A ball of fire forever altered Joe Dubak's life two years ago.
On Dec. 29, 2006, Dubak was working to dismantle an abandoned car at his place of employment north of New Richmond. He was unaware that a gas tank with gallons of fuel was inches away from his blow torch.
When the flame of his salvage tool hit the fuel line, a giant explosion resulted. Dubak was engulfed in flames.
"The gasoline ejected all over me and down my boots," he said. "Shock set in pretty quick because of all the trauma."
Luckily, Dubak was clothed in four layers of winter gear and welding gloves protected his hands.
Still, the flames burned away all his hair, disfigured his face and damaged the skin on his arms and legs. Doctors estimated that Dubak had third-degree burns over 42 percent of his body.
"My chest and back were the only skin that wasn't burnt," he said.
Initially, doctors gave Dubak less than a 50-50 chance of survival, even though they didn't tell his family about the long odds.
"I didn't want to know," Dubak's wife, Chris, now admits.
Even if Dubak's body could withstand the initial blaze, doctors feared that infection could ultimately take his life.
"Infection is the biggest worry in a big burn like this," Joe added.
But as treatment successfully progressed, Dubak went home after more than five months in the burn unit at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
"His stubbornness kept him alive," Chris is convinced. "His unhappy childhood made him strong."
Joe doesn't disagree. He recalls a time when, at 5 years old, his mother abandoned him and his 1-year-old sister.
He lived for several weeks in their family's home, taking care of his sister as best he could. He stole food from the store across the street, eating uncooked macaroni and cheese to survive. He used old newspapers as diapers for his younger sibling.
"Everybody has a different kind of spirit," he said. "I do believe I have a strong spirit after what I went through."
Eventually, someone noticed that the two youngsters were alone. They were placed in the foster care system and bounced around to different homes through the years.
He learned the lesson of survival well, Joe said. It came in handy in the months following his work place accident.
Long road home
Joe was initially transported to Westfield Hospital, where he was prepared for an ambulance ride into the Twin Cities.
Chris said local doctors did their job well and likely saved her husband's life.
"They knew right away what to do," she said.
Because Dubak's back and chest were spared from the blaze, doctors at Regions were eventually able to "harvest" skin grafts from those locations to replace skin that was burned away.
It was weeks before Dubak came out of sedation and began to realize what had happened and how much time had passed.
After several months of treatment and bed rest, Joe had to learn to walk again and take care of himself.
"It was a long process," he said. "It's amazing how long it takes to recover physically and emotionally."
When Joe finally walked on his own power, the nurses and doctors in the burn unit applauded. He recalled numerous times when he was crabby as hospital staffers urged him to keep trying.
"It was easy to not want to work hard and get better," Joe admitted. "If it wasn't for the doctors and nurses, I never would have made it."
It was Joe's hope to return Somerset home to his wife and son, 11-year-old Alex, that ultimately provided the motivation to continue the fight.
Even though his hospital stay ended months ago, Joe has plenty of healing remaining.
Since the accident, Dubak has had to endure 13-14 surgeries to repair damage from the explosion. He has numerous additional surgeries in his future.
"It's going to be a slow process," Joe said. "Some days I'd like to jump ahead and get past all this. I just have to take it one day at a time."
One of Joe's biggest challenges, however, has been getting out in public following the accident. Burn unit officials know how intimidating the idea can be for patients, and they schedule a "practice" trip to see how they handle it.
Joe's Wal-Mart trip was frightening, but he got through the ordeal. Young kids are the toughest to encounter, Joe admitted, because they have a tough time not staring.
Once he was home, Joe faced an even tougher challenge. He agreed to visit his son's Somerset Elementary School classroom and talk about his accident and subsequent medical care.
"I went up and stood in front of the class," he said. "I didn't want to do it, but I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and did it. I'm glad I did it. I couldn't believe how accepting they were."
As the family lost most of its income, the Dubaks faced foreclosure and financial ruin.
Medical bills totaled more than $4 million, but because Wisconsin has a workers compensation fund for uninsured workers, the family has had help covering the expenses.
Joe also was diagnosed as permanently disabled, so he receives a portion of his previous income on a monthly basis.
"At least it's enough so we can live," he said.
The Dubaks are attempting to recover back pay that's allegedly owed them by their previous employer. It's been a struggle to get through the legal maze, Joe said.
As for their immediate needs, Joe said the family's long driveway is the biggest obstacle for the winter. Anyone wishing to help plow for the Dubaks this winter can call them at 651-428-7443 to make arrangements. Barring a plowing volunteer, Joe said he could use help fixing his broken truck so that plowing is possible.
"I don't like to have to ask for handouts, but I'm not given much choice," he admitted.
Some day, Joe hopes to return to a full-time job so he can better support his family.
He likely will have to be re-trained, as a desk or managerial job will be a better fit for the burn patient.
Joe cannot be outside for long periods of time -- his new skin easily burns in the sunlight and his grafts don't "sweat" like normal so it's difficult for his body to regulate its temperature. Extreme heat or cold can cause big problems.
"I'm permanently disabled, but I have a hard time accepting that," he said. "I do want to get back out there. It's not like I want to sit around on my butt the rest of my life."
Ideally, the Dubaks still talk about going into business for themselves some day. The salvage and recycling business they were involved in two years ago makes sense, they say, especially in today's economy.
"Why throw things away when other people can use it," Joe said.
Joe also doesn't mind being a spokesperson for burn survivors across the nation. He said he'd like others to hear his story so that they're more careful around flammable materials.
"If it saves one person from being burned it's worth it," he said.
You wouldn't think a family that's struggled so much has much to be thankful for, but Joe and Chris have a ready list when asked.
"Things like this help put things into perspective," Joe said. "I have my good days and my bad days, but I'm thankful that I have a second chance at life. And I'm thankful that I get to see my son grow up."
Now that the Dubaks have been married 11 years, Joe said he'll also be thankful when he celebrates his 50th anniversary with his wife -- much like his grandparents' celebration recently.
"It just shows how precious life is and how fast it can all change," Chris added.
Chris said she's thankful for all the support she's received from family and community members over the past two years.
She's also thankful to have her family all home together.
"We have some level of normalcy now," Chris said. "It's our new normal."