Don’t shoot the horse.
“If he was a horse, I’d shoot him.”
I’ll never forget the sting of hearing those words spoken about me.
The day I heard them we’d left our home a little before 4am. We’d driven six hours, arrived in a new city, at a new hospital, with a new doctor. We were a little tired, a little apprehensive and more than a little excited. My parents and I had come full of hope and seeking a solution.
The impetus for the visit was what happened a year earlier.
I had watched older boys in the neighborhood, about 11-years-old, sprinkle gasoline on the sidewalk, stand back, and throw a match onto it. They then watched the liquid puddles dance to life.
I figured if they could do it….
The following Saturday morning, with both parents out of the house, I tried duplicating the dance.
I bent over, trying to lift a five-gallon container of gasoline, I grabbed the handle with my right hand, held a piece of burning paper in my left, and began to pour. (I know…I know. The ladies reading this are thinking, “Oh my gosh, what’s wrong with this guy?” …While the men are thinking, “Oh my gosh, I did the exact same thing!”)
Unfortunately, before the liquid came out, the fumes from the gasoline caught the flame and pulled it into the container. A massive explosion followed, picking me up and launching me 20 feet across the garage. The resulting injuries left me with burns on 100% of my body, 87% were third degree. I spent five months in the hospital, endured dozens of surgeries, daily bandage changes, constant pain and lost all of my fingers to amputation.
Simply surviving was miraculous. But I had to relearn everything. Sitting. Walking. Using my hands. Adapting to new scars, new challenges, a new life.
My parents heard about a doctor who had a successful track record of performing radical surgeries on amputees and getting unbelievable results. This ignited a new hope in us; that we may find a way to make my fingerless hands useful again!
We scheduled our appointment and when the day came, we arrived after a long morning in the car, but exhilarated by the possibilities.
We waited eagerly as the doctor poked, stethoscoped and examined. Then, he closed my chart, looked my parents in the eyes, and flippantly said, “If he was a horse, I’d shoot him.”
For me, the real insult wasn’t that he thought death would be preferable to living my life. No, what really bothered me was much simpler. Not once did he speak with me, not once did he look me in the eyes, not once did he acknowledge me.
Not once, in other words, did he treat me like a human being.
That meeting was almost 30 years ago; and I still remember it.
Eventually I found a very different, kind-heart, visionary physician. One who looked into my heart when he spoke with me, treated me as a person, and masterfully blessed me with the ability to again use my hands.
I went back to grade school. Then onto high school, and finally college. I created a successful real estate development business, and later served as a hospital chaplain at a pediatric hospital.
Today I have a strong faith in God, the unconditional love of a gorgeous bride, and the joy of raising our four young children.
Although I spent years hiding from my story and covering my scars, for the past eight years I’ve worked as an inspirational speaker and author. The little boy who was expected to die now travels the world encouraging others to embrace their story and truly live.
I don’t waste much energy living in the negativity, and have not thought of that arrogant plastic surgeon in years, but a chance encounter last week ignited the memory.
While speaking on my book tour with the leadership team at the University of Southern California, I had the opportunity to meet a most amazing man.
Augie Nieto has lived with the brutal realities of Lou Gehrig's disease for over 10 years. Knowing the trajectory of the disease and the certainty of losing everything, shortly after the diagnosis Augie tried to take his own life.
Against overwhelming odds, he survived the attempt. More than that, the experience ignited within him a deep desire to not just refuse surrendering to the disease, but to become a masterful, beautiful example of abundant life in spite of it.
We connected after my talk and spoke for almost an hour. I asked what the most difficult aspect of this brutal disease was. He responded:
He sat motionless in a motorized wheelchair and unable to move any muscle other than his big toe on his right foot. So Augie typed his conversation with me.
Using technology he helped design, he's able to use his toe to slowly type letters and communicate with friends. He's got a wicked sense of humor, a beautiful heart, and a gorgeous bride named Lynne.
The man was a pioneer and global leader in the fitness industry. He founded, grew and eventually sold the hugely successful brand Life Fitness. For Augie, fitness wasn’t just work, it was life. He epitomized health and was a world-class athlete before his ALS diagnosis.
This one sentence had already taken him more than a minute to type. It was laborious, requiring all his mental effort and physical strength. He occasionally glanced over to make sure I was paying attention – and to let me know he was enjoying being heard.
At this moment someone approached thanking me for speaking earlier. I hugged him, thanked him and asked if he’d ever met Augie. He’d not. The gentleman then stuck out his hand to shake Augie’s. Unable to move anything other than his eyelids and big toe, Augie stared back. After an awkward silence, the gentleman pointed at Augie, told him he looked great, turned and walked away. It was a painful moment for the gentleman, certainly, but something that Augie experiences frequently.
And that was it.
What terrifies Augie, what he says is the hardest part of the disease is not losing everything physically, the painful progression of ALS, or even the inevitable loss of life, but that in almost every room he’s in, people look past him, they ignore him, or they simply feel sorry for him.
And yet, the point of this story isn’t really about the agony and anxiety of a man, physically bound, hanging onto the miracle and gift of life. It’s also not about the crassness of a physician devastating the spirit of a little burned-up kid hoping for another chance.
The real point is that too frequently we are the surgeon preferring to a use a shotgun and sarcasm rather than understanding and love.
We are the timid, awkward gentleman who would rather point, smile, tell others they look great, and then quickly walk away, than to lean in, cry with, understand, and wholeheartedly sit in the mysterious complexity of how challenging, agonizing, and beautiful this life actually is.
And we know there is a better way to lead forward.
For you see, the physician who eventually used his expertise to give me back the use of my hands began the healing long before the first surgery. The amazing woman who eventually married me wasn’t blind to my scars, but chose to see beyond physical appearance. And the man who courageously fights ALS, chooses to endure and believe that a diagnosis today called Lou Gehrig’s disease, will tomorrow be called Augie’s Cure.
In a world that is so overwhelmed with busyness, preoccupied with self-interests, and motivated by fear, we are invited daily to uncross our arms to the challenges, hopes, dreams, and lives of those with whom we come into contract. We are free to wake up from accidental living, and choose instead to be radically alive.
Now’s the time to lower your voice, drop the sarcasm, and turn off the phone. This is the day to pull up a chair, open your heart and step into the one thing individuals around us are clamoring for more than anything else: being fully seen, heard and understood.
No, it likely won’t cure a man of his diagnosis. It’s unlikely to liberate a little boy fully from the scars of being burned. And it’s improbable to make all the issues of the day fade.
But your presence and love, shared boldly and vulnerably with those you encounter, may do something ultimately even more important: provide a light in the midst of great darkness. And that glimmer will remind them that they are not alone, that there is reason for hope, and that the best is yet to come.
Put down the shotgun. Open up your heart.
This is your day. Live Inspired.