recalls, “she gently bent down and kissed the infection.”
“I hate these things,” she said. “But I love you.”
“We’re committed to growing together,” John says. And with four children and busy schedules, this takes effort and intentionality. They deal with the same complications and disappointments as other married couples with kids.
For this reason, they plan weekly date nights, talk throughout the day, go to bed at the same time and pray for each other before falling asleep.
John never complains after coming home tired from a speaking event. “I want to be the one putting the kids down,” John says. “I want to be the one doing the dishes. I want to serve her when I’m home.”
John sometimes wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t chosen to reach out his hand at the dance. But he doesn’t wonder long; life is calling and needs his undivided attention.