Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Blue Sky Lightning by Jeff Kuhn: Review of an Inspirational Book

Photo of Sparky the Dog in front and Author Jeff Kuhn staring into distance

A couple of weeks ago I had a dental appointment during which I had to sit still for a good couple of hours and let myself be pricked with needles to have my cavity fixed; in addition, I needed to undergo repeated attempts of a crown impression on the neighboring tooth. This second tooth had broken off in half probably due to the fact that I was grinding my teeth overnight, an unconscious habit I have picked up since childhood. This was most likely due to stress, which, when facing dental appointments, tends to increase for some reason or other.

As I was laying there with my upper jaw gradually but steadily losing sensation and becoming downright numb and while I was awaiting - but not looking forward to - further invasive procedures, a thought crossed my mind. Although this was a far from ideal situation and I would have much preferred to bolt home to safety, all things considered, it was not that bad. Some people, Jeff Kuhn, for instance, had to undergo tremendous amount of pain and suffering, and in his case, he not only survived but wrote a book about it to inspire us all.

When my own situation had reached its most uncomfortable moment, I was reminded of a medical practice that is called “debriding,” which in my mind could only be second to torture. The idea of a bath seems rather pleasing, but debriding is when nurses use scissors, razor blades, and knives to cut off the burnt skin segments of one’s body so that healing can occur.

As parts of the skin and flesh are scraped off, the patient must be experiencing tremendous and excruciating amounts of pain. In other words, whatever was occurring to me in that dental office was not even a fraction of what must be occurring during such a debriding session, which used to form part of the horrendous but necessary daily routine of Jeff Kuhn.

In his best-selling book Blue Sky Lightning, a copy of which the author himself had kindly sent me for a book review, he describes how disaster had struck his life not on one but on two separate occasions. The title refers to an unlikely but possible event when one can get hit by lightning even though there is clear blue sky overhead. Everything looks fine and suddenly out of the blue, a bolt of lightning would hit you.

Now getting hit by lightning is a rare occurrence, but blue sky lightning would be even rarer. This may occur when there is a storm a few miles away and somehow it dislodges and unleashes a flash of lightning somewhere else. In the book, it is used as a metaphor for being blindsided by life and being subjected to painful events or suffering when one least expects it.

The first occurrence was a mysterious and unexplained fire that left Jeff Kuhn with more than 80 percent of his body burnt. He had first, second and third-degree burns, and his chances of survival were extremely low. At one point, when he was still unconscious and hooked to machines, he was given final rites by a Catholic priest because his doctors and family members expected the worst possible outcome.

Somehow, he managed to pull through and survive. Yet the harder part seems to have come after that, namely the subsequent recovery period that lasted for years. Despite countless surgeries and daily debriding, just the thought of that sends shivers down my spine, he was given a very low prognosis of ever reaching normal health.

When Jeff pressed for his chances, he was given seven to ten percent that he would regain normal functioning. Yet unlike most who would feel discouraged or lose hope when faced with such low odds, Jeff Kuhn felt motivated that there was still a chance. The situation was not hopeless or futile, but it meant that he would have to do his utmost to make it happen.

As someone who was focused and determined, not to say obsessed, he saw all of this as a challenge to be overcome. Jeff told the doctors that soon enough he would show them that full recovery was possible; one day they would see him dunk a ball into a basket in front of them, a feat deemed on the verge of the impossible. But the main emphasis lies on the fact that anything that is not completely impossible may be indeed somewhat possible, but only if you are willing to take continuous and persistent action in that regard.

For instance, he would have to do daily and painful physiotherapy. Since his muscles tend to detract at rest, it meant that progress he had made during the day would be partially reversed overnight. In the middle of all of this, when he was discharged from the hospital, he faced an empty house, devoid of furniture and wife; the latter had left him and had taken everything with her leaving him with a 300 dollar check to make ends meet. In fact, she ran away with his dentist of all people, and Jeff wisely switched dentists after the incident.

Somehow, Jeff Kuhn managed to pull through. When he was at the intensive care burn unit, one of the main threats to his health was the danger of infection. As the body is fully focused on recovering from its trauma, all its resources are focused on repairing the damage. But that also means that the immune system cannot function as well as it should as all the body’s energy is actively focused on survival. In fact, most people tend to die from infections and not from the actual burns; as a result, the burn unit was not only kept stringently and spotlessly clean and regularly sanitized but visitors and guest were kept to a very minimum.

Throughout his stay, Jeff had to accept myriad challenges to his health and well-being alongside pain and limitations, but he still maintained his head up high and stoically faced the direst of circumstances. His social network consisted mainly of doctors and nurse staff who took care of him and who treated him quite well.

He also bonded with some of the other patients. There were two of particular interest. The first one is a heartbreaking tale of a three-year-old boy by the name of Eric who had been put in a scalding hot bath and had sustained third-degree burns on his legs. Eric would lighten the place with his good mood as he was wheeled around the burn unit premises in a red wagon, and he would daily stop by and greet the author on his way, something that the latter always looked forward to. Yet one day the wagon failed to show up. Unfortunately, the boy had succumbed to his injuries and had died leaving the intensive unit much more desolate than before.

The second notable patient was a macho type kind of guy who would feign to be strong and invulnerable in the outside world but was constantly screaming and complaining that he could not accept or bear the suffering he had to face in that situation. Conversely, Jeff used to be someone who generally had a very low pain threshold and his friends would comment how he was complaining about simple scratches. And yet, there he was facing some of the most intense levels of pain imaginable and holding up much better than those who claimed and proclaimed themselves to be “tough” guys.

One of Jeff’s main strengths and what also propelled not only his acceptance but also resilience in this situation was his sense of humor. For instance, in an odd yet affecting amount, Jeff advised the screaming macho guy who adamantly resisted and refused to take part in those debriding baths to bark like a dog throughout the ordeal. Jeff started and soon enough his fellow patient followed suit, and somehow, the other patient managed to get through the sessions not unscathed, but much less so.

Beside humor, it was hope that was the rock that stood steady regardless of the turmoil and torments that were surrounding Jeff on a steady basis. He firmly held onto his unwavering hope that things would eventually get better after those difficult moments and situations. Where most of us, especially those macho guys, might feel discouraged and give up hope, Jeff did not do so; he put up a fight. 

His religion inspired and perhaps guided him throughout his suffering, but in the end, nothing was granted for free and he, like all of us, needed to earn his karma points. Faith is essential and most useful in this; however, merely on its own it is lifeless and futile. But when it is combined with determined action and focused willpower, it can literally move mountains.

When Jeff not only managed to survive but get well enough to be discharged from the hospital premises, he continued to work on himself and to continuously improve his health. He managed to work out with unwavering discipline and gained muscle mass; in fact, he was fitter then ever before. Evidently, he had his “battle scars” as he used to call them, but he was lucky enough that they were for the most part not visible. After all those skin grafts and operations and thanks to the intense and arduous work of his dedicated and caring health professionals, Jeff looked and even felt the best he could under the circumstances.

Finally, things seemed to be going well when the second disaster struck: he was diagnosed with an unknown and rather rare neuromuscular disease. There was no explanation except that it looked like his nerves were dying causing him intense pain. But even then, Jeff took solace in the fact that it was an unknown disease. What that meant is that anything, including full recovery, was still possible as none of the doctors could pinpoint a reason for nor could they label this strange disease. 

Yet through his previous experience, Jeff had built enough resilience and stamina to face this new obstacle. It was certainly not what he would have wanted to happen, but instead of denying it or victimizing himself or even blaming God or other celestial circumstances for his plight, he accepted it, faced it and, once again, managed to overcome it.

As Jeff states it himself, throughout his suffering, he had support and unconditional love. It might not necessarily be from the people you expect, but it is there in certain individuals who want the best for you and who not only root for you when you are down but also help you get up. For instance, one of his acquaintances offered him a place to stay for free until Jeff would get his life in order.

Nonetheless, his most unwavering support may have come from man’s best friend, his dog Sparky. She was, more than anybody else, the one who always stood by his side accepting him through thick and thin regardless of what he looked like or how much or little money he had in his bank account. Indeed, when he eventually loses his faithful dog years down the road, we feel his pain of losing his beloved life-long companion; yet just like him we are grateful to have and have had true friends and kindred spirits in our life in whatever shape or form they may have come.

This book is inspirational not only because of its many valid lessons it teaches us but also because the afflicted person has pulled through in flying colors. He has managed to overcome his many obstacles in life and now lives a relatively financially comfortable life and has been blessed with a beautiful family, including a son who is bound for college. He turned his years of pain and suffering into gold by reaching out to all of us though his book.

Of course, he is not the only one who is suffering; in one way or another, we all do. Some evidently more and to a higher degree than others, but we all have our own crosses to bear and our personal share of ups and downs. Yet this type of determination that Jeff Kuhn depicts and personally represents and embodies is most commendable, and we can be inspired by it regardless of what difficulties it is we are facing in our own lives. Now that is indeed inspiring!


Vincent said...

I like your beautifully written review on two counts. It may inspire its readers to buy the book. Or it may simply supply, as it did for me, the essence of the book without having to suffer by proxy the full detail of the author's pain.

The elements you've mentioned, such as humour, faith, persistence and underlying fitness, remind me of my own situation, from whose details I shall spare you. Not that they match up to those suffered by Jeff Kuhn

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thank you very much for your comment, Vincent! I think it also shows us that the grass may look greener on the other side, but it very rarely is. We often try to camouflage our own suffering although it may differ in kind, degree, level and intensity. Yet it is still there and in all walks and stages of life.

What's important is to hope even if it may seem hopeless and futile. That is the main lesson and inspiration that we could distill from Jeff Kuhn's ordeal. And more importantly, to be open to talk and share it with others, especially those we trust and care about.

Jeff also shares a story about a man who lost his two daughters in a fire and as a result decided to become a firefighter. This is incredibly sad yet also uplifting since humanity is capable of much more than we usually see, let on or even acknowledge.