Harrison County

John Harrison’s will to recover from severe burns inspires students

Mary Schmidt, left, and Julia Henry, students at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in New Orleans, participate in a fun run. The school holds the Cardinal Cardiac Challenge each year, selecting someone who needs their support. They raise money but also offer encouragement to the beneficiary.
Mary Schmidt, left, and Julia Henry, students at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in New Orleans, participate in a fun run. The school holds the Cardinal Cardiac Challenge each year, selecting someone who needs their support. They raise money but also offer encouragement to the beneficiary.

John Harrison Doucet struggles with pain, anxiety, depression and severe fluctuations in body temperature, but he is not alone as he fights to recover from burns that melted skin and muscle to the bone.

The 20-year-old sailor is determined to survive the burns he suffered Sept. 18, when an overhead power line touched a cable on his sailboat mast outside the Gulfport Yacht Club. He was flown that night to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Jackson, then to the largest burn center in the country, JMS in Augusta, Georgia.

He has lost both his legs and his right arm. Still, he pushes ahead.

“The physical therapy department commented to us that they are all very impressed and surprised at how strong John Harrison is and how hard he is trying to get better,” his parents, Tommy Doucet and Ruthie McMullen, told the Sun Herald in an email Tuesday.

“With Thanksgiving coming up, John Harrison’s siblings and close extended family will be traveling to Augusta to spend time with him and us. Words cannot express how thankful we are for all of the love and support received during this difficult time.”

The Doucet and McMullen families, both with deep Gulfport roots and strong bonds to one another, have received prayers, well wishes and contributions from thousands of people on the Coast and in the broader sailing community. One person who knows John Harrison or members of his family connects to others who may not, but are nonetheless drawn into his story.

Students step up

Such was the case for Patty Strikmiller, a health and physical education teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, which educates children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Her sister, who lives in Pass Christian, has children who sailed with John Harrison. Strikmiller’s sister told her John Harrison is “very popular, just an amazing kid.”

Strikmiller read about John Harrison’s injuries and fight to recover in the Sun Herald. She shared his story with her classes, who chose him as the beneficiary of the encouragement they offer someone each fall through words and deeds.

It started when sixth-grade students decided during a skills assessment that they needed to work on caring for others. Each year since 2012, the school has adopted someone who needs encouragement.

They will raise money for John Harrison at 9 a.m. Dec. 10 with a fun run, the Cardinal Cardio Challenge, named after the school mascot. Students already have sent bundles of letters and poems to John Harrison at the burn center. The kids follow updates on his condition.

One of the past recipients of the school’s love and support was Devon Walker, a defensive end for Tulane University paralyzed from the neck down during a football game in 2012.

Two months after that first run, Strikmiller and some of her students knocked on Walker’s door.

“We gave him a photo album, we showed him a slide show of the (fun run), we gave him T-shirts and we prayed with him,” she said. “We said, ‘We just want you to know, you’re not alone in this.’”

The next year, the school supported Kevin Trimble, an Army private who also lost his left arm and both legs, in this case to an IED in Afghanistan. Strikmiller was inspired when she saw Trimble more recently in a Starbucks’ Upstanders video, working out with a huge grin on his face.

Never alone

The school’s annual fundraiser means so much to Srikmiller because she knows how much support lifts those who are suffering. Strikmiller was three years into her husband’s treatment for cancer when she organized the first fun run. He died in 2015.

“I was on the receiving end of people showing kindness,” she said. “Being on the receiving end changes your life. You’re on a path and you’re on a trip of incredible difficulty. When people share their kindness or express their care, you’re not on that trip alone.”

To let students know where their friend John Harrison stands, his parents said his kidneys are functioning on their own, so he no longer needs dialysis.

His parents also said in their update: “He still has an extensive amount of skin reconstruction, as well as bone and tissue surgeries that need to be done to his legs and right arm in order to prepare them for prosthetics in the future.

“John Harrison is fighting infections, rises and drops in body temperature, pain, anxiety, and depression. There are a few areas on his back that they are closely watching to make sure his skin remains intact.”

His parents say John Harrison’s strong will to recover and the effort he is putting into the fight makes them proud.

If you go

Students at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in New Orleans plans a fun run called the Cardinal Cardio Challenge that starts at 9 a.m. Dec. 10 at Audubon Park.

The students would love to see Coast residents participate, as proceeds will go to John Harrison Doucet, the Gulfport High School graduate severely burned by an overhead power line while parking his sail boat at the outside the yacht club.

Runners will meet in Shelter 12 near St. Charles Avenue at Audubon Park. Registration is $10. Participants can run a half-mile or 1.8 miles.

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