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That Call — The One Where Fear Grips You


Brenda with Jacob and niece Carla.


Has your stomach ever gone into knots at the sound of your phone ringing? Have you felt fear before even answering that call? It happened to me at Cisco’s Global Sales Meeting (GSX) when I was in a leadership session.

My phone rang and I saw it was from Carla, my youngest niece. Why was she calling me? (We usually only catch up at family gatherings.)

My stomach instantly tightened. I suddenly felt nervous and anxious. Something was just not right. “Answer the phone!” I screamed in my head and quickly walked out of the session. I answered hesitantly, “Hey, Carla…”

Before I could utter another word, Carla frantically blurted out, “Aunt Brenda, it’s Jacob.” (Jacob is her beautiful 9-year-old son). “He’s been horribly burned in a campfire accident and is being airlifted to a trauma center.”

A Moment that Mattered

Fast forward six months. I was attending Cisco’s VP+ Summit, where these new TED Talk-like sessions were being introduced, highlighting leaders across Cisco. One of the featured speakers was Jeff Gallinat, SVP, Global Manufacturing Operations. Having known Jeff for some time, I figured his session would be a good one.

What I didn’t know was: A) Jeff was a burn survivor, and B) why that moment would matter so much.

Jeff didn’t talk about his career journey or his hobbies. Instead, he spoke about his experience as a burn survivor and how an organization called Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors played a pivotal role in his physical, mental, and emotional recovery.

I didn’t know it then, but the Phoenix Society would also play a pivotal role in my life.

Can You Imagine?

Flash back to GSX. There I was, on the phone, speechless, with my niece Carla, who told me her son had been in an awful campfire accident and was airlifted to Hennepin Healthcare Burn Center in Minneapolis. To make the situation even more tragic, Carla was not there with her children when it happened.

Her husband — now ex-husband — had taken their three young children camping with another couple to a remote Minnesota area with limited cell coverage. They had set up camp and were getting ready to turn in for the night. Suddenly, horrifying screams came from the campfire.

Jacob, being helpful, had innocently grabbed a container of liquid to put out the campfire but that liquid was gasoline. You can only imagine what happened next. I won’t share the horrific details, but it changed their lives — and mine — forever.

The Longest Drive

With no cell coverage in a remote area, there were limited options of what to do next. Jacob’s dad desperately wrapped Jacob in a blanket and put him in his truck. He took off in a frantic hurry for help, only to run off the road and straight into a nearby lake. He managed to get himself and Jacob out of the submerged truck and carry Jacob across the water to an embankment, where he flagged down help.

When the police arrived, they thought it was a routine car accident. They quickly learned it was far worse and called for a Medivac to airlift Jacob to the Burn Center.

There was Jacob — just 9 years old — with over 20 percent of his body, including his face, chest, and right arm covered in third-degree burns. In shock. All alone in a helicopter with two strangers — paramedics — flying high above the campground.

The police called Carla. She immediately rushed to meet Jacob at the burn unit, 50 miles away. The longest drive of her life.

Jacob in the hospital in a medically induced coma.
Jacob in recovery.
Jacob in physical therapy.


Jacob spent his 10th birthday in the burn unit. Even though he had to spend it in the hospital, he describes it as being one of the best birthdays he has ever had and was so happy his friends and family came to visit. Jacob’s positive attitude helped him in his recovery.

He endured so much, including a medically-induced coma, skin grafts taken from areas of his unburned skin — his thighs and back — leaving those areas with scars as well.

After a month in intensive care and multiple excruciating surgeries, Jacob was released. What followed, is an ongoing long and painful recovery. Jacob endures intense physical therapy five days a week, with a one hour drive each way.

He wears compression garments every day — very confining for an active boy — sleeps in a compression therapy facemask, and must avoid the sun and the Minnesota cold for up to three years to prevent wind burns, frostbite, and sun exposure. He has had multiple surgeries and will continue to need more throughout his life.

Jacob has since returned to school. He has had to learn how to deal with unrelenting physical pain, the frustration of having to wear compression gear day and night, and the uncomfortable stares from people.

He tries to make the most of every day, to smile, to play practical jokes on family members, and to make people around him laugh. All Jacob wants is for people to know that he is the same kid he used to be before the campfire accident and that he is not different.

Why THAT Moment Mattered

I am grateful for Cisco and having the opportunity to hear Jeff Gallinat speak on a personal topic. As soon as he stepped off stage, I had to tell him how impactful his story was to me and share Jacob’s experience.

Jeff responded without hesitation, “We need to get Jacob to the Phoenix World Burn Congress. Let me get you in contact with them ASAP.” He immediately connected me with the director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.

The symbol of the phoenix is that of a long-lived bird that regenerates itself, is reborn, and obtains new life by arising from the ashes — a very fitting symbol for Phoenix Society.

Jacob with another burn survivor from Canada at last year’s Phoenix Society World Burn Congress. He was burned in a work accident and has been coming to the conference for 12 years. He “adopted” us at the event and was wonderful to Jake.

Carla, Jacob, and I were invited to their annual Phoenix Society World Burn Congress. The Burn Congress is the world's largest burn community gathering, where attendees connect with support, resources, and each other.

Attending the Congress was emotional and life-changing for us all. For Jacob, it allowed him to discover an amazing community of burn survivors of all ages who he can learn from, build confidence with, and rely on during his recovery.

For Carla, it allowed her to deal with and work through all her emotions as a parent of a burn survivor: frustration, anger, helplessness, guilt, and sadness. In turn, she could move toward understanding, forgiveness, and hope.

A Helping Hand

Carla has since divorced and is on her own way to recovery. Given Carla’s financial struggles and mounting medical bills, I‘ve set up a GoFundMe page. Funds can also be sent to carlathiel@hotmail.com through Venmo or PayPal.

Donations will help with Jacob’s ongoing surgeries, therapies, compression garments, school tutors, counseling, and transportation to and from his daily physical therapy sessions. Donations will also ensure Carla and Jacob can attend the 2019 Phoenix Society World Burn Congress in Anaheim, California. Airline frequent flier miles donations to help them get there are also greatly appreciated.

Every day things are looking up for Carla, Jacob, and his two younger sisters. I see the impact of that moment that mattered on their lives. I feel their gratitude toward so many, including the fantastic doctors and nurses at the Hennepin Healthcare Burn Center for all the compassion and love shown to Jacob during his recovery and for the empathy and support from the Phoenix Society.

They have all also expressed their gratitude for Cisco. Cisco is not only the worldwide leader in networking, but it also provides a network of people that truly make a difference.

Thank you to all who are able to donate, even the smallest amounts, to help Jacob with his ongoing recovery.

Although Jacob is still in recovery, he's still the same fun loving kid he used to be before the campfire accident.

About Brenda Dennis

Brenda is an innovative, passionate, and strategic sales and operations leader with more than 21 years at Cisco. Currently, she is a Vice President with Customer and Partner Services. When not traveling and speaking on behalf of Cisco, Brenda enjoys spending time with her husband and three boys.

LinkedIn: BrendaDennis

Twitter: @brendagdennis

Connect everything. Innovate everywhere. Benefit everyone.

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