All of us deal with trauma—or as Jeff likes to call it, lightning bolts that disrupt our lives in devastating ways. But no matter what you’re facing, Jeff Kuhn, author of Blue Sky Lightning, believes you absolutely can recover. He knows this all too well.
Jeff survived the unthinkable, with burns on over 80% of his body and then a rare neuromuscular disease. In spite of it all, he found the courage to keep moving on. In this episode, he shares his journey through trauma and what those experience has taught him.
If you feel that you might be alone or you wonder if you might not be as strong as you think, this is the episode that can give you a beacon of hope and proof that you can overcome even the most dire circumstances.
Jeff Kuhn: The book starts with the first lightning strike, that was a fire at my home. I had gone to bed the night before on a Friday night. I was married to my first wife at the time, she was out of town, and we had a dog, Sparky, a yellow lab. But she was outside. What I remember, because things get pretty hazy as you might guess—it’s all in the book, but the first lightning strike happened early in the morning on a Saturday in October.
The first thing I remember was a brief period of time where a couple of men are looking at me, and it’s hazy, and I’m sure I’m not doing very well at that point and they said, “We’re here to help you.”
They looked like firemen, that little clip, that’s all I remember. The next thing I remember is being loaded into an ambulance. If you’ve ever been loaded into an ambulance, which I hope you haven’t, but if you have, the wheels underneath the gurney come flying up and bang into the bottom as they load you into the back of the ambulance. I think that sort of woke me up a little bit for a second, and then I was back where I don’t remember anything.
The third thing I remember was the ambulance going down the freeway to the hospital. What’s funny is I’m sure the siren was on but I don’t remember any noise, I just remember trees flying by.
It appeared as though we’re obviously going at a very quick rate of speed. In my memory, it seemed like a hundred miles an hour, and the last thing I remember is looking up and there was a guy whose face was right above me. He was a paramedic, and he just said, “You’re going to be fine.” That’s the last thing I remember.
Once I got to the hospital, they put me in a medically induced coma that I didn’t actually come out of for another month. So just those three little memories are all I remember for the next month.
The first lightning strike, just to be honest, is probably good I don’t remember. It obviously was a very painful traumatic thing to happen to you to be badly burned, but fortunately, I don’t remember all that happening. When I came out of the coma like a month into the hospital stay, I had no memory of being burned or the fire and that’s probably a blessing. I was thinking, if I did remember all that really clearly, that could lead to post traumatic stress disorder, having to relive that.
I think the brain actually as a defense mechanism shuts down a lot of your memory of what happened.
Charlie Hoehn: Wow, what did your family and friends say to you when you came out of the coma? Were you just bewildered?
Jeff Kuhn: I was still in a fog. They still had me on a lot of pain medication, and when I first came to, you’re in a daze. I was in the Parkland hospital in Dallas, the second largest civilian burn unit in the United States. It was actually fortunate for me to get burned that close to one of the best burn centers in the world.
I was in a small part of the burn unit, which was quite large, in an ultra-intensive care section where the people who were at most risk for not making it are housed and I remember just kind of coming to but you’re in such a fog that the doctors really have to sort of tell you where you are and what happened.
You know, they’re very careful not to give you every single detail because they don’t want to overflow your system, they kind of give you information a little bit at a time. They don’t want you to know just how bad it is because they want you to mentally stay with them, stay positive as much as positive as you can.
You realize, you were badly burned, but you’re hearing, “We’re taking care of you, you’re doing well.”
“The first question I asked is, “How is my dog?””
Honestly, the first thing I thought of was, “How was Sparky?” They said, “Sparky’s fine, she’s home and didn’t get hurt, the dog is fine.”
I had a huge memory block, and since I didn’t remember what had happened, they slowly gave you information, because I was still in a pretty precarious state at that point.
They’re not exactly sure that you’re going to make it still, and even if you do, the road to recovery is going to be so long and so painful, they don’t even want to get into that with you. They’ll just say, “Here’s what we’re going to be doing today,” and they try and just keep it calm and relaxed. You’re getting constant care.
I was in that unit before I went to the main burn unit, I think I was in there for a week, and then they realized that I was stable enough to go into the burn unit with everyone else.
That doesn’t mean you’re doing well. It just means you’re doing better, where you don’t need someone watching you 24 hours a day every second. They could put you in the burn unit where you’re still getting a lot of attention and you’re not so critical that they need to be watching you like a hawk.
They’re still keeping an eye on you very carefully, but it’s not as intense as it is in the acute unit.
I just remembered how nice the people were.
Charlie Hoehn: It took you a while to recover, right? Two years and 18 major surgeries. Holy cow. What were the surgeries for?
Jeff Kuhn: Yes. I was burned over 80% off my body. Actually, I was just talking to Dr. Rourke, who wrote the forward for the book, and he said, because we went over, he said, “Really, people who got burned over 80% of their body, going back 25 years—the odds of survival were essentially zero. Athird of the burned area was third degree, another third was second degree and another third was first degree.” We don’t overdo it because you’re not getting a medical degree, but we explain enough so you can follow the story. But two of the surgeries were done while I was in a medically induced coma. They have to do anesthesia, but I had two major—like six hours—that I don’t even remember.
When I came to, a month into my hospital say, I had already had two major operations and a lot of that, especially in the beginning, they’re doing skin grafts, they have to cover the third degree burns with skin grafts.
A lot of people might not know this, but the skin for the skin graft has to come from you. You, being me.
A third of the burned area, which is a huge part of your body, has to be grafted, which means they have to find skin that hasn’t been burned with only 20% of my body that’s left. When you take skin to make a graft, you create a second degree burn. When you take skin off, to put on a third degree burn, what you leave behind is the equivalent of a second degree burn.
You’re talking about a Rubik’s cube.
It’s unbelievably complicated—you’re solving one problem but creating another one at the same time.
“The problem you’re solving is more dangerous than the one you’re creating.”
That’s the only way out. I mean, the only way to recovery was to do it that way. That’s why it takes so many surgeries.
When they told me I was about to go in for my third, what was funny is, I thought it was my first. Honestly, in my life, up to that point at 29 years old, I had never had surgery for anything. I never broken a bone, I had never had a tonsil out, I had never had appendicitis. Literally, I didn’t know anything about like a bad injury or surgery.
I was actually nervous. They said, “Well actually, this is your third surgery, and the first two went really well.” I said, “Third?”
They told me about the first two, and then what they were going to do in the third, but to be honest, since this was the first surgery, I was actually conscious to be rolled in and I was pretty nervous.
Then, after the third, the fourth, and the fifth, then you become a veteran, and I got to know my doctors really well. I trusted them, and they were very good, so after the third surgery, I don’t think I was afraid ever again going into surgery because the talent of all the people.
Not just the doctors but the staff, they were so good at what they do.
I had absolutely no fear. I knew there was going to be pain when it was over, and this and that. It was just part of your road to recovery, but I was not afraid that anything was going to go
Because I still didn’t really know my doctors, and the whole hospital situation was new, and no matter what they said to you to calm you down, you know when they tell you you’re going to be in there for six hours, your brain is like, “My goodness…“
But then once you see that when it goes well, yes, it’s painful when it’s over, and this and that. But they accomplished what they wanted to and they tell you what they’re trying to do each time.
If you’re me, after the third and the fourth, it’s like, “Well, how many of these are we going to have to do?”
“They said, “We don’t know.” They were being honest.”
So mentally I’m thinking, “Okay, I’ve had four – I’m sure like six.”
If they had laid out 18…I’m almost glad I didn’t know the number just because that would have seemed—“You got to be kidding.” They honestly didn’t know. They said it just depends on how each one goes, and they were being honest, but I’m sure they knew it was going to be a lot more than two or three. There’s no reason to tell a patient that, because if you’re about to go in for a surgery, you don’t want them thinking about the next 10, you know? That could be a little overwhelming.
Not Over Yet
Charlie Hoehn: You know, I’m still trying to process the fact that you got struck not once but twice.
Jeff Kuhn: Yeah, that was the amazing part. We could fast forward roughly about two years almost to the day after the burn injury, you know, I had had all my 18 surgeries, and I had gone down from 185 pounds to 140. Through working out and stretching and the whole rehabilitation process, my weight had gone up 215. Most of that was muscle mass just from all the working out.
So when the whole burn injury, two year period ended, I was probably in the best shape of my life.
I was an incredible shape, physically, mentally, so now it was time to go back in the workforce. For the next year and a half, I was in tremendous health. I mean, never better. I was strong, I was young, I could do anything. Literally, a year and a half after the whole burn injury was done, I was in perfect health.
“Out of nowhere, here’s lightning strike number two.”
I started getting pains in my thighs. I thought, you know, I was still doing a lot of working out, I walk my dog every day and you know, I did long distance cycling so I thought, “Okay, I’m overdoing it.” The thighs were a little sore from working out.
It started out that way but then, the pain started getting more severe, and they sort of spread to my calf, then they started to, over the course of the next few weeks, literally, the lightning analogy just like with the burn, it happened very quickly and very hard.
Within the next 30 days, I was essentially incapacitated with pain. I saw a lot of neurologists, and my muscles and nerve endings were all self-destructing for no apparent reason.
If you looked at me from the outside, you would think there’s nothing wrong with me, but on the inside, my muscles and nerve endings were all self-destructing, and I can’t even describe the pain. It was as bad as a third degree burn.
I started bouncing between neurologists, and they thought it was Lou Gehrig’s disease for a while. They thought it was multiple sclerosis. I mean, all of them were either going to be terminal, meaning, I’m going to die or it’s going to be a lifetime of being handicapped, maybe confined to a wheelchair.
I’m thinking, “I went through this whole burn ordeal, made it out with a lot of hard work from a lot of different people and here I am again—going to die from some sort of neuromuscular disease.” I couldn’t believe it.
Seriously, you know? I just went through a one in a million type event and made it through that, and then I’m healthy for a year and a half—and believe it or not, the two aren’t related. The neurologists, they said, “You were healthy for a year and a half, to where this came from.” They kept sending me to different neurologists because no one could figure out.
In the beginning, I wanted an answer because I thought they could give me some sort of help for the pain or some medication to help this go away. But they were just being honest, they said, “You’re probably going to die, it’s not going to be quick. We don’t know how long it’s going to take.”
So I’m like, “Oh so this is great.”
Charlie Hoehn: How many years ago was this?
Jeff Kuhn: This was about 25 years ago, and I’m sure, a lot of people are like, “Why are you writing now? Why didn’t you write it at the time?” and well, as you might imagine, once I did obviously – spoiler alert, I lived because you and I are talking. I did make it through, I realize I’m ruining the – “Did Jeff make it?” “Yeah, he did.”
I did make it out, but the thing is as you might guess, once you go through something traumatic, the thought of writing it down when you’re that close to it, you really don’t want to relive it all.
Even when I met people, like my wife. I met her two years after that recovery was over, and I had been back in the workforce, and this time I’m healthy for good. She asked me about it, and I would politely talk about it a little bit but then she said, “You always stop at a certain point and not want to go any further.”
“Friends would ask, and I’d always stop the story.”
I was always polite about it and friendly and joking, but they could tell there was a limit to how much I wanted to talk about it.
She said, “There were years that went by where you didn’t even want to go near the story,” but once 25 years went by, I thought, like I told the publisher, I’m not trying to write an autobiography where everybody can marvel at how incredible I was to make it through all of that. That’s not the point of the book.
The point of the book is that all of us, as part of being human beings—and I hope in everyone else’s case it is never severe as mine—we are going to run into hardships. It could be mental. It could be physical. It could be economic, a job. We all run into bumps in the road, and I thought my story could help people not give up hope.
I don’t want people to quit. Hopefully my story could give people hope and that you’re not alone. There are people out there that will understand your story. I definitely will. So the whole purpose of the book is to reach out to people who are suffering or have suffered or know someone that is.
They can see it from the perspective of the person who its happening to and some of the mental strength techniques I had to adopt to get through to all of this. Maybe there’s something in there that you can find useful, because I just don’t want people to quit. I didn’t quit. It is not easy, but it is worth it because there is a good life ahead of you.
It may be a long road, but I just want to show to give them an example of why sticking it out will be okay in the end.
Life in the Clearing
Charlie Hoehn: What I’m wondering is what was it really like surviving that? What had changed in your routine, what changed in your life for your mindset?
Jeff Kuhn: Actually it’s funny you would ask this question, because I just read this morning an article on LinkedIn, and the woman who wrote the article, there is a picture of her and she’s a beautiful young woman. The title of the article was called Invisible Enemy, and I actually call my part of the book Invisible Adversary. So we are experiencing the same thing. She said even though she looked fine on the outside, I won’t go into all the detail, but she has a neuro muscular illness, one I have never heard of. There quite a few more than I even dreamt there could be.
She talked about all the medication she has to take and all the surgery she’s had, and in her case, she’s going to have to deal with this for life. It’s probably good Google wasn’t around when I had this illness, because if you Google neuromuscular illness, you have no idea how many there are and just how bad they can be and the suffering people have to endure. So I learned about them mainly from the doctors who told me about them, because a lot of them I never even heard of.
When I read her article, I had so much empathy for her, because I was in the exact same situation. I looked fine, but on the inside, she even said, “I’m in excruciating pain a lot of the time, but people look at me and they don’t see it and you know with the burn injury, you’re wrapped up like a mummy. And people are like, “Okay he is badly hurt.”
But with a neuromuscular illness, like in her case, a beautiful young woman, you have no idea how much she suffered. I went through the same thing, where I am in incredible pain, my muscles and nerves were self-destructing, and then when I read about her, it is an invisible adversary because people who are looking at you can’t see that there is anything wrong with you, yet you are suffering quite a bit.
Now in her case, she knows exactly what she has and she is going to have a lifetime of fighting. I just felt for her because mine, fortunately, it took two years of my life but when it ended it was totally healed, and the doctors to this day don’t know how I got it. They don’t know what it was, and they don’t know why I recovered.
I remember at the very end of it, this was about the two years were about off and I was to go back into the work force. And my last meeting was with a neurologist, and he was an older gentleman. He was actually head of the Texas Neurological Society. So he had seen it all, and he said, “Jeff I can tell you this now because we know you’re in the clear,” but he said, “What happened to you scared the hell out of all of us.”
I was taken aback a little bit, and then I said, “Well what do you mean?”
He said, “Because we thought there was a chance that you were patient zero for a new neuro muscular illness that no one had ever seen and it was just arriving. Maybe you were the first one to get it, and pretty soon our waiting rooms were going to be full of people with the same disease that you have. What scared us is we don’t know what to do about it. We couldn’t help you.
“We’re like, ‘What are we going to do when all of these people start coming in our office with the same symptoms Jeff has?’ We don’t want all of these people suffering, and we don’t know what to do about it. Yours fortunately cleared up. We don’t know what you had. We don’t know why it cleared up. I want you to go forward in life just knowing that what happened to you, the odds of it coming back are zero.”
He was right. Nothing has come back, and obviously they are not going to tell you this in the middle of the whole trauma that they are scared to death that you might be patient zero with a brand new neuromuscular illness.
The humorous side of me I said, “I really don’t want to be the guy that was patient zero and I passed away and now there is a terrible disease that has my name attached to it.” For the rest of eternity, “Oh you have Jeff Kuhn disease? I’m so sorry.”
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah that is not a good namesake.
Jeff Kuhn: No, and I wouldn’t want to be remembered for bringing misery on a lot of people. My name would be associated with that, so I was fortunate. It was terrible. It’s a terrible experience, but I have a ton of empathy for anyone that’s going through any kind of burn injury. Then I also have a lot of empathy for people that you have a personal experience with folks that have suffered with Lou Gehrig’s disease. I feel for those folks as well.
Especially you know I was fortunate enough to make it out and get back to perfect health and so I feel terrible for the people like the woman I read about this morning. They have to deal with it for the rest of their life but I hope that the people, it could be any kind of adversity that you’re facing. It doesn’t have to be neuro muscular illness or a burn.
Trouble comes at all sorts of shapes and sizes.
It’s meant to be a hopeful inspiring book. We’ve talked about my two lightning strikes, but there are good times and the nice people I met. If you like dogs, my dog Sparky is my sidekick through both of the medical events.
Sparky was there the whole time. So if you love dogs, it’s a great dog book.
Connect with Jeff Kuhn
Charlie Hoehn: What is the best way for people to get in touch with you or follow you?
Jeff Kuhn: Yeah, I recently set up a website that is for the book. It’s blueskybolt.com, it will take you to the site. There’s a link there to the LinkedIn article I wrote a year ago which is a four page summary that I wrote before I decided to do the book. So you can get an idea of exactly what the book is about and there is also a link to my Twitter side and my LinkedIn site if you want to know anything about me personally.
And so if you go to the blueskybolt.com, there’s all sorts of information about the book and about me, and at the end of the book I am hoping that this book brings hope. My article did. Actually a thousand people read my article on LinkedIn, and I got feedback from so many people that prompted me to write the book.
“If I can help this many people with a short article, a book can reach a lot more.”
At the bottom of the website, there’s a spot where if you want to write me and ask me a question or tell me about your experience. Please do. It is right there at the bottom of the website. You can contact me and I will definitely get back with you.
I’ve heard some amazing stories. I mean there were stories that make mine—I even told people they should be writing a book not me. Because they were telling me how inspirational and helpful my story was for them, and they told me about the tough times that they had or are going through and their stories were amazing.
I am thinking there are people out there that will not talk about their trauma unless they feel like they are talking to someone that will get it. Shen they read my story, they know that if they share it with me, I will totally get it.
I had some people, I am pretty sure it was the first time they had ever shared their story with anyone. Now I’m a complete stranger but after they read the article, they’re like, “Jeff will get it.” With the book, I am really looking forward to hearing from people.
I hope it’s helpful, and I’d love to hear about other people’s successful journey through their tough times, because that gives me strength. That gives me satisfaction, the whole purpose of the book is to help other people. It is not to talk about me and how and what I went through. It’s only to give people the courage to want to talk about it and reach out and get help. If they want to talk to me, I love it. It is very rewarding to hear from other people about their stories.
I actually thought if I wrote a second book, it would be about all the stories of the people that came to me after I wrote my book, because I already have a lot.
There are so many brave strong people out there that have stories that I hope will come out if I put my story out there that they’ll feel comfortable talking about theirs because it’s difficult. It really is hard.
Charlie Hoehn: In about 15 seconds or so of an answer, what is the one challenge you would give to our listeners, the one thing they can do from your book this week that will have a positive impact on their life?
Jeff Kuhn: As we go through each day, I think it’s so easy to forget this, but it is also easy to do and that’s do something nice for a stranger each day if you can. You hold the door for someone coming out at Walmart who has too many shopping bags, I mean there’s ways you can be kind to other people, doesn’t take a lot of effort. You’d be amazed at what it does for their day. You will feel good as well, but it’s amazing—you do something for someone, and they look at you almost in shock.
I think when I was younger, people were more civil to one another. I think we’ve kind of lost that. If you’re kind and polite to other people just out of the blue, especially someone that doesn’t know you, they’re almost in shock that someone is actually kind that that still exists.
“Just do something nice for someone you don’t know.”
If you find a stray dog and you get it back to its owner, you won’t believe the satisfaction you’ll get out of doing something like that. Do something for someone else. It is much better than doing something for yourself.