Beyond Survival: How One Couple Found Wholeness in Community

Written by Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors on April 05, 2024

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It’s not the life anyone would have imagined. But it’s their life, and it’s a life they love.

Lon and Raleigh Bickham live in the rural reaches of Franklin, Virginia, with their two young children. This year marked 10 years of marriage for the couple. But even before beginning married life together, they became partners in the lifelong journey of recovery after a devastating burn injury in 2011.

The young couple was already planning their lives together when an accident at Lon’s workplace threatened their dreams. An explosion left him with third-degree burns on 95% of his body, and his survival was nothing short of miraculous.

His long recovery began with 13 months in the hospital, followed by six months in a rehabilitation facility. Through it all, Raleigh rarely left his side. She immediately adopted the role of caretaker and said “yes” to his hospital-bed marriage proposal. Within months of him going home, they were married.

Twelve years, countless surgeries, and two small children later, the routines of their lives look very different from the norm. Lon uses an electric wheelchair for mobility and requires 24-hour care and assistance with the basic tasks of living. Physical therapy is still on his calendar twice every week. Raleigh balances the roles of mother and wife with that of full-time caregiver.

But their challenges don’t define their life. From the start, they have intentionally pursued laughter and adventure. They’ve continued to invest in the passions and interests that brought them joy before Lon’s injury. They’ve traveled together, partnered to build a truck, and teamed up to convert a school bus into an RV. They’ve raised cows and chickens. As parents, they treasure all the normal milestones, like sending their daughter Eliza off for her first day of kindergarten this fall and enjoying all the little firsts with their son Emmet as he races toward toddlerhood.

They’ve built a life they love, and they’re quick to say they haven’t done it alone.

For Lon and Raleigh, their families have been their rock. By their sides every step of the way, they help make the couple’s life possible. But even with an amazing support system of family and friends, Raleigh acknowledged the separateness that they sometimes experience.

“Our life is very different from the average person's. Until you've lived as a survivor or as their partner and caregiver, you can't truly understand—and we don't expect others to fully grasp it. But it can make you feel different, and that can produce feelings of loneliness.”

Before this year, Lon and Raleigh never really knew other burn survivors, but they had begun hearing about Phoenix Society and the global burn community. Encouraged by a friend and healthcare providers at their burn center, they decided to attend Phoenix World Burn Congress (WBC) in the fall of 2023.

As the date of their departure got closer, Lon started to feel nervous. His scars and physical limitations had always made him anxious in public situations. The idea of participating in a worldwide gathering where people openly shared their scars and stories seemed daunting.

“He was really anxious about being around others, not knowing what to expect,” Raleigh explained. “But almost immediately upon arriving, it was like, ‘Oh no big deal.’ No one there thought twice about any of it. It was the first place we had ever been where appearance and ability were non-issues."

Lon’s hesitancy quickly faded away. For the first time since his accident, he felt a connection that he didn’t even know he’d been lacking.

“I instantly felt like part of that community. I felt very much like I belonged.”

Lon and Raleigh met people at various stages of recovery. They found connections with others who shared their candid sense of humor and optimistic approach to life. They explored workshops and sessions tailored to different audiences, including caregivers and survivors like them.

Together and separately, they found their niches and connected with others who shared similar life experiences.

Meeting another spouse who was further along in her journey as caregiver was particularly meaningful to Raleigh. Hearing her story, as someone 20 years post-injury, energized Raleigh with fresh hope for their future.

It was comforting to be surrounded by people who have shared similar things. There was this unspoken understanding between us that was really validating & encouraging. It just gave me this reassurance that we really aren’t alone, and we can do this!”


Lon found similar encouragement hearing how others have coped with the emotional scars left by their burns. Simply being in the company of others who truly understood life after a burn injury created a deep sense of belonging, unlike anything he had experienced before. Now, it’s a feeling he never wants to live without.

It took 12 years for the Bickhams to connect with Phoenix Society and the larger burn community. Sitting side by side with other survivors for the first time, they felt a new sense of relief and wholeness. They came away from Phoenix WBC firmly convinced of the powerful healing this unique support system can offer survivors through every stage of recovery.

I think that being a part of a community is a gamechanger when it comes to recovery."


Raleigh was quick to agree. “Knowing that there are other people in similar situations—people who’ve faced milestones that are coming your way—and being able to glean from the knowledge base of those who have been there is a huge help to any survivor.”

Now that Phoenix WBC is over, Lon and Raleigh are back to the life they love. Their families by their side, they embrace each day with laughter, positivity, and resilience. But now when their journey gets hard, their path feels less lonely because they have an entire community walking with them.

That community is made possible by the ongoing support of Phoenix Society’s peer supporters, volunteers, and donors. Each of us, in our own vital roles, contribute to individual recovery by investing in programs that foster shared experiences, resources, and connection—all of which keep the burn community moving forward together, toward surviving and thriving. Together, we are creating a world where no survivor has to heal alone.

Provide Support When You’re Needed Most

Phoenix SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) connects survivors and loved ones with others who have experienced similar trauma—whether through their own burn injury, or as the loved one of a burn survivor.

As a Phoenix SOAR Peer Supporter, you will offer knowledge, empathy, and a listening ear to new burn survivors and their loved ones. By sharing your similar experience, you can ensure other survivors don’t have to walk the path of healing alone.