The scariest story I ever heard growing up was from my dad. It was about the car accident that left him paralyzed. I couldn’t fathom what that would feel like not to be able to move. I also never once thought for a second that it would happen to me. It was never something I feared. He made a full recovery in a year. I thought that was the norm.
25 years later I woke up in the ICU and my dad was staring at me who now had to face the same nightmare that he had lived through. The one thing that I never thought I would live through was now my reality. I remember when I got the breathing tube out my twin brother was standing at the end of my bed and he asked me if I was scared. My answer was, “no”. I just thought back to my dad. It was reassurance that in a year I would be back on my feet. My dad thought the same thing. What we didn’t know was that he beat incredible odds. A little less than one in a hundred. I never beat the odds. It’s been six years and physically I’m still the same. Most likely things will never change. That was the start of a new chapter of my life. Let’s take a look back at how it all began.
30 years ago I was brought into this world with my twin brother Aaron. I learned how to crawl before I learned how to walk and I learned how to walk before I could run. I was fast. I remember running down hallways in hotels. I remember racing the fastest kid at school when I was young and crossing that finish line and looking right at him and saying, “beat ya”.
My whole life I was adventurous and athletic. I was the one that would get the neighborhood kids together to play sports in our front yard. When it was snowing I got everyone together to go sledding or snow skiing. I was up on waterskis when I was three years old. I was the first to jump off a giant cliff or a tall bridge into the water. My favorite vacation was a houseboat trip. I loved anything involving water. I loved camping every week in the summer. We went on more vacations than I could count. We always drove no matter how far we traveled in our conversion van. The best trips were the ones when you looked out the back window and the boat was being towed behind us. Growing up there was never a dull moment. I have to give so much thanks to my dad for such an exciting childhood. He taught me how to live life to the fullest.
Nothing was ever forced on me. I never had to be told to go outside. The same thing went for school. I never had to be forced to do my homework. I always just wanted to do the best I could with everything that was thrown at me.
For some strange reason, I was very very shy in school when I was young. Out of school was a different story. In the classroom, I never got in trouble and I barely spoke to anyone. Although if the teacher asked a question and I knew the answer I was quick to raise my hand. I was a model student. I was awarded for it at a very young age.
I broke out of my shell in middle school. The friends I would play with outside of school up to that point were the ones that Aaron made in school. All of the sudden I had this desire to make my own friends and to be heard. At the beginning of seventh grade, no one knew my name. By the end of it I ran for Student Council President and after a vote by the entire grade, that’s what I was.
In eighth grade, I did the morning announcements. I was no longer that voice that was never heard when I was younger. From there I just continued to grow. I got involved with as much as I could. I was voted on to Student Government for the first three years of high school. I only got a B in two classes from seventh grade until the end of high school. College drew near and I was ready for it.
I wanted to go to Ohio State, but my dad told me that wasn’t going to happen because I was going to have to pay for it and that didn’t seem possible. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was going to find a way. I found a scholarship that I was eligible to apply for and I filled out the application and wrote my five essays.
Every day I waited for a response in the mail from Ohio State. I got my acceptance letter, but that didn’t mean anything yet if I didn’t have the means to pay for it. I got another letter saying I was accepted into a Scholars Program called the Mount Leadership Society where we would do community service and learn about leadership. Day after day I came home from high school and anxiously waited for that letter. Then one day it was there, but what would it say?
I started reading the letter and as soon as I read the line that said I was getting a full scholarship renewable for up to five years I started jumping up-and-down and screaming. I’ll never ever forget that moment. The first person I called was my dad. He was 60 years old and he had twins that he was about to have to pay for to go to college so retirement was nowhere in sight. I had to read the letter to him twice. He couldn’t believe it and I could hear the relief in his voice. I knew where I would be for at least the next four years of my life.
Now in high school, I was a straightlaced kid. I never really drank that much until a little bit my senior year. I smoked pot a little bit one summer until I had an experience where I thought I was having a heart attack and that scared me away from it. I was never once late for class in high school.
College was a different story. I fell into the party life. I got absolutely hammered on the weekends. I started skipping classes unless I absolutely had to be there for an exam or something. I would use the textbook for each class to teach myself and cram before every exam, test, or quiz. For homework, I would download the solutions manuals online (which most engineering students do) and simply just copy them. Surprisingly I did very well and school was a breeze.
I didn’t just party my way through college. I got my work done and got mostly A’s and B’s. I did a lot of community service. I also got involved with countless organizations on campus, mainly the Water Ski Team. An organization that was a wreck when I got there. I wanted to help turn it all around. To make the focus on skiing and not on partying. Even though we would still do our fair share of partying. We just had to learn how to do both at the same time.
I joined a fraternity even though I really didn’t want to. I just kind of felt pressured to join. I went through Hell Week that destroyed me both physically and mentally. I was stuck living there and I was depressed more than I had ever been in my entire life. I actually struggled with depression starting in sixth grade. These periods would last usually for 2 to 3 months before I would snap out of them.
I moved out of that fraternity and struck a deal on a luxury townhouse with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a three-car garage all to myself. The downhill spiral began. I used marijuana to cope with depression and pretty soon I used it all day every day. I threw outrageous parties. I was reckless and I was nothing like the person I was in high school. I became less involved in school. My grades dropped a little bit, but I still did the work and got by. I continued to skip classes because I would rather just take the boat out all day.
That year I got to vacation at Atlantis, a luxury resort in the Bahamas. I chose not to get an engineering internship because I got hired at the nicest summer camp in the country in Maine as a water ski instructor and camp counselor. It was the best summer of my life. So far it was the best year of my life.
In my junior year, I continued to do more of the same. I smoked pot and skipped classes yet still did well. In the spring I applied for a Senior Class Honorary called Sphinx that chose the top 24 students that best represent The Ohio State University. I did so much my freshmen year that my application was outstanding. I was chosen to be a member which is the highest honor that can be accorded a student at The Ohio State University. A lot of people knew me who applied as well and they were pissed off that a pothead got chosen over them. The day I got chosen I was wearing a shirt that had a hole in it because I had burned it with a blunt. I was hoping that no one would notice and they didn’t. At the time I felt like I did not deserve this honor.
I worked for my dad for the summer which was a great bonding experience. I got high when I got off work and I practiced waterskiing as much as I could. At the end of the summer, I won the state championship for slalom in my first year competing. I felt like I was on top of the world and I think most of you know how this next chapter unfolded.
I started growing marijuana. I took out credit cards and loans and dug myself into a massive amount of debt. I went to California for two weeks and traveled around like a homeless person for the first week and got to stay in a $50 million mansion the second week.
When I got back classes started but I never went. I just got high and rode my Segway around. I got into harder drugs and eventually I lost my mind. Next came the psych ward and delusions of grandeur which led to a bipolar diagnosis.
I had to fight so hard to regain control of my mind. I went to therapy and drug rehab. I paid off my debts and went back to Ohio State. It took less than a month before I was back to smoking marijuana every day. The lessons that I had learned were lost. Regardless, I worked towards my degree in Civil Engineering and continued to build up the Waterski Team.
In the fall of 2010, we qualified for Nationals for the first time in nearly 40 years. We went on to win a National Championship which would be the last time I would ever water ski. It was the highlight of my collegiate career and my favorite and most memorable accomplishment. I thought I would ski until I was a very old man, but God had different plans for me.
On January 22, 2011, I took off on that drive at 3:30 AM that would forever change my life. I was manic once again and I was completely convinced that I was the second coming of Jesus Christ. The last memory I have while having a perfectly functional body was driving in the snow on a flat tire in the middle of Indiana and looking down at my speedometer that read 120 mph. I looked up and saw police lights back in the distance. The song “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz was playing on the radio and I heard the lyrics, “I throw my hands up in the air sometimes”. So I open my sunroof and put both hands in the air and flicked off the police. Then everything went black.
I later found out that I flipped five times front over front and landed upside down in a field in the snow. Hanging upside down from my seat belt, the police pulled me from the car and asked me my name and I said, “I am Jesus Christ”. Then I died at the scene. I had two collapsed lungs, broke my neck at C6/C7 and had a bunch of other injuries. The paramedics got there right away and resuscitated me and brought me to a nearby hospital to put in chest tubes.
I woke up in Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where I had been life flighted and woke up in the Neuro ICU. I couldn’t move or feel my legs. There was a breathing tube shoved down my throat. My left arm was severely dislocated and had this nasty looking thing called an external fixator drilled into it. I was scared to death, but when I looked over and saw my family it provided some comfort.
My new life began that morning. What I had to go through in the hospital and the suffering I felt during the first year after my accident is nothing I would ever wish to happen to anyone or any family. What it did though was it brought my family closer together than ever. My mom was my rock. My relationship with my twin brother Aaron had been falling apart and this repaired it and brought us together closer than ever before. I would always say I love you to my mom every chance I could. It had always been different with my dad, but now that I was so close to death we started to tell each other we love one another every time we said goodbye.
I found out who my true friends were and that they were plentiful. I never knew how lucky I was to have such a loving and supportive family. I had so much support and I started to realize how blessed I truly am. Mostly I found out what I am made of. I was told that God never puts you through anything that you cannot handle and eventually I would prove how strong I am.
My injury has taught me what is truly important in life. A few months after returning to Ohio State I told myself that regardless of the outcome of me walking that I would be happy and make something of myself. I now look back on the last five years of my life as the best years of my life.
I know who I am. I know what I am made of. Physically I am nowhere near what I used to be, but mentally you can’t break me. I’ve been through way too much for people to be able to tear me down or for any obstacle to seem too big to overcome. I am a dreamer and I dream big. I feel like nothing is out of reach. This so-called tragedy was the biggest blessing I could ever ask for. I believe that the mind is much more powerful than the body and the mind that I have now is stronger than it ever could’ve been if I would’ve kept going down that same path.
I appreciate life so much. I appreciate each day. I never have a down day. I never complain. Physically I’ve adapted and there’s nothing else I can do to change my physical condition so I have nothing left to complain about. It is what it is.
This is a life that I never ever would’ve imagined. But now that I’m living it I wouldn’t trade it for anything. What I thought would be a nightmare as a child is now the greatest dream I could ever ask for.
I always wanted to own my own business. I’ve been doing that for 4 1/2 years now. The shyest kid in his elementary school now gets up on stage in front of thousands of people alone with a microphone without one bit of anxiety. I never thought I would be here. I have spoken hundreds of times to people of all ages. I know that I am making a difference. It makes all of the struggles that I went through worth it. I lost so much, but now I have had many people tell me that they think they would have taken their own life if they never met me. These are young people that I have worked with closely.
I have a sign in my apartment on the wall in front of my couch that reads, “follow your own path”. This is the path that God had chosen for me. I get new surprises and get to meet new incredible people all the time. I constantly am presented with new opportunities where I can make a difference.
This past year I was chosen as an honoree of “Forty Under 40” by Business First Magazine. Unlike Sphinx, I feel deserving this time around. I feel that I’m doing something truly unique.
I wouldn’t change a thing about the first 30 years of my life. I don’t know what’s in store for me for the next 30 years. I thought I had my life mapped out for the first 30 years, but life doesn’t work like that. So we will see what opportunities and obstacles God sends my way and I will be ready to take them head on. These first 30 years have helped me find myself and now that I know who I am and what I am made of I am ready to take on the next 30 years if I have that much time left. Because you never know when your time is up. I’ll just take it one day at a time and try to make each day better than the last. That’s how I will live my life and I hope that is how you will live yours. Smile, laugh, love, dream and never give up.
I am so proud of you!You have truly shown strength and resilience!You have and will continue to be an absolute encouragement to many.
Life’s unforseen challenges imparts wisdom which cannot be gained any other way. Your friend…
Stewart (a stage 4 cancer survivor who understands!)