“Inside’s What Counts,” New Era, Jan.–Feb. 1983, 39
Inside’s What Counts
Injured and horribly burned, one young man struggles against adversity.
Peter Jeppson took the gas pump hose out of his tank and with a quick twist of his wrist, secured the tank cap. It was late Saturday night, and he had stopped for gas on his way home after a double date. He was still thinking of his best friend’s news—a mission call. Peter, himself, would be sending in his own papers in just a few weeks.
As Peter pulled through an intersection into the traffic on the main highway leading into Boise, his car smashed head-on into another. On impact, the windshield of his car was knocked out and shattered on the street. The full gas tank located in the front of his rear-engined car burst.
Gas sloshed up the hood right through the open window catching me right in the eyes, covering me and the inside of the car completely. Somehow flames were ignited, and the car burst into a blazing inferno. It was then that some people who were passing by saw the accident and pulled over quickly. Three men were able to get close enough to my car to open the door. The flames were two times as high as the car. They couldn’t find me because the flames were so intense. They threw their coats in the open car door to cover the flames until they could see my hand. The three of them grabbed my hand and pulled me from the wreckage. They rolled me over and over to put out the fire.
Peter had borrowed his brother’s thick, Scottish wool sweater for his date that night. The trunk of his body and his arms down to the wrists, the areas covered by the sweater, were the only parts not burned. This sweater saved his life.
In 1965, Peter was living in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, and like many of his friends was preparing for a mission. The day of the accident changed all that. He was forced into an experience that would test him to the limit. And it was his triumph over adversity that changed his life.
As I arrived at the hospital, the young doctor who was attending me did what he could. But I had expanded so much, almost twice as big, like a blister, that it was very difficult to tell if I was lying on my back or my stomach. And with all that, he tried to find some life signs and couldn’t. He declared me legally dead. He covered me with a sheet and took me back down to the entrance to the emergency care center. And there I was left on a cot. A nurse walked by. She was beside the cot when my arm flinched under the sheet. She became quite alarmed. They marshaled all their resources and took me back up to intensive care.
Peter was given no chance to live. Teams of nurses and doctors had to spell each other off as he hovered between life and death. Gradually Peter approached the threshold of consciousness.
I could hear them talking. It was like a fantasy, a never-never land, because of all the pain. It was like a cloud around my mind. I heard the doctor say to my mother, “There is no chance that Peter will live.” When I heard him say this, I became so angry I wanted to get up and hit the doctor. I remember trying to get off the bed, but I was tied down. I’ll never forget that feeling when the doctor said, “I don’t know how he has made it this long. There’s no chance that he’ll live.”
I remember thinking as I was slipping into a coma that I felt like I was dying. That happened many, many times, only I couldn’t remember the other times. I could only remember the time I was going through. As I was slipping away, I was so mad at the doctor that I said, “I’ll prove to you I’m not going to die. I’ll hang on.
The pain was so severe that I made a commitment to myself that before I gave up I would count to ten. I would see if I could make it to ten before I died. I’d get to five or six and feel myself slipping, and I’d say, “I’ve got to get to ten.”
Gradually and painfully Peter became more stable. His arms and legs were tied up to prevent bleeding, and his eyes were bandaged. The doctor explained to him what had happened in the accident: he had dislocated an arm and a leg; had broken three ribs, seven or eight fingers, and his jaw; had received a serious concussion; had lost 50 percent of his skin; and had received first- and second-degree burns over another 40 percent. But Peter had one big question. Since the gas splashed into his eyes, would he ever see again?
I could hear the doctor leaving. He hadn’t answered my big question. I got my arm swinging. I must have caught his attention because he came by me and asked, “What is it, Peter?” I could only say, “My eyes, my eyes, my eyes.” He just squeezed my arm and didn’t answer. He knew what I meant. There was just the unsaid answer that there was no chance I would see again. He started to weep a little, and I could tell that things were very serious.
Peter spent months in the hospital slowly recovering. In fact, he would spend one year as a full-time patient and many more months in and out of the hospital as he underwent dozens of operations. One of the many operations to be performed was to remove the scar tissue from his eyes. Following the operation, while he was in the recovery room, Peter knew that the moment of truth would come that following morning. Then the bandages would be removed and his eyes tested.
Awake and alone in the middle of the night, Peter thought about what was to come.
I couldn’t handle the thought of that scene when my eyes would be uncovered. On the one hand, if I could see, what a grand moment it would be! But on the other hand, what if I were blind? All hope would be gone.
Awkwardly, because his hands were wrapped in bandages, Peter started to remove the wrappings from his eyes. He managed to maneuver a pan from beside the bed onto his chest. His plan was to reflect the light from his overhead bed lamp into his eyes. He flipped the switch, and the light exploded in his eyes. He could see! As his eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room, he lifted the shiny, metal pan once more.
There, in all my excitement, was this horrid face. Because my family had been told that I didn’t have a chance to live, they hadn’t told me about some other things. They hadn’t told me that I had lost most of one ear and all my eyelids and all my facial features. My nose was gone; all mymouth was gone. In my excitement to see, I hadn’t thought about what I would see. I couldn’t handle it emotionally. I let out a big yell.
Now faced with new dilemmas, Peter spent all night talking with a sympathetic nurse, asking her about what could be done. What plans had been made? What was going to happen to him once he got out of the hospital? What was it going to be like going to a store? What about going to a dance? What if he wanted to dance with a girl? What if he liked a girl? What if he wanted to give her a kiss? Abruptly, he started to laugh. The nurse, puzzled by this sudden change in emotion, wanted to know what was so funny.
All of a sudden something flashed through my mind. I was reminded of another time when I had looked into a mirror, concerned about the way I looked.
When I was a junior in high school, I had an opportunity to go to the junior-senior prom. This was the first time I had ever worn a tuxedo. It was exciting! I had just turned 16 and had asked a special girl to go with me. It was the first time I was to take a girl out to dinner. I was so concerned I would be late that I started getting my tuxedo on at 2:00 in the afternoon. Just as I was putting on the cummerbund and the bow tie, I noticed something happening on my chin. No, not now! I hurried to the mirror. Right there on the left side was a blemish just starting to appear. I remember how angry I got. Why today? Why not tomorrow? Any day but today! Pictures will be taken. In my attempt to correct the problem, I made it bright red.
When I went to pick up my girl friend, I was so embarrassed at the way I looked that I positioned myself at her front door so that the right side of my face was toward her and the left side faced away. Throughout the dance she kept asking who I was looking at. To top it all off, when we went to the restaurant, I asked to be seated at a large table for 10 so that I could sit on her left side and she wouldn’t be able to see my blemish. I had been so embarrassed by the way I looked then.
Now, here I was in the hospital, remembering how silly and immature I had been about that blemish. Here I was, having fought for my very life, for everything I had. And even though my face didn’t look very good, that didn’t seem so important when I thought of the miracle that had taken place. There really had been no chance that I would see again; yet now I could see! I took a little moment to say a prayer of thanks to my Father in Heaven because he had answered that prayer.
While in the hospital, Peter had a lot of time to think about what to do. He still had a long, painful road back to the point where he could be released. It was during this time that several good friends helped him learn about setting goals and controlling attitude. One man from his ward, Brother Lawrence Oborn, was particularly influential. He came to see Peter often and was always encouraging him to set a goal. At first, Peter didn’t want to try. Brother Oborn insisted by saying, “It is what’s on the inside that counts, not the outside.”
I remember how angry I got. I said very flippantly to Brother Oborn, “Okay, why don’t you get burned and you come here.” I could hear him crying, although it was muffled by the bandages around my head. As soon as I said it, I wished I hadn’t because he had done so much for me. He said, “Peter, if I could, I would.” This was when I realized that this man truly loved me, like his own son. That was when I committed to do everything he asked.
They decided on a goal. Peter would count the stitches he had during each surgery and enter it in the Guinness Book of Records. The doctors and nurses asked to be allowed to quit keeping track just short of 2,000 stitches.
Peter set another goal to count every needle that would enter his body. After seven weeks he got so bored he quit counting at 1,252. Together they set a third goal to be the most enthusiastic patient in the hospital. Even though he was often angry at the world, Peter tried to keep his goal. When he left the hospital, the staff presented him with a plaque naming him the most enthusiastic patient in their care.
Another friend, a girl in his ward, stopped by after school to read to him. Although they had not been particularly close before his accident, now she was willing to give her time to help him. He often felt ashamed because he knew that if their roles had been reversed, he would not have been there reading to her.
What if she had been burned and was in thehospital? This horrible thought kept rushing through my mind. Would I be found at her bedside? I don’t think I was a bad young man. I had a job to earn money for my car and my clothes. What made me cry inside was that I knew I wouldn’t have been there with her. And yet such a great personal service she was giving to me! I could never tell her what I felt inside, so to pay her back I made this one great commitment: when I got out of the hospital, when I could walk, when I could see, when I could do things, I would try to give of myself through service to other people as she had done to me.
When I got out of the hospital and tried to find people who had problems and tried to help them, I got away from my own problems and stopped dwelling on myself and wallowing in self-pity. I started learning that great lesson—what is on the inside really is most important. Beauty comes from within, not from without.
After Peter was released from the hospital, he arranged to go to Salt Lake City to undergo plastic surgery. He would live with his brother and sister-in-law and begin to work on his one great desire—to be as normal as possible.
But Peter had been living in a safe haven in the hospital. There people understood what had happened to him and accepted him for the person he was inside. But when he got out of the hospital he entered a world where people placed emphasis on appearances. An introduction to the outside world occurred when he went to the grocery store for the first time since his accident. He was feeling good about being out of the hospital, and his strength was returning. He walked to the store to pick up a few things. It was 5:00, and all the checkout counters were busy.
I was standing behind this lady. She had two young boys with her, but they were running around. Finally it was nearly her turn to be checked out, and her two boys came running over. As soon as they came up to their mom, one of the boys, about four years old, looked up and saw me. I scared him so badly, he started yelling, “Monster, monster.” He pulled away from his mother and started running down the aisle. She looked up to see what he was screaming about, and there I stood. She, too, dropped her groceries and took off down the aisle after the little boy. With this screaming, all the people at the other check stands were curious about what was going on. Everything stopped. Everyone turned and looked, and there I was in the middle of the store holding my loaf of bread. Then came all the ohs and ahs and people making comments that I could hear. It felt like a knife turning in my stomach.
At this time Peter was going though a series of 28 operations to reconstruct his features and correct injuries suffered in his accident. He was approached by his bishop, who asked what he would be doing if he could do anything he wanted.
Quickly it slipped out because it was a great desire of mine, but it seemed so totally impossible. I said, “I’d love to serve a mission.” And without even thinking twice he said, “Well, let’s get you ready.” I said, “Oh, bishop, I can’t do that.” I started to go over my finances and how much I owed and how my leg hadn’t mended yet and all the operations I faced and the way people reacted to me. But he just said, “Let’s get you ready.”
The bishop called Peter to teach Sunday School, and after several trying times, Peter had some good experiences in teaching the Gospel Doctrine class. He was working several jobs to help pay his hospital bills. He had several more operations scheduled, and he was beginning to think seriously about his future. Some friends stopped by one day to ask him to go to a stake dance that evening with them. Although he wanted to go, he refused. It took them six hours of talking to convince him to give it a try.
As I entered the foyer, I noticed that all the kids started looking at me, and I noticed some girls over by the coatrack. A couple of girls whispered (they didn’t know I could hear them), “Gosh, look at that guy. I sure hope he doesn’t ask me to dance.” Once again an ugly feeling shrouded my whole being.
I found a place behind the guys up near the band. I claimed a two-feet-square piece of the gym floor as my territory. I was going to own it for those hours at the dance.
At intermission his friends tried to encourage him to dance. They started pulling him out onto the floor. During the intermission, he resolved that as soon as the band began playing again, he would ask a girl to dance.
As soon as the music started, I remembered my commitment, and putting on mental blinders, I went right out there to dance. I knew if I didn’t do it then, I would be a coward for the rest of the night.
He reached the section of the floor where the girls had congregated. He approached one girl from behind. When he touched her on the shoulder to ask for a dance, she turned, saw Peter, and let out a shriek. Embarrassed, she ran out of the hall, pushing her way through the crowd. It was just like the incident at the grocery store. The band stopped playing; everyone turned to see what was the matter. He returned to his place. His friends tried to comfort him, and the dance started again.
I wanted to shout; I wanted to get out of there. And this small voice deep down inside me said, “Peter, you can’t run now; you’ll be running for the rest of your life.” Another strange thing started to happen. My legs started to move across the floor. I watched myself go out there to ask another girl to dance. I had strength beyond my own power. It was like my spirit was up above me saying, “What are you doing? You’ve got to get back. Are you a glutton for punishment?” As I was walking across the floor, I was having this argument saying yes and no and yes and no. This small voice inside me kept reassuring me. It said, “Peter, you must keep asking them to dance. Don’t turn and run because you’ll be running forever.”
Every dance for the rest of the evening, he asked girls to dance. During the entire evening, only two girls would dance with him. That night as he knelt in prayer, Peter was one bitter young man.
Everything seemed to come together—all the pressure of the people, the way they treated me and gawked at me and pointed at me, and all the operations that were left to be done. I still did not really know if they could correct my eyes and give me some eyelids, a normal mouth, and a nose. This feeling of ugliness came upon me, and in my anger, I said to my Father in Heaven, “There is a scripture that promises that we will not be tempted beyond our capacity to resist. I need that now.” I went to bed. The next morning I was blessed with a peace and a calmness that has stayed with me ever since. And regardless of how the world treated me from that point on, I was normal. My Father in Heaven just gave it to me as he promised. If we live the commandments, he will give us what we need. He gave me a peace and a calmness, so I was normal from that day on. Yes, people would react the same toward me, but I had changed.
With his confidence in himself established on a spiritual basis, Peter was ready to work toward going on a mission. After submitting his papers and undergoing a special interview with Elder Thomas S. Monson, Peter received his call to the Northern California Mission.
Up until then Peter had always worn dark glasses in an attempt to cover the slits that had been sewn closed over his eyes to compensate for his lack of eyelids. He had been so self-conscious of his appearance that he never went anywhere without his glasses. On the way to his mission interview, he took his dark glasses off and never wore them again. Surgery later corrected the problem with his eyelids.
His new attitude about himself helped him serve a successful mission. He was able to influence people and encourage them to become members of the Church.
When Peter returned from his mission, he quickly fell into the routine of work and visits to the hospital as he continued with corrective surgery. Soon he was called to serve a stake mission. In this capacity he met the secretary to the stake mission president, Marjorie Clegg of Tooele. They became good friends, and Peter started lining her up with his friends. Finally, after being lined up one too many times, Marjorie asked him to please not arrange any more dates for her. Peter asked her out himself. Based on a foundation of friendship, the relationship grew into love, and they were married.
Except for the very first time Marjorie met me, she never seemed to notice my burns. I’m very much aware of people noticing that I’m different. I’ve never noticed that Marj ever thought me any different on the outside than she found me on the inside. She makes me feel very handsome. I love her not only because she’s my sweetheart, but because she’s my very best friend. She is the girl I prayed for who would take me for what I am on the inside. That’s what I needed because I couldn’t get very far using the outside.
While Peter was lying in the hospital as a 19-year-old trying to figure out his future, he asked himself, “What one thing would I have to accomplish that would mean I had overcome my problems?” He was influenced by some books on selling that his friend had read to him before his bandages were removed from his eyes. He decided that if he could be a successful life insurance sales manager that would mean (1) he was able to develop a good relationship with people individually, (2) he would have gained an education, and (3) he would have proven his credibility and ability in one area.
With this goal in mind, Peter began researching insurance companies. He contacted 59 companies and was not offered a single job. He finally landed a position as a planning manager for an insurance company. He had his toe in the door. Through persistence, hard work, and going to school at the same time, Peter began learning the business.
By the time Peter and Marj were married, he had paid off all his debts to doctors and hospitals, but he was starting married life with no assets except his confidence and attitude. In 10 years he has built all that he and his family have from scratch, by determination and discipline. From an accident that could have been devastating to any future accomplishment, Peter Jeppson struggled against adversity to become a successful businessman, church leader, husband, and father. He is now the owner of his own insurance and investment agency, has served on the General Board of the Young Men, and has four children, two daughters and two sons.
And Peter still has goals. Now he and Marj record their progress in their journals. Marj also helps the children keep records of the important events in their lives.
With a slim build and in good physical shape, Peter points out that one of his continuing goals is to be able to run two miles in 16 minutes. This is his test to himself to make sure he maintains a certain fitness level.
Leaning back in his chair and glancing out of the windows of his office, Peter exudes confidence that can only come from successful experiences. This confidence, however, has not come easily. He often had to struggle to overcome depression.
I noticed as all this was happening to me that as bad as things are, if you’re not careful, you can get into the habit of letting things bug you all the time. It can depress you forever.
We learn so much by the pain and sorrow and experiences that we do have. It’s by the very pain we suffer that we learn and that we grow and that our vision is expanded, that our capacity to perform is increased. Everybody has problems. It’s not what the problems are; it’s how you handle them.
Although Peter would have preferred the accident not to have happened, still he has learned from the experience.
All too often people blame their circumstances for what they are. The people who get ahead in life are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want; and if they can’t find them, they make them. I know in my own life, this accident accented that. It was clear to me that if I didn’t respond properly, it would be my own fault. And so there was a clear-cut decision to either put on my blinders and play like nothing had happened or not let the scars on my face keep me from doing what I would really like to do such as go on a mission, go to college and graduate, get married and have a family, serve in the Church, and have employment that would be satisfying. In thinking about the world of selling, I had several questions. Could I sell? Could I be before the public all day long and still come out a winner? All these things were put to the test. When our life is done and over, we should not have become a product of our circumstances. Rather, we should become what we want to be. We should not become what we are because of the circumstances, but because of the way we respond to them.
Now able to put people at ease quickly, Peter is indeed a handsome man. What he has developed inside is more obvious than any exterior scar. That evening long ago, when he prayed to have the feelings of ugliness leave, changed his life. He learned how to handle adversity and was given peace of mind.
When asked if he has any words of advice to others, Peter says, “Yes, if you want anything, learn the laws and commandments governing it and live them. Success doesn’t have anything to do with circumstances. Learn the laws and live them.”