Every day I look in the mirror at my scars that are over ten years old. I remember when I couldn’t imagine looking and feeling this way for the rest of my life. I no longer dream that at any moment I might wake up from this nightmare and be comfortable in my own skin once again. When I look at myself, I am reminded of my mistakes. When I touch the thick skin on my hands, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be alive. These scars have given my life purpose, but they come with a great responsibility. Earning them was the hard part, owning them has become my life’s work.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning and the air was unseasonably warm for September in New Mexico. I was excited to be going on a ride through the Jemez Mountains on the back of my new friend Shaun’s GSXR 750. Before we headed out that morning, I had shed my favorite cowboy hat in exchange for a borrowed (and very ugly) red helmet. I thought nothing of the fact that I had no other protection against the asphalt besides that hunk of foam and plastic. I figured that we couldn’t get into a wreck; it simply wouldn’t happen to me. I was nearly dead wrong.
As many of us have been told, motorcycle helmets are made to withstand an otherwise deadly impact to the head. When helmets are designed, their main duty is to disperse the force from a single crash and then become obsolete. They are put through rigorous testing to ensure they perform this task with certainty. Helmets are rated according to their protective abilities and are manufactured by thousands of companies all over the world. They range in price from $35 to over $1000, and a popular saying suggests the price of your helmet is proportional to the value of your head. They are available at every dealership in the country, at specialty shops, and online. Chances are, if you ride a motorcycle, you own a helmet. However, not all riders choose to wear their helmet on every ride.
Shaun and I were going an estimated 120 mph when my borrowed, ugly red helmet was put to the ultimate test. When I hit the ground, it was as if every breath I had ever taken rushed out of me in an instant. I could feel every inch of my body hitting the road; tumbling, sliding and grinding into the unforgiving surface. In my helmet, I fought to breathe as I gave into the force of the asphalt ripping at my flesh. In a matter of seconds, I had come to the conclusion that I was going to die. My eyes were closed but I was awake as I finished tumbling down the highway. Later, the police would tell me I had traveled a total of 522 feet. Unimaginable, yes. Unlikely, absolutely. It happened to me.
I laid there on the road for what seemed like an eternity before emergency help arrived. Eternity, as it turns out, is exactly forty-five minutes. Every nerve ending in my body was on fire; tingling, scorching, stabbing and burning. I had not gone into shock for very long, and the adrenaline had worn off almost instantly. Not being able to move was the worst of it. I wanted to pull my arm out from underneath me. I wanted to get off that hot road. I wanted the sun to stop shining so brightly on my exposed back. I wanted everything to just go away, but it wouldn’t go away. I wanted to die, but the people who came to my rescue wouldn’t let me give up. I had skinned myself alive and was still breathing because of that ugly red helmet.
My road rash was so severe that my skin was not going to grow back on its own. I had lost too much surface area for the doctors to simply suture me together and send me home. After the blood loss had been controlled, the skin loss needed to be addressed. I was to receive full thickness skin grafts on over 50% of my body. In order to help my open wounds heal, the doctors had to cut off a thick layer of healthy skin from my legs and place it over my burns, stapling the new skin in place. This was the only way to “fix” me. The word painful does not begin to describe the experience, and even ten years later the thought of my time in the hospital can turn my stomach at a moment’s notice. In the end, it took the doctors two months, three blood transfusions, 31 dressing changes, and nine surgeries to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Near the end of my hospital stay I realized that I was forever changed in many ways. I was devastated about my scarred skin, but also thankful to be alive every day. I knew that what I had gone through proved I had the strength to survive anything else thrown at me in the future. I also knew that my outward appearance was extremely altered, and not for the better. It took me a long to time to accept my new skin and relinquish the hopes that I might one day be considered beautiful to the rest of the world’s standards. I thought looking the way I did would alienate me, but instead, it opened a door; people began asking me about my scars and I was given many opportunities to share my story.
Eight months after the day I skinned myself alive, I bought a brand new sportbike and a set of full gear with head-to-coverage . I learned some important things about myself in the months following my immersion into the sport and lifestyle that almost cost me my life. I realized how strong I really am, and that my parents weren’t lying to me when they said I could do anything I put my mind to. I learned that I never wanted to feel the way I did in the hospital again and I could actually do something to prevent it. I discovered that my appearance was now a tool to encourage riders to choose to wear full gear. And I learned that motorcycling safely was an attitude and a choice that I had to make every time I went riding. However, the most important thing I came to realize was that these lessons were not meant for me alone. I was newly and uniquely created to share what I had learned with the world.
Since this realization, my life and work has been dictated by choices that help to spread my message. In 2006 I wrote a full account of the accident and my experiences as a cautionary tale for riders. It was published online and embraced throughout the community, and began popping up on forums and websites in over 20 countries. I was invited to attend safety conferences and tell my story as a way to show riders what can happen and share information on how to help prevent it, and I brought that ugly red helmet as a tangible testimony. I was encouraged to do research on protective technologies and pursue a path of motorcycle safety education. I received a NAMS (National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety) grant to start a national non-profit web campaign for protective apparel awareness and education that became a household name for many riders. Three-and-a-half years after leaving the hospital, I became a certified RiderCoach for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to teach new and experienced riders alike the importance of attitude, skill, protective gear, and lifelong learning. I have effectively become the prodigal child of motorcycle safety education and protective apparel awareness.
I did not choose the scars that now adorn my body, but they do represent a matter of dire importance to the motorcycle community. So, like a conscious and deliberate bumper sticker placed on the back of a rusty pickup truck, I will use my scars as a way to get a message to the people who I believe need it desperately. I do not hide my scars, nor am I ashamed of them. I will always wear them proudly in the hopes that they stir up as much attention as possible. My scars do not define me, but they do allow me to take a public stance on an issue I care for deeply.
I am following the path of motorcycle safety and safety apparel education, and it is a constant process that continues to mold me into who I want to be. Over the last two years, I fulfilled my desire and dream to work for an envelope-pushing industry-leading gear manufacturer. Before that, I reached my goal of becoming an MSF site manager while simultaneously serving those who serve as a US Navy contractor. My existence since the crash has been dedicated to helping others realize that they have the power to change their own lives and never experience what I did in 2005.
I know now that receiving my horrific scars actually makes me best suited for my role as a passionate motorcycle safety educator. I’ve become thankful for the way I look because it empowers me much more than blending into the sea of beautiful bodies on bikes ever could. I never would have thought that looking different could earn me credibility, respect and opportunity, but here I stand. My scars radiate a message of tragedy, survival, and triumph that cannot be denied, replaced or discounted. I’d say that makes me quite qualified to do what I do, and do it better than any others.
I keep that ugly red helmet on a shelf in my house where I can see it every day, and most importantly, every time I get ready to go on a ride. Once upon a time, it was available for purchase to anyone who was interested in wearing a red helmet. When put to the test, it did exactly what it was made to do; it saved my life. Now it is beaten and broken, but it serves a greater purpose, and that is to share a warning with anyone who sees it.
I suppose I have become like my ugly red helmet. Although battered and scarred, it is hard to ignore my outward appearance and the message that comes along with it. I carry around a story of caution and wisdom and share it with everyone I meet. I will continue to share it for the rest of my life. I have been perfectly molded and beautifully adorned to serve a purpose, and when put to the test, I do exactly what I am made to do: save lives.