Life for Jamie Nieto was typical in 2003. He was a 19-year-old sophomore in college, playing college golf, spending time with family and friends, and trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. But all of that changed on Nov. 8, 2003, Jamie’s 20th birthday. He went to the Franklin Park, Ill., golf course where he worked earlier that day, but things were slow, so he volunteered to go home early. At home, Jamie started doing some yard work when he decided to light some logs in his family’s fire pit. Out of lighter fluid, Jamie used mineral spirits to get the fire going.
“The can blew while I was holding it, and the next thing I knew I was on fire from head to toe,” said Jamie. “Fortunately, my mother was doing yard work in the front of the house. When she heard the explosion and my screams, she ran to the back of the house, got me down on the ground, and started pouring buckets of water on me to put out the fire.”
A Franklin Park police officer saw the smoke and thought the house was on fire. Within minutes, firefighters and paramedics were at the scene. Jamie was rushed to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., with third-degree burns over half of his body. He spent the next few days in and out of skin grafting surgeries before he was transferred to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
Skin grafting is a surgical procedure that involves transplanting skin to a part of the body that has been severely damaged due to injury, illness or burns, as in Jamie’s case. Skin donated by deceased donors makes this type of surgery possible.
A huge motivator in Jamie’s physical healing process was the desire to return to his favorite sport, golf.
“When the doctors said I’d never play golf again, I decided that I had to prove them wrong,” Jamie said. “You can never really beat golf. You can be good one day and terrible the next, but the competitive nature of the game, the desire to be better each day and a fast recovery were a driving force. I applied that to my healing process. If I took 10 steps one day, I was determined to take 20 the next day.”
It took a little over a year and a half for the scars to heal, but for Jamie it was two and a half years before he really acknowledged what happened to him.
“It’s tough hearing people say I’m a hero or an inspiration because I’m just an average guy who was put in an above-average situation,” said Jamie.
TISSUE DONATION AND THE BURN COMMUNITY
Things came full circle for Jamie when he started to get more involved with hospital burn units. With the encouragement of his social worker, Berry Bennett, his mother and sister, and fellow burn survivor Tony Gonzalez of Naperville, Ill. — whom he connected with at the hospital where he was treated — he began speaking to burn patients at Loyola. For Jamie, it’s the small things that give him the most joy. Talking to burn survivors at the beginning of their journeys when things are still surreal for them, then seeing them six months later and hearing them share a phrase that he told them and how it resonated with them, gives Jamie a sense of purpose.
“It’ll be 15 years since the accident this year,” Jamie said. “If you would’ve asked me 10 years ago if I could take it all back, I would’ve said yes in a heartbeat. But within the last few years, I’ve helped a lot of people and done things that might not have come to be if the accident had never happened. I don’t ever want to say I was called to be a burn survivor, but I’ve been able to achieve some great things and help people along the way.”
Today, Jamie is a PGA professional in Illinois and competes when he can. He’s also rallied the golf community in Illinois around advocacy for burn survivors. Thirteen years ago, Jamie and Tony created a golf outing to raise money to send burn victims and their families to the Phoenix World Burn Congress, the world’s largest gathering of the burn community — connecting attendees with support, resources and each other. The success of the golf outing inspired Jamie and Tony to create a new fundraiser to collect donations to buy Christmas gifts for families in burn units, who may have lost everything in fires. The first official holiday fundraiser was held in 2017, and with the help of Zanies comedy club and the golf course where Jamie works, more than 100 people attended, and 100 percent of the proceeds went to buying gifts for families in burn units at Christmas. This year, they are hoping for an even bigger turnout.
“Earlier on I reached out to my donor family,”said Jamie. “But I’ll be honest, I didn’t know tissue could be donated when I was younger. When people think of donation, they think of the organs, not realizing that tissue and skin are just as important in saving and enhancing lives. As a burn community, we must do a better job of raising awareness about the amazing benefits of skin donation, and I think it starts with normalizing it the way we do organs. You can save as many lives with donated skin as you can with donated kidneys or lungs.”