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Dennis J. Gardin was 14 when his life suddenly changed.

He and some friends were repairing a motorcycle in his basement when they spilled gasoline. The fuel reached the furnace, where it ignited and caused the bike to explode.

Gardin suffered severe burns over 70 percent of his body and spent eight months in the hospital.

"It’s interesting how one decision, one choice or one incident can change a person’s life forever. My childhood was over as I knew it," Gardin said. "The next several years of my life, it was spent having surgeries, having reconstructive (procedures), being hospitalized and those kind of things."

His emotional recovery was even slower. "It took me 25 years to say out loud that I didn’t like what happened to me, that I didn’t like my scars," he said. "And that was the beginning of my true healing."

Now at age 62, the Detroit native will share his story next month as a keynote speaker at the Phoenix World Burn Congress, an international conference for burn survivors, in Grand Rapids. He will be addressing the same community that helped him accept what happened to him.

For more than two decades, Gardin considered himself a victim. Then he discovered the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, which hosts the conference — and the burn community, where he learned the term "burn survivor."

"Just that tweak in how I describe myself made a huge difference in my life," Gardin said. "I was victimized by an incident, but I really am a survivor and that was huge for me and we find it’s huge for others as well, just to know that they can claim it."

Gardin said the "burn survivor" label applies to more than the individual who was injured. It also applies to family members and others like first responders, firefighters, therapists and nurses.

"When we say burn survivor, I really like to make the point that that definition has expanded to recognize those unseen victims or sufferers," Gardin said.

Although Gardin considers Detroit his home, he now lives in Atlanta and has been executive director of the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation for 10 years. He also travels as an inspirational speaker, addressing everyone from individuals in hospitals to large groups.

Having been burned on very visible parts of his body, like his face and hands, Gardin said he spent two years in his house after the incident, hiding from the outside world. Gradually, he returned to school, finished college, got a job, started businesses, was married and divorced -- all the things that "normal people" do.

Gardin said that for most of his life, all he wanted was to do was "walk into a room full of people and not be noticed." Within the Phoenix Society, he has found a network of people who share the same experiences and feelings.

The conference kicks off with a remembrance walk for members of the Phoenix Society, firefighters and anyone worldwide who has died, been injured by or otherwise affected by fire. Sessions are conducted on topics such as social re-entry after being burned and sensitivity training for adults and children.

Amy Acton, a Grand Rapids native, has served as executive director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors for almost 20 years and is excited to bring the conference home this year.

She is a survivor herself, having suffered an electrical burn at age 18 while working a summer job at a Lake Macatawa marina. She was pushing a sailboat that was dry-docked on a trailer when the mast hit a high-tension wire, electrifying the boat. She was freed from the electrical current and taken to a hospital, where she remained for two and a half months.

Acton had just finished high school and went on to nursing school, eventually becoming a nurse and later a nurse manager at Spectrum Health's burn center in Grand Rapids.

Being a recipient of burn care and seeing the team approach it takes motivated Acton to get through nursing school.

"That whole journey from the impact and trauma to watching people grow and heal and overcome and sometimes just do things that they never thought possible, that transformational peace, for me has always been intriguing," Acton said.

One day she received a flyer in the mail and decided to attend one of the first burn congresses, in Philadelphia.

"It really helped me understand that there’s a huge gap in our care and what people need to really truly recover," Acton said. "They need a supportive community. It’s not just an acute injury. You have people that need resources for years and decades after their injury."

The Phoenix Society was founded by Alan Breslau in 1977. He suffered extensive burns in an airline crash in 1963. After visiting a young boy in a burn center, he saw the importance of peer support and started the organization in his Pennsylvania home.

The phoenix symbol was chosen "because of the symbolism of kind of rising from the ashes and being reborn and transformed into something new — and sometimes more beautiful than we thought we could be," Acton said.

After Breslau retired in 1998, Acton took over as executive director and that's when the headquarters was moved to Grand Rapids. Since its inception, the conference has grown from having dozens to hundreds of attendees and takes place in a different U.S. city each year. Acton said close to 1,000 people are expected to attend the conference this year.

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The event will be livestreamed from Sept. 12-15. Gardin will deliver a speech, titled "It Takes a Village" about his personal journey.

"I understand now the purpose for it, because of the honor and privilege I have to bring some benefit to the burn survivor community," Gardin said. "Not just to say ‘This is what you need to do.’ But just to say ‘This is what’s possible to you.’"

Gardin said over the years he has stopped questioning why he was burned.

"I don’t have to wonder why this happened to me as a 14-year-old because I know now," Gardin said. "That was my preparation for what my life has evolved into and what my passion is about."

malsup@detroitnews.com

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