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Tragedy Plus Time

How Joshua Gropper’s brother inspired his career path

Published in 2022 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

Joshua Gropper was in his second year of law school at Boston University in 1989 when he was awakened by a 5 a.m. phone call from his father.

“There was a horrible house fire down in New York,” he recalls his father saying. “Your brother may not make it. Get on a flight.”

Danny was 21, living in a townhouse in Island Park with fellow Hofstra students, when the fire broke out. “No one really knows how it started, but the smoke alarm didn’t work, and he got trapped in there,” Gropper remembers. “The firefighters found him underneath the dining room table and pulled him out.”

Danny sustained third-degree burns over roughly 80% of his body and was rushed to Nassau University Medical Center. For the first few weeks, the family didn’t know if he’d live.

“Burns are insidious,” Gropper says. “They infect the entire body, and the sepsis starts to sneak in from the outer edges of the limbs. So they would come to us and say, ‘We may be able to save his life, but he’s going to lose a thumb. He’s going to lose a big toe. He’s in a coma, so can you guys sign off on this so we can go ahead and do those amputations?’”

This bleak negotiation continued for the six months Danny stayed in the acute burn unit. “We felt nickeled and dimed by the time it was over, because he ended up being a quadruple amputee—lost both hands, both legs above the knee, but in bits and chunks along the way that we had to approve on his behalf,” Gropper says. “It was a pretty tough road.”

Over the next year in a rehab center, Danny learned completely new ways to utilize his body. “Danny has an amazing sense of humor, and can take the elephant out of the room by using humor to put others at ease. He’s an amazing guy who inspires so many people, particularly burn survivors, but for everyone else who talks to him, you think, ‘God, my little day-to-day problems are nothing to worry about. Look at this kid,’” Gropper says. “He’s been inspiring people like that for 30 years.”

Gropper was inspired, too. “It really got me to reevaluate my career path,” he says.

After the fire, he switched from BU to Hofstra to be closer to Danny. He had been thinking about corporate law, but Danny’s situation changed that.

“When Danny’s trial started, there were a few days of testimony where I got to see the personal injury lawyers do battle in court and the tension was obviously very high. It was sphincter-tightening at moments,” Gropper says. “That was invaluable in terms of shaping my career path.”

From early on, Gropper says, the family had questions about Danny’s future. Will the family have to take care of him? Is he going to be a Medicaid recipient? “A good settlement a week into the trial and all of those concerns were put to rest,” he says. “Seeing the practical results of what a good lawyer achieved on his behalf made me think, ‘Wow, this really can really make a difference in people’s lives and take a tremendous burden off their suffering.’”

Gropper started repping injury plaintiffs himself in Brooklyn in 1992 and went out on his own in 1995. Separate from his practice, Gropper stayed active in the burn survivor community—contributing, speaking, and even organizing with The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.

“They have a program called SOAR, Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery, where older burn survivors will help newer burn survivors deal with the trauma of their injuries,” he says. “They had SOAR programs set up in Stony Brook or Montauk and also some at Cornell in the city, but nothing on Long Island. So I jumped in with a nurse at Nassau University Medical Center at East Meadow to found the SOAR program there, which featured Danny as one of the volunteers.”

While Gropper became involved with the community right away, he was initially reticent about involving his lawyering. “I never wanted it to seem like I was looking for business or have someone think, ‘Oh, he’s just trying to get rich off other people’s misfortunes,” he says.

But in 2021, the Phoenix Society approached him about sharing his name with interested victims. “When I expressed my reluctance, they said, ‘No, don’t be silly. This is what you do, you’re good it at, and you obviously have more passion for it than most,’” he says.

He now agrees it’s a win-win. “Because of my familiarity with these cases, another personal injury attorney might see something on a piece of paper and say, ‘They cleaned out, they did their debridement treatment procedure.’ Having lived that with my brother and knowing what’s involved—where they basically take steel wool and scrub down the infected areas and just how painful that is—I can reorient a defense attorney and bring a lot more value for the burn survivor,” Gropper says.

Every year, too, Phoenix Society hosts an event called the World Burn Congress in which thousands of survivors and support groups gather—the Groppers among them. “They bring people together to share their stories, their ways to heal, and it’s an unbelievably moving event,” says Gropper, who first went in 2005. “I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s like when some kid stands up in front of a packed auditorium to tell their story for the first time—because suddenly they realize they’re not the only burn survivor in the world.”

In 2021, The Healing Power of Comedy came to fruition. Gropper had kicked around the idea for eight years, concerned about offending the WBC audience. But he found a way to pull it off. “Danny is freaking hysterical, and I wanted to showcase his gift. … I sort of emceed the thing, introducing a burn surgeon in Boston and a psychologist social worker in San Francisco, who talked about how important laughing is, medically speaking, and how self-deprecating humor eases tensions, on a psychological level. It forms this connection or bond on a hormonal level—the joke teller to the receiver. So we not only got to lighten people up, but also got the science on why it’s important.”

In the seminar, Danny shared his personal favorite: “The other day my mom turned to me, because my stepfather was in really bad shape, and asked for my thoughts on cremation. I said, ‘I tried it once; I didn’t care for it.’”

“People want to laugh about it,” Gropper says, “but they’re looking for permission to do so. They feel like they’re going to offend somebody, so it kind of opened everybody up and was a big hit.” So much so, in fact, that he and Danny were invited to do a similar set for the Firefighters Burn Institute, a nonprofit out of Sacramento.

“He doesn’t want to be seen as just a survivor—or, worse yet, a victim. He’s just one of the guys, so it’s been touching to see him in the burn survivor community over 30 years,” Gropper says. “If there’s a nurse in Santa Fe who has a kid who lost a hand and thinks life will never be the same, Danny is one of the people they can call nationwide to get on Zoom and show this kid there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And life is still worth living.”


The Healing Power of Comedy

To see the Groppers’ 34-minute presentation, visit phoenix-society.org/resources/the-healing-power-of-comedy and sign up for a free account.

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