Survivor Not Victim

By: John Merrill

I was born and raised and live in South East Idaho. My wife and I live on a small acreage a few miles north of Idaho Falls. We raised three boys here. We kept them busy with livestock, chickens, a large garden and a large raspberry patch. I worked as a security specialist at a Naval Reactor Facility for twenty years. Our life was good and we were happy. In May of 1994 all of our lives were changed.


It had been a long winter and a cold spring in Idaho and May 24 was the first comfortable day that corresponded with one of my days off. My kids were in school and my wife was at work. I was home alone. I decided that this would be a good time to clean all of the winter's litter that had accumulated in the yard and the garage. Being in a rural area we are allowed to have incinerators to burn trash. I started a fire with trash from the yard and had started to clean the garage. I gathered papers and boxes and placed them in the fire for destruction. There were pieces of scrap wood from completed wood projects and empty oil containers and such after several oil changes over the winter. Everything was not empty. Somehow, a full container of injector cleaner was picked up and as it was placed in the incinerator it exploded in my face.


I remember trying to brush the fire from my face and at the same time watching the skin melting from my fingers. When I was sure the fire was out I opened the door, using my wrists to turn the knob, and went inside. I dialed 911 and waited the five to ten minutes that it took for them to arrive. I remember walking continuously because I knew that if I stopped I would pass out. After being loaded in the ambulance and getting an IV, I relaxed and passed out. It was August before I was allowed to come out of a drug induced coma and at the very end of September I was allowed to go home.

Only a burn survivor, and to some extent their family, can know the pain that is involved with the cleaning and healing of large burns. My wounds are from the waist to my eyebrows. Third degree burns over 48% of my body. My nose was burned away, one ear is completely gone as is most of the other. My eyes have scar tissue covering the pupils, one eye is useless; the other is pretty good. I inhaled flames and that has damaged the vocal cords and larynx. For the past seven years I have battled with polyps in the larynx which effects the amount of air I inhale. I lost all of my fingers and thumbs. I have had the large toe on my right foot removed and placed on my right hand to give me an opposing grip allowing me to hold a glass with one hand. Surgery for polyps and reconstruction are ongoing. At this point I do not see the end of surgeries; however, they are less often.

For me the most important asset I have had in recovery was my family. They have been there with help and encouragement and most of all love. The friends that I had before the fire have all drifted away. I am not the same person that I was before the fire. I think I am a much better person. I have learned compassion, tolerance and patience. I learned very early in my recovery that a sense of humor is very important. The ability to laugh at ones self when things are not going well may mean the difference between being a survivor and being a victim. The road to a happy life is a lot shorter for the survivor than for the victim.