Turning an obstacle into invention
By Kate Kowsh
He knew his ribs were broken because he could taste iron from the blood in his mouth. After tumbling over the handle bars of his Suzuki GSXR1000 motorcycle, 25 year-old Jeremy McGhee’s body grated against the pavement, skidding to a ragged halt in the middle of a busy California intersection. For the first time in his life, he couldn’t feel or move his legs. He lay there, stunned by the hard landing, taking stock of his injuries. As Jeremy’s thoughts cleared, he began contemplating a question that had never occurred to him before—What would life be like without the use of his legs?
Jeremy had been an active young adrenaline junky who balked at the thought of sitting still. With this accident, his fate took an abrupt twist, and he would soon discover the that he’d spend each day of the rest of his life writing his own answer to that grim question.
Sprawled across the hot afternoon asphalt road and bleeding internally, the thread of Jeremy’s life stretched almost to the point of snapping. Looking back, he considers it pure chance that a pair of on-duty paramedics were catching a quick lunch across the street. After watching the carnage unfold, they dropped their food and ran over to him.
Later at the hospital, when doctors huddled around to inform Jeremy of the extent and severity of his injuries, he already knew. Jeremy was trained in first aid and emergency response as a lifeguard, so he understood the nature of his injuries.
During the month-and-a-half that he spent recovering from the spinal cord injury that left him a paraplegic, Jeremy waded through the sledge of uncertainties that accompany the kind of news that chances were slim he’d ever walk again. While struggling to stay afloat in this emotional tidal wave, he found himself being called upon to make logistical, level-headed decisions about things he had never thought about before. For instance, he had to choose the best type of wheelchair for his active lifestyle and learn to file insurance claims correctly. In the meantime, a mountain of medical bills began piling up. But, even as he lay in his hospital bed, fighting the windfall of new challenges suddenly set in his path, Jeremy knew that he still had control over his life.
He found himself at a crossroads. He could accept his life as it was and move forward, or he could wallow in misery over what had happened to him. Jeremy didn’t allow himself to see the glass as half empty for long. Although he couldn’t control whether his legs would allow him to walk again, he knew he could control how he dealt with his current condition. Wheelchair or no wheelchair, Jeremy wasn’t one to lay down, even after he’d been knocked pretty hard. As he’d soon discover though, there’s no instruction manual for teaching people how to adjust when piecing a wheelchair into the equation of their lives. Although he had friends and family around him to offer support, they knew as much about living with this type of disability as he did—nothing.
It was during the time he spent while in the hospital recuperating, that the wheels started turning for Jeremy. As he attempted to reclaim his life, he began to see the need for an organization to help people get back on their feet, both figuratively and literally.
Enter Fight2walk, the non-profit organization that Jeremy founded to mentor those facing spinal cord injuries. Instead of looking at his injury as a burden, he chose to offer himself as a living example that, although life doesn’t always go as expected, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to live. The day he was discharged from the hospital, using a car with specially adapted hand controls, Jeremy drove himself to the snow-covered Colorado Mountains to spend some time skiing and getting on with his life’s journey. In the six years since his accident, Jeremy hasn’t stopped pushing the limits of the human spirit.
These days, Jeremy mentors others facing spinal cord injuries, helping them combat the claustrophobia that he says is one of the toughest challenges of paralysis. They don’t call it ‘confined to a wheelchair’ for nothing. As part of his non-profit, Jeremy also raises funds to buy adapted sporting equipment like hand control bicycles and adapted ski chairs. Jeremy says that he’s trained himself to pull through the bad days by thinking about the incredible people he’s met on his journey— people who’s challenges far surpass his own. This helps Jeremy feel thankful for all he does have.
Jeremy works as a seasonal ski instructor on California’s Mammoth Mountain, using a single ski and an adapted ski chair. He teaches others with disabilities how to overcome the claustrophobia of paralysis by getting outdoors. His pursuits at pushing the limits were even featured in the ski video, One: A Lucid Experience, which chronicled his gargantuan 70 foot ski jump.
As Jeremy later learned, spreading awareness that people can overcome great adversity isn’t only accomplished through monumental feats. In a enlightening ray of irony, the day after he successfully completed his epic ski jump, Jeremy rolled into a local bank to cash a paycheck, and a sweet old lady struggled to open the door for him. Jeremy grabbed the door and smiled at her show of kindness. He waved her in and said, “Nope, ladies first.” Jeremy realized the small gestures sometimes speak as loudly as the larger ones.
As his story continues, Jeremy humbly assumes his role as mentor and champion for a cause he never imagined himself a part of. He’ll always remain conscious of the fact that one unforeseen turn of events has brought him to an apex of human existence he could never have imagined—a place where he chooses to use his experiences—bad and good—to help others.