Finding My Valentine: A Burn Survivor’s Love Story

John Capanna is a burn survivor and volunteer for the Phoenix Society

by John Capanna

Filled with cards, candy, flowers, other gifts and hopefully love, Valentine’s Day is by all intents and purposes supposed to be a happy day for couples.

But for some, this annual romantic celebration can be a sad reminder that they look different and that they think no one will ever accept them, let alone love them.

I felt much the same way after my burns.

I was burned over 90 percent of my body in an oil refinery explosion when I was just 20 years old. The greatest damage was to my face; I lost both ears, part of my nose and had to have my entire face reconstructed. I was hopeless back then, but as I said to someone the other day at a burn survivor group at our local burn unit at Lehigh Valley Hospital, “We’ve been in recovery from our burns for many years (33 years for me) — we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, because we’ve been through the tunnel.”

The struggle is that most newly burned people can’t even imagine the light exists; that it will ever get better. The scars become the focal point and we fear rejection. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter where your scars are on your body or what ‘beauty’ you may have been left with. I’m no authority by any measure on love or relationships, so I’m just sharing what I have experienced in the last 33 years.

I had a couple of different women that I dated when I was injured, and for whatever reason those relationships didn’t last. I met a physical therapist that I dated, and a candy striper that I went on a date with, and this was all within two years of my burns — and I still had extensive facial reconstruction that needed to be done. I’m not going to say I wasn’t self conscious. I was and still am sometimes. I’m not sure I know anyone who isn’t from time to time – non burn survivors included.

In 1983, I met a beautiful, energetic young woman named Sonya. We had fun together and connected on a level that felt really good. We eventually went our separate ways mainly because of my ongoing struggle with narcotics dependency — the result of constant pain-killers taken during my ordeal. I soon met and married someone else. But ours was not a healthy relationship as we both had our share of unresolved issues and growing up to do. We had two children together, separated in 1991 and divorced in 1997.

I finally found my way to getting off of the pain medicine completely in 1996 and I’ve been clean ever since.

John Capanna and Sonya Fellows attended the Phoenix Society's 2011 World Burn Congress in Cincinnati!

One day, I was asked to travel to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania (I lived in NJ at the time) to share my story with some other people in recovery. It was January 2002, almost a year after I gained custody of my two children. I stepped into the building where the gathering was to be held, and headed for the bathroom so I could prepare to share my story, when I heard a voice behind me.

“I’ve been waiting for you for years.”

I turned around and was completely flabbergasted. I just couldn’t believe that over 18 years later, Sonya was standing in front of me at this obscure town that I didn’t even know existed, over 100 miles from where we both lived. All those years faded away and it felt like it did back then. A little electricity. A spiritual connection. A few months later, we started seeing each other again and eventually I asked her to marry me.

I didn’t think my first wife loved me, because though she seemed to be able to see past the scars on the outside, I don’t believe she ever really saw me. Sonya sees me and she gets me. She accepts me and loves me. Is it always wonderful? No.  In fact, we are really just getting started on our relationship and romance. We’ve been focused on raising the kids and getting them set up with life, moving, business, and my involvement in the burn community and just everyday life.

But I’ve found that if I really want a good relationship, I need to make time for it and I have to participate. It involves more than cards, flowers and the occasional dinner out. It takes guts to stay committed to a relationship long term. What I feared the most was the intimacy and vulnerability — not something most guys (and many women) are very good at. But I’ve gotten better at it. I enjoy our life together and we enjoy each other.

“I’ve learned that my scars weed out the ‘phonies’ in life … “

Sonya and I have been very fortunate to have another chance to come back together as adults and find out who we really are, both separately and together. We try and support each other and give each other the kindness that engenders love. It’s not always easy and we both fall short but we keep on trying and that is the most important part — just keep at it and don’t give up!

It is my sincere wish that everyone who reads this finds happiness within themselves and shares that with someone else some day. In the meantime, just remember: if someone can’t love you today because you look different, they probably wouldn’t have been able to love you before your burns.

I’ve learned that my scars weed out the “phonies” in life and what I end up with is the most genuine and authentic people on this earth surrounding me.

Happy Valentine’s day to everyone, because self love is where real love begins. You don’t have to be in a relationship to work on self love. So buy yourself a box of candy and some flowers, and if no one else tells you that they love you, or even if they do, find a mirror and tell yourself.

Related Resources: Intimacy and Sexuality after a Burn Injury
Did you know: You can Share your Story at
Donate: Help burn survivors get back to living by Donating Today

One thought on “Finding My Valentine: A Burn Survivor’s Love Story

  1. I love John’s final point of “find a mirror and tell yourself”! I am still amazed at how I was able to change my psychological perspectve of my self by saying positive things to myself in the mirror. I did this for years early on. It wasn’t as though there was some sort of instantaneous new feeling about myself. If anything there was almost nothing perceptible at the time above a warm fuzzy.
    Years later, I can look back and see so many positive feelings about myself that originated from those conversations with the mirror.

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