A few nights ago, I sat in front of 9 to 10 TV producers in an undisclosed location, a place that I have never been. I was here because of my exploits as an athlete. But this meeting was their way to find out what kind of person I was and whether I was going to be good for the show. Being a good person wasn't necessarily a prerequisite.
The question that stuck in my mind was, “if there is anything in your life that you could change, what would it be?” I answered quickly and firmly, “nothing!…" I explained how blessed I felt to wake up each day, how happy I was to be healthy, and how secure I felt to have a loving, supportive family. I told them about my great little house on the perfect little lake, where my dogs could run in the open. I expressed my thanks for the athletic abilities I had been given. But most importantly, I focused on my second chance at life.
Five years ago I jumped a cliff on my skis, and upon landing, my head snapped forward and slammed into my knee. The force of the impact felt like a sledgehammer driving into my face and my jaw shattered and dislocated. As I lifted my hand up to my face and attempted to sweep my fingers across my chin to inspect the damage, I was terrified to find there was nothing there. Many of my teeth exploded and my chin was jammed back and upwards into my mouth. Pitifully, I spit my broken teeth into my hands. Thinking they could be salvaged, I tucked them into my coat pocket.
In a daze and feeling remarkably humble, I navigated my way down the mountain, popped two Aleve, and began the 7 hour drive to the closest hospital. My dog, Moxon, comforted me with his presence as he slept in the back of my SUV. During that long, painful, and uncomfortable ride, I reflected upon my life. I kept coming back to the thoughts ‘Where have I been? Where am I going? What have I done to bring good into this world???… Will my face ever look the same? Will a woman ever be attracted to me with whatever is left of it? Will I be able to eat normally again? Will I be able to play sports again? Will I be able to speak without uncontrollably drooling?’ All these questions and many more flooded my thoughts and haunted my sense of future.
Upon arrival at the hospital my parents met me and by their faces I could see they were heart broken. Doctors said the surgery was going to be extensive and the recovery would likely involve 2 months of having my mouth screwed shut. I would barely be able to speak. I would have to eat through a straw and sleep on my back because if I happened to roll over I could injure myself further.
The surgery went well but the recovery proved not to be easy. The first few nights I had nightmares that I was drowning, only to wake up to severe claustrophobia from my mouth being sealed shut. The sensations were so uncomfortable I almost panicked and had to use all my strength to calm myself down and not remove the hardware that was healing me. But it also felt it was imprisoning me. I realized, now, that the only true medicine was going to be a positive attitude and refusal to be a victim.
After leaving the hospital, I returned to work immediately. To communicate I had to use a white board and sharpie.
My face healed fairly well and after 3 and a half weeks doctors removed the screws in my face. I started gaining back range of motion and learned how to chew again. Within 2 months the nerves had regrown well enough that I could begin to whistle.
From the outside, one might have observed that my recovery was all about physical healing. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Like many in my position, who have experienced loss in some form or another, I felt a strong internal shift in perspective and in my priorities. While I took pride in my physical improvements and my goals to return to my “old self”, that wasn’t enough. I needed more. I needed more physically, but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
What followed brought me some of the richest experiences of my life. I found myself taking a path not guided just by my own needs, but also the needs of others. I entered a life of community service, and through that, made some of the most valuable relationships of my life. I particularly recall the run for Julia Young, a beautiful high school student from my hometown who was burned terribly in a fire. This run showed me that to have a truly rich experience on this planet, you can’t just do it for yourself. Raising money for Julia and her family shined a light on how I could use my passion for sports and my gift of running, to work symbiotically with the community that surrounds me.
I now look at the utility of my athletic gifts quite differently. I’m not focused on collecting plaques, medals, sponsorships and podiums so that I can fill up my living room and my twitter account. I want to use my talents and accomplishments as a platform to benefit those around me. I also hope to lead other athletes toward lives weaved into the communities around them.
So when the producers asked “if there is anything in your life that you could change, what would it be?” I was honest when I said, “nothing.” I am grateful for the day I broke my jaw because the whole experience elevated me to the next level. There is no going back on the lessons I have learned and the perspectives I have gained. My life is forever better and I feel blessed for such a beautiful gift!
Kevin Donoghue is an elite obstacle course racer with multiple podium finishes. He is also the founder of Fitnamics. Learn more at Fitnamics.com