John O’Leary is a father of four, business owner, speaker, writer, and former hospital chaplain—a fortunate guy. But he attributes the best of everything he has to an unfortunate event that happened back in 1987.
At the age of 9, O’Leary was involved in a house fire that left burns on 100% of his body, 87% of which were third degree. Doctors gave O’Leary less than a 1% chance to live, odds that were overwhelming—but not entirely impossible to beat.
Despite what the health-care professionals told his mother, when O’Leary asked her if he was going to die she responded by asking her son if he wanted to die or if he wanted to live: a question that O’Leary says must have taken lot more courage for a mother to ask than it did for a 9-year-old to answer.
Although he was taken aback, the answer seemed obvious to O’Leary. Of course he wanted to live. And live he did, but only after 5 months in the hospital and the amputation of all of his fingers.
After he returned to school 18 months later with his classmates welcoming him back with a parade, O’Leary didn’t see the necessity in sharing his story. He went through school, attending St. Louis University where he was in a fraternity, graduated, started a small business in real-estate development, and even met his wife but still never felt the need to share his story, even with her. “I always knew my story, I just never truly embraced it.”
“I always knew my story, I just never truly embraced it.”
O’Leary used to describe his story as “personal, tragic, and unimportant.” But when his father found himself unable to work due to Parkinson’s disease and wanted to find a valuable use for his time, things changed.
O’Leary’s father told him that he wanted to thank the community members who truly helped their family through that time and that he planned to do so by writing a book. With the help of O’Leary’s mother, 100 copies of Overwhelming Odds were originally printed and given to members of the community. Today, over 70,000 copies of their book have been sold, something that O’Leary says was “mathematically impossible.”
“One hundred people received a copy, and they then told 100 more people, and so on,” says O’Leary.
When some Girl Scouts approached O’Leary and asked him to share his story with their troop and their parents, his life changed. “One of the girl’s fathers was a Rotarian, another was a small business owner…I began to say yes when people asked me to share my story.” O’Leary says that he now tries to say yes to each person/organization that asks him to share. As a result, he has said yes over 1,500 times and has even made a life of it.
After selling his business in real-estate development, O’Leary started a new business involving speaking, writing, radio, and podcasts. He desires for people to focus on living inspired lives rather than unknowingly partaking in “accidental living.”
“We confuse being out of bed with being awake, being at work with being fully engaged, or being with a patient with being actively present for and with that patient,” O’Leary says of accidental living. “That’s not really awake; that’s not alive. It’s more of sleepwalking through life.”
O’Leary believes that too often we give away the freedom of life to things that are out of our control and that he feels it is his job to remind his listeners that there are a lot of things in our control on which we should be fully living. “We want people to realize they have the ability to be actively present in every engagement and every decision, every thought, and every word, and ultimately, every result in their lives.”
CHEST 2017 is one of the events that O’Leary has recently said “yes” to, and he is very excited about it. “As things continue to change…we can forget why we got into what we got into,” O’Leary says. “I am excited to remind everyone at CHEST about the profoundly beautiful nature of their work and how it has the ability to effect both the staff and patients.”
“I am excited to remind everyone at CHEST about the profoundly beautiful nature of their work and how it has the ability to effect both the staff and patients.”
Members of O’Leary’s medical team as well as other hospital staff members were crucial to his survival and improved health. One of his doctors was not only a respected physician and surgeon but also a powerful leader who was capable of reminding every member of the hospital of their purpose and necessity to a patient’s life, something that O’Leary hopes can be common in every health-care team.
“When you have the chance to influence almost 1,900 men and women who serve patients and teams and impact lives and do it generationally—I think we forget that it is a generational ripple effect; my kids are where and who they are today because doctors, nurses, practitioners, and janitors showed up 30 years ago. It excites me.”