Five years ago today I was on a beach in Thailand when disaster struck and my life was forever changed. Would I ever walk again?
Growing up I always dreamed of traveling around the world. Through high school and college I worked every summer painting houses so that when I graduated from college I could take a year to travel around the world. It was 2007 and I headed off on what was to be an epic adventure of wandering and self-exploration. My budget allowed only the basics; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cheap hostels, and hitchhiking to save on bus fare. The first few legs of my trip took me to Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, and then, five months into the trip came Thailand…
I traveled alone before I hit Thailand. My childhood friend, David Boyer, had been traveling in Southeast Asia, and so we decided to meet up for a couple weeks of fun together. After experiencing the hustle and bustle of Bangkok for a few days, we decided to head for the more relaxed and pristine island of Koh Tao.
We’d been on the island for a few days, and on the fateful night of January 14th, 2008 we were having dinner with some fellow travelers at a beachside restaurant. Each night on the island we had watched the Thai people fire dance and entice the travelers to play various fire-fueled games on the beach. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and in retrospect I would have never made the same decision, but with fire dancing being commonplace, I thought nothing of it when the restaurant staff set up a 20 foot long flaming jump rope, soaked in kerosene and set a blaze to entertain their patrons. I followed the crowd of intrigued travelers as we all tried our hands at jumping this flaming rope.
One second I was skipping rope, carefree as a kid on a summer day, and in an instant I was face down on the sand engulfed in flames to my neck. I felt the burning of fire all over my body, and in a moment of pure instinct and adrenaline, I picked myself up and ran full speed into the ocean extinguishing the flames. Still not quite comprehending what had just happened, I made my way back to the sandy beach. Even though the flames had been extinguished the burning sensation seemed to be growing in intensity. As I stepped out of the water I looked down for the first time and I saw the damage. Charred and dead skin hung off of my legs as the salt water dripped down my unrecognizably bloody limbs.
“David, I’m going into shock…help…please do something!”
David’s first instinct was to get some ice, but with nearly every inch of both legs and feet burned, we were well beyond the point of ice being of any use. A Thai man from the restaurant appeared on a motorcycle and told both David and I to get on. Gingerly, David lifted me up on the bike, and wrapped my bleeding legs around the driver’s waist. David sat behind me and the motorcycle drove us down a bumpy dirt path. I was assuming he was taking us to the hospital, but when we arrived ten excruciating minutes later in front of a small hut I was not so sure. It turned out there was no “hospital” on the entire island, and this small nursing station was the closest thing Koh Tao had. They carried me inside and laid me on a table to assess the damage.
I was barefoot and just wearing board shorts and a tee shirt when the flames engulfed me. Not only were my legs fried, but also the synthetic material of my clothes was melted as well. The Thai nurse reached for a pair of scissors to cut the fabric off of me. As the cuts were made David and the nurses braced themselves. They expected that my entire body from the neck down looked just as bad as my legs. As the clothes came off the first look of hope registered on David’s face. My legs were in bad shape, and my right hand was burned, but the rest of my body had somehow been spared.
As I’ve relived the memory, the best assessment I can make is that I tripped on the rope while I was jumping and as a result the rope got wrapped around my legs and feet. The rope had been soaked in kerosene to then be lit on fire, and the impact of my body sprayed the excess kerosene all over me from head to toe. I grabbed the rope with my right hand to free myself, which explains the burns on my hand. People who saw the accident confirm that when I was running toward the ocean I seemed to be engulfed in flames up to my neck. However because of my haste in getting to the water, my torso was spared from burning, and as a result my life was saved. Had the water been even a few more seconds away, or my shirt burned through the statistics show that 50-75% burns to the body in a developing country have an extremely high mortality rate due to infection. As it was I suffered what they call “deep mid-dermal second degree” burns to 22% of my body, primarily on my legs and feet. My left foot suffered 3rd degree burns.
The small nursing station on Koh Tao had only enough resources to bandage me up, keep me alive overnight and get me ready for a transfer to the hospital on Koh Samui, a neighboring island two hours away by boat. Unfortunately, they informed us that the next boat did not leave for 12 hours and that we had no choice but to wait. Thankfully they had penicillin and morphine to get me through the night. I was scared beyond belief as we awaited the boat. Even though David must have been scared out of his mind himself, he never showed any sign of weakness. Instead he did everything he possibly could to get me through the ordeal, including holding me in his arms that first night as I writhed in pain and fear. I am forever grateful for the bravery of my dear friend.
The next morning, with both legs bandaged from my toes to my hips, I was carried into the back of a pickup truck, and then loaded onto the boat headed for Koh Samui. This was not a special medical boat, it was just the normal transfer boat full of everyday passengers. We knew my situation was critical, but having no context for the seriousness of burn accidents, we did not realize that when I checked into that hospital in Samui, I would be living out of a hospital room without the use of my legs for the next month.
Although the Koh Samui hospital had much more infrastructure than the nursing station in Koh Tao, it was quite honestly not sufficiently equipped for handling this serious of an injury. The hospital informed us that they primarily deal with immediate care for scuba dive accidents on the island and injuries related to motorcycle accidents. In the first week I was there, I was put fully under for a procedure conducted eight times so they could scrub and treat the wounds. Each time I woke up in the intensive care unit, there was a cat running around my bed. The pain and medicine kept me from thinking clearly, and I imagined that I was getting proper care.
My mother arrived on the fifth day and brought a much needed maternal fresh perspective. She immediately saw that while the hospital team had kept me alive, I was spiraling downward. She surveyed all of the available options and although I could not fly internationally due to my condition, they figured I could fly to an international hospital in Bangkok. It took days of fighting with the insurance companies but she finally won my release and I was transferred via a medical aircraft to the Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok.
Finally things began to look up. The standard of healthcare at the Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok was as good, if not better than any western hospital. I had my own room, the doctors were highly trained, and my Mom was allowed to sleep beside me in a cot as I lay there and recovered.
Nearly a month passed by and I still had not taken a single step. I passed my days lying in bed talking to my Mom. She was amazing, keeping my brain occupied as my body tried to heal. One day we got on the topic of what I was going to do after I got released from the hospital and was allowed to fly back the USA. I told her “I am going to race a triathlon.” Keep in mind I had never raced a triathlon in my life up to this point, I hadn’t walked in a month, and my leg muscles were so atrophied my calves were the size of my wrists. The doctors had been telling me that they didn’t know if I would ever regain full range of motion in my legs, and thus would have a hard time walking for the rest of my life. As my mother told me later, she just nodded kept me talking about triathlon and thought “Oh baby, I just hope you walk again.” We talked more and more about how I was going to train, and get my body back to 100%. I fixated on this idea, and visualized myself strong again swimming, biking and running.
After over a month in Thai hospitals, I was released in a wheel chair to fly back to the USA, where I was treated at the Legacy Emanuel Burn Center of Excellence under the care of Dr. Joseph Pulito in Portland. It would still be another month at home as an outpatient before I relearned to walk, and a full year of rehab before I gained proper range of motion. I was treated at the Legacy Emanuel Burn Center of Excellence under the care of Dr. Joseph Pulito. Through this entire time, I never stopped thinking about my pledge to race a triathlon.
On the one-year anniversary of the accident, I was working in Chicago as a commodities trader. I decided I was ready to begin my training. I joined a gym, and set my sights on racing the Olympic distance Chicago Triathlon in August 2009 (only 19 months after the accident). I slowly got stronger, and enjoyed the process of seeing my leg muscles respond from their atrophied state.
Race day came around and I was feeling great. Finding myself at the start line, I was about to complete the pledge I had made to my Mom in Thailand. I was proud to have never given up hope even when I couldn’t walk. The results of that day were beyond anything I could have imagined. I surprised myself and many others as I won the overall amateur title at the 2009 Chicago Triathlon, beating all 4257 other racers.
Brian Gelber, CEO of Gelber Group a Chicago based trading firm, had become a mentor of mine while I was working in Chicago. After my success at the Chicago Tri, and also qualifying for the Age Group World Championships in Budapest, Hungary the following summer, Mr. Gelber encouraged me to pursue the sport full time and got on board becoming my first sponsor without whom I wouldn’t have had a chance at pursuing my dream of racing as a professional.
As a swimmer growing up I had always dreamed of competing in the Olympics. To me representing the USA on that great stage is the biggest accomplishment possible in sports. Triathlon has given me a new avenue to pursue my lifelong goal of competing in the Olympics. This year will be my third year racing triathlon professionally, now representing the USA on the international ITU circuit.
I would never wish the pain and suffering I experienced with my burns on anyone. However I often wonder if perhaps it was a blessing in disguise for me. It would have been easy to give up in the face of such adversity, but instead having my strength and health taken from me, made me appreciate my body and life so much more. Having overcome that obstacle, I don’t see any setback in my life being insurmountable. When my body is exhausted on the racecourse and everything hurts, I remember the pain of the burns and tell myself this pain from running hard is not so bad. Perspective is everything.
My goal of representing the USA at the 2016 Olympics is paramount in my life. Everyday I wake up and train with the goal of reaching that end. However with the fifth anniversary of my accident passing, I have spent more time than usual talking about and thinking about the events that changed the course of my life.
As a result I have a new goal to run in parallel to my Olympic goal. I plan to give back to those who have experienced this type of trauma, and feel that life may not be worth living. I know firsthand the depression and doubt that can come from this type of tragedy. However I also have experienced the resilience of the human body and spirit. I have been in contact with several burn foundations and groups, in hopes of sharing my story to inspire those who feel like giving up. It gives me more strength than ever to know that not only am I racing for my own goals, but also I am racing to encourage those whose lives have been derailed by pain and suffering.
This week the ITU posted the 2013 Asian Cup schedule, and for the first time ever Thailand is the host country for a race. The race is on my 28th birthday, March 16th. It seems serendipitous, that my return to Thailand will come so close to the five-year anniversary of the accident that forever changed my life. I left Thailand in 2008 in a wheelchair with legs that barely worked. Now I return in 2013 as a professional athlete and Olympic hopeful, representing the USA on the elite stage of sport.