Jamie Nieto is a very special person. He’s both golf professional and burn survivor. They might not seem to go hand-in-hand but Nieto has made it work and helped many others along the way.
Not only is Nieto starting an exciting new job as head professional at The Preserve at Oak Meadows in Wood Dale this year but he will also continue as a most active advocate for burn survivors. He has passed on encouragement to other burn survivors and has also spoken on their behalf at schools, hospitals and even to members of Congress. Additionally, he supported their cause through the organization of a charity golf outing and Christmas fundraiser.
Nieto’s story starts at an unlikely time – November 8, 2003, his 20th birthday. While doing some yard work at his family home in Franklin Park he tried to burn some logs using an accelerant. The can exploded, leaving Nieto suffering third degree burns over 65 percent of his body.
He was taken to Loyola University Medical Center and was put in a medically induced coma for three weeks while doctors performed surgeries to keep his body free from pneumonia and infections and keep him alive. He wound up losing the tips of the fingers and thumb on his right hand. That led to reconstructive surgery and therapy.
“My immediate thought was how I’d be able to play golf again,” he recalled.
That’s when Nieto, in the midst of a four-month hospital stay, received a visit from another burn survivor. Tony Gonzalez, an avid golfer then living in Naperville, had been injured more severely than Nieto was. Gonzalez suffered third degree burns on 93 percent of his body but was back to playing golf. That gave Nieto hope that he could do the same, and he did.
At first it was a round in 2005 with his sister Ramona at White Pines, in Bensenville. Then he and Gonzalez played together for the first time at Tamarack, in Naperville.
Nieto, who had played high school golf at East Leyden and worked as a caddie and bag room and pro shop attendant at Oak Park Country Club, had wanted to stay involved in golf long-term even before his accident. He had thought about being a high school teacher and golf coach.
After the accident and – given the realization that he could still play golf – he pursued a different career in the game. He enrolled at Triton College, in River Grove, while still in outpatient rehabilitation and then attended the now defunct Golf Academy of America, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for two years.
After landing assistant professional jobs at Chalet Hills in Cary in 2007 and 2008 and Poplar Creek, in Hoffman Estates, in 2009 and 2010, Nieto furthered his education by earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees online from Virginia College.
All that helped him land his first head professional’s job at Pheasant Run Resort, in St. Charles. It wasn’t strictly inside work, either. Nieto showed he could still play, shooting a course record 64 at Pheasant Run. He was the head man there for seven seasons before moving to The Preserve this year, the course he played most often when learning the game as a teen.
Through it all Nieto has not forgotten the many people who helped him get through his time as a burn survivor. First it was Gonzalez, who Nieto calls “my mentor.” Together they created a charity event, the Burn Awareness Golf Outing that is now in its 14th year.
They also developed a Christmas fundraiser in which participants adopted families who were impacted by burn injuries. They raised nearly $5,000 and used it to buy gifts for those families. In that initiative they had help from Nieto’s sister Ramona, his mother Marie and his fiancé Lauren Bernacki. Together they raised the money, bought and wrapped the gifts and delivered them.
“It’s a great thrill to give back – something I learned from Tony,” said Nieto. “You can’t let the injury beat you.”
Gonzalez and Nieto met through SOAR – Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery, a group formed through The Phoenix Society of Burn Survivors. Nieto took on the work that Gonzalez had done, talking to other burn survivors and giving them hope. In 2016, Nieto was recognized by the Illinois PGA Section for his community and charitable work and earned its Distinguished Service Award.
“I was glad I was able to put a positive approach on my recovery from my injury with what I’ve done,” said Nieto.
The work didn’t end there. Funds raised from the Burn Awareness Golf Outing, which is held in August, help send families to the annual World Burn Congress. This year, it’s being held in October in Anaheim, Calif.
And this February Amy Acton, executive director of The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors based in Grand Rapids, Mich., asked Nieto to speak at a nation-wide event organized by the American Burn Association. He was part of the Illinois delegation that discussed burn safety and awareness issues with Illinois Congressmen and the staffs of Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth.
“I jumped at the opportunity. It was the first time I’d done anything like that,” Nieto said. “It was good to be in front of them, telling them about life after a burn injury. Life does go on.”