Gilbert blast

After 47 surgeries for injuries he sustained in an explosion at his then-home in Gilbert, Jason Nelson, now living in Mesa, will start today to climb Africa’s highest peak with seven other burn victims form Maricopa County. (Courtesy of Jason Nelson)

It’s been a painful two-year journey of 47 surgeries, setbacks and rehab for burn survivor Jason Nelson.

Today, June 12, the former Gilbert resident begins another journey – hiking 19,341 feet up to the top of Africa’s tallest mountain.

“For me personally it’s just a challenge to come from almost dying to standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of survivors,” said Nelson, 45, who now lives in Mesa. “It’s hard to resist that.”

Joining Nelson are seven other burn survivors all treated at Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health. The trip is mean to raise awareness of what burn survivors can accomplish and also to raise money for the burn facility.

The other survivors doing the climb are Isia Cook, 11, a Peoria gymnast who suffered burns over 46 percent of her body from a propane tank accident. She will be hiking with her mother, Aly; Isabella McCune, 12, of Phoenix who suffered severe burns when a fire pit exploded in the family’s front yard; Phoenix Fire Capt. Susie Fawcett, burned in 1998 while fighting a structure fire; Stephanie and Christian Nielson of Mesa, who both survived a 2008 plane crash; and Hailey Boyce, who at 17 suffered severe burns in a vaping accident.

Nelson’s near-death mishap happened on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, while he was doing remodeling work on his house in Gilbert.

“I went out to the garage to light a cigarette and there was a natural gas leak in the street that I didn’t know about,” he recalled. “I lit the cigarette and it ignited a fireball in the garage.

“I just knew there was an explosion. It pretty much put me in shock. I remember standing outside screaming in pain.”

A neighbor heard the explosion and called 911.

Nelson suffered second- and third-degree burns to 80 percent of his body – from his face to his waist and from his knees to his ankles.

“Pretty much, the upper body caught the brunt of the explosion,” he said.  

He was put in a medically induced coma, awakening at the end of May in the ICU. 

Nelson was discharged during the first week of July for inpatient rehab but ended up with MRSA, a deadly superbug bacteria.

“So, I had to get readmitted to Valleywise,” he said. “It (MRSA) killed my graphs, it ate my graphs.”

Surgeons had gotten the skin graphs from Nelson’s back, butt, any place that was not damaged by the flames.

 “I had to lean to walk again and feed myself,” Nelson said. “I was almost 40 at the time and my parents moved from Minnesota to Arizona to take care of me.

“So, it’s been a journey.”

By late 2016, Nelson completed his last surgery, which totaled 47 in all, and married his girlfriend, whom he was dating before his accident.

For the most part, he has full function of his limbs aside from some scar contractures and some fused fingers that don’t bend anymore, Nelson said.

 “I tell people it probably took me five years to get back to the person I was before the accident mentally and physically,” he said, adding that he has learned compassion for other people because of his experience.

Also going on the trip are medical professionals from the burn center and supporters.

They will fly to Africa on June 13 and once there they will spend seven days covering 38 miles. Although the trek can be strenuous at times, climbing Kilimanjaro requires no technical skills or equipment, such as rope, harness, crampons or ice axe.

The team is expected to reach the final summit Uhuru Peak on day six or June 22.

Valleywise Health Foundation, the nonprofit charity for the hospital, is sponsoring the trip.  Each burn survivor has a fundraising page to raise money for the burn center.

Among the other survivors making the trip is Stephanie Neilson, who in 2004 as a young mother became one of the first “mommy bloggers” when she started an online journal about motherhood, traveling with children and creating a family home. Over the next four years, thousands of followers shared in the couple’s joy as their family grew.

On Aug. 16, 2008, the couple’s small plane crashed and exploded on impact in the Arizona desert. Over the next four months, their lives and future were in the hands of medical experts at the Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health.

Stephanie’s New York Times best-selling memoir, “Heaven Is Here: An Incredible Story of Hope, Triumph, and Everyday Joy” honors many of her heroes in the Arizona Burn Center.

The couple has been featured on NBC’s Today Show, ABC News, The Oprah Winfrey Network and many more – and followed by supporters around the country and world.

A video about their ordeal can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=apd_wTSVmpU.

Nelson said he’d like to see more mental health programs at the hospital with the money raised.

“There’s nothing about a burn that’s not traumatic,” he said. “Everything about a burn, from how it occurs to how to care for a burn is very traumatic.”

Nelson said when he was asked two years ago if he was interested in the trek, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I didn’t have to think about it,” said Nelson, who when asked shares his journey with other burn survivors at the hospital. “The goal for me is to give back to someone who gave me so much.

“I don’t think I would be the person today if I’ve not gone through Valleywise. My outcome would have been a lot different.”

Nelson and the other survivors began training almost every other week by hiking around the state at places such as South Mountain, Piestewa Peak and Humphreys Peak, the highest pinnacle in Arizona at 12,633 feet. Nelson also has hiked the Grand Canyon three times since his accident.

He has always been physically fit, a self-described cross-fit junkie who had just competed in a Spartan race with obstacles the day before the exposion.  

 “We wanted to make sure we were all healthy enough to do this,” Nelson said. “Burn survivors have different issues, some have skin tightness, scar contractures and some have inhalation damage to the lungs.”

But COVID came and threw a wrench into their plans, delaying the hike for two years, until now and Nelson said he’s raring to go.

“It’s about overcoming the odds,” he said. “A burn injury isn’t the end of someone’s life.”