The embers of a romantic New Year’s Eve fire made a lasting impression on James Link.
But not in a good way.
On the afternoon of Jan. 1, 2008, the day after he and his girlfriend spent the evening gazing into flickering flames and each other’s eyes, Link scooped the ashes from the fireplace and dumped them in a cardboard box inside the garage.
“I scooped them up using a plastic scoop and my bare hands,” he said. “Nothing was hot. I didn’t feel any solids or anything concerning. I put them in a cardboard box that had an open lid, put it in the garage, and left.”
He exited his Grand Rapids, Michigan, home about 45 minutes later to start his car, warming it up before he and his fiancée headed to a bowling outing with her parents.
As he stepped outside, he saw smoke streaming from the garage.
“I tested the handle to the garage door and it was not hot,” he recalled. “I took a step in and I just got engulfed in black smoke. I got into a panic mode and thought I would be able to do something about it. I took two steps into the garage. At this point, I was basically lost. I couldn’t see.”
He held his breath and immediately turned and headed to what he thought was the exit door. It wasn’t.
“I ended up behind the door and my sweatshirt caught on fire,” Link said. “It started my hair on fire. I turned around again and bumped into the car. It was fully engulfed. The only thing that hadn’t started on fire was the gas tank. Otherwise, I would have been dead.”
Bumping against the car caused more burns.
He then tripped and fell to the ground.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘If you don’t get out of here now, you’re not going to live,’” he said. “I believe to this day God was watching over me and sending a guardian angel to protect me. I had a reaction: ‘It’s go-time.’ I got to my feet and started moving.”
Thick smoke blinded him, but he maneuvered to the large overhead door. There, he saw a glimmer of daylight through the glass window panes.
“I pulled the door up, ran outside and quickly got some snow on my burns,” Link said.
From there, neighbors helped. Fire trucks arrived within three minutes.
“I was in severe pain,” Link recalled. “They pumped me full of pain medicine and drove me five miles over to the Burn Center. I spent 17 days at Blodgett Hospital. I had some of the best care I could have imagined during one of the most trying times in my life.”
Link soon came to realize burn survivors suffer more than just physical pain.
There’s emotional scorching, too.
“There’s the pain of losing everything in a house fire,” he said.
His house had also caught fire, sustaining severe smoke and water damage. He couldn’t move back in until the house was reconstructed six months later. In 2013, he moved to a home in Belmont, Michigan.
“It was definitely a lot to work through,” he said. “I suffered through some post-traumatic stress and went to counseling. It was a big ordeal in my life. My family and friends were a great support, which meant everything to me. I can’t even express to you the level of pain.”
After multiple skin grafts on his arms and body—including a double-thickness skin graft on his left hand, which essentially melted in the fire—Link eventually rose from the ashes with a mission.
He wanted to help other burn victims whose lives have been forever changed by physical and emotional scarring.
“I have a soft spot for burn patients and survivors,” Link said. “I just provide them with some hope. I listen to their story, hear what they’ve been through and let them know there is life beyond burns.”
He’s a part of the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program, which stands for Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery.
As part of the Phoenix program, Link meets with inpatients and outpatients, and he chats with fellow burn survivors on the phone.
The experiences also help him.
“I feel like I’m able to give back, and that helps me a lot,” he said. “It’s a very unique experience. Not too many people in society have been burned. It’s a very unique pain.”
A burn survivor can have the best physical care, but if the caregivers haven’t actually experienced such pain for themselves, it’s sometimes hard for patients to connect with them, Link said.
“I’m able to connect with them on that level,” he said.
Link knows, scar by scar, what they’re going through.
Tracy Hosford, RN, a clinical nurse specialist in the Spectrum Health Regional Burn Center, served as a staff nurse when Link recovered at the burn center, which at the time was located at Blodgett Hospital.
Hosford said she’s impressed with Link’s dedication to fellow burn patients.
“I think it is priceless that he’s giving back of himself,” she said. “As a provider to burn patients, I haven’t had that personal experience with what they’re going through.
“You want to say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ but you really don’t,” she said. “Having people in the same position, connecting with patients going through it, it’s priceless.”
Link’s sharing and listening brings patients hope, Hosford said.
“It’s not something everyone you meet has gone through,” she said. “Finding somebody that has dealt with it in such a positive manner provides an example of how to recover and become a survivor in a positive way.”