'I'm a completely different person'

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Jason Nelson

In his doctor's estimate, a "120 percent possibility of death" is what Byron native Jason Nelson, 41, faced on Feb 9, the day he lit a cigarette and an inferno of 1,000 degrees consumed him.

Nelson, a 1992 graduate of Byron High School, had moved to Mesa, Ariz., and was working as a regional manager for T-Mobile. Concurrently, he had invested in real estate and was cleaning out a rental house when this near-fatal accident occurred.  

Unbeknownst to Nelson and his neighbors, there had been a natural gas pipeline leaking under the street for over 15 months. The pipe (Nelson settled a lawsuit with Chevron Phillips and Southwest Gas) leaked gas, which migrated up through the soil into the house that had been closed since the last tenant. Thus, the garage was an invisible ticking time bomb as gas had accumulated and was ignited by his cigarette.

Thanks to a neighbor who heard the explosion, Nelson was transported to the Maricopa Medical Center in nearby Phoenix. Fortunately, Maricopa houses the Arizona Burn Center, headed by Dr. Marc Matthews. Nelson arrived with 80 percent of his body covered in second- and third-degree burns.

According to Matthews, who has cared for Nelson from since that day, "You don't have to go to a war zone to be critically injured. A lot of these injuries are akin to war-zone injuries (like those of soldiers) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Jason came in looking like a victim of an IED device."


What ensued was an odyssey of intensive medical interventions. Nelson was in a medically induced coma for two months out of a six-month hospital stay. He has endured more than 34 procedures, most surgeries on his hands, arms, and back.

"The dressing changes, every day, this was the worst part," he said."They have to scrub down the skin and rebandage it." The wounds had to heal enough for skin grafts even to be performed.

With him throughout the ordeal were his parents, Dan and Debbie Nelson, of Rochester, and his girlfriend, Tammy Yohe. His mother moved and his father commuted back and forth to help care for him for a year.

Nelson's grandmother, Opal Nelson, of Rochester, marvels, "He's a miracle. The Lord has answered his prayers," she said.

Dr. Matthews concurs. With the severity of his injuries, "Jason had a 120 percent possibility of death. He should have died. Every day that we give to Jason today is a blessing."

While physically Nelson made strides to renewed function and health, the experience has been emotionally devastating.

"I never would wish it upon anyone," he said He suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for which he received EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) treatment that he calls "amazing. It basically cured me."

"I'm a completely different person," Nelson said. " Emotionally different. I'm definitely closer to my parents and definitely have a greater appreciation for life."


He has manifested that appreciation by starting the Burn Foundation of America, a charity supporting burn survivors. He and Yohe, the directors, hosted a fundraiser raising $110,000. They hope to purchase a hyperbaric oxygen chamber for the Arizona Burn Center.

Dr. Matthews said the center "would relish such a gift," and spoke with awe as he said, "It's like looking at a ghost. You realize this man shouldn't have survived. You're so happy to see him!"

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