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He's got two wheels and a new attitude


Jake French channels accident into career move

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Even though Jake French is now a quadriplegic, he has regained limited use of his upper body, arms and fingers. Visiting his hometown of Eagle Creek on Dec. 6, 2008, Jake French was having the time of his life, celebrating his birthday by country swing dancing and bar hopping with friends.

With a designated driver at the wheel, the just-turned 23-year-old and his crew departed before last call and headed for a friend’s house. Stopping at a gas station around 2 a.m., he ran into an old friend.

“There were four of us in a pickup,” French recalls. “I saw this person staggering out of the gas station. It was my best friend growing up, the kid who grew up next door, who I hadn’t seen in five or six years.”

French and his old friend bantered a bit about the old days before going back to their respective vehicles.

“He was very intoxicated,” French says. “They refused him the sale of beer, which is quite the feat in Eagle Creek.”

Turning his back to get something out of the truck, the next thing French knew, his friend had him from behind in a full nelson headlock.

“Growing up, he was always bigger and stronger. He was like, ‘Hey, you’ve gotten bigger!’ He wanted to show he was top dog.”

In what seemed like a millisecond, the weight of his roughhousing friend pushed him forward. French fell face forward onto the pavement — and into a whole new way of life.

“With your arms pinned back like that and you’re bent over, you can’t brace your fall,” he says. “The weight of two bodies, that’s what snapped my neck.”

Despite the sudden, violent injury and French’s intoxication, he remembers feeling calm and detached as his assailant tried — against conventional medical wisdom, of course — to pick him up and get him on his feet.

“I was conscious. It didn’t hurt at all,” he says. “I remember looking up at the gas station lights.”

Now 27 and living in Beaverton with his mother, Margaret, French hasn’t stood upright on his own since that early morning moment in Eagle Creek. A quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair, French hasn’t walked, danced, gone bowhunting, carousing or worked his dream job as a forest ranger since.

What he has done — following a period of uncertainty and self-pity — is take charge of his life. by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Beaverton resident Jake French trains with an upper body exercise at ADAPT Training in Beaverton. French, who became a quadriplegic after an encounter with a drunken friend from childhood, is building a new career as an inspirational speaker and author.

Speaking out

When not engaged in regular physical training exercises at ADAPT Training on Southwest Arctic Drive, French is building a new career as an inspirational speaker and author. He published “Life Happens — Live It,” in 2010. In the book, he shares his own story along with nine others who harnessed the power of positive outlook to overcome traumatic injuries and life events.

He credits his mother with inadvertently steering him out of what he calls the “pity pit” in the days and weeks following his accident.

“I couldn’t take all the crying and sadness anymore,” French reflects. “My mom came in my room. My arms were totally dead. I was in a head brace. I said, ‘Mom, will you just chill! It is what it is. You know this sucks. It really does. But it’s what we’ve got.’

“That was the start of it.”

Starting with no arm movement at all, doctors’ prognoses for extensive recovery were initially “pretty grim,” he recalls of his time at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

“It was the scariest thing in the world on the edge of that bed,” he says. “I felt like I was on the edge of a cliff. I felt like a little baby.”

Two surgeries and extensive physical therapy restored some movement and function to French’s shoulders, biceps, the tops of his arms and some fingers.

“I had incredible care,” he says.

Even with the progress, he admits it took about a year of introspection and would-have, could-have, should-have scenarios, he admits, before finding a path toward a fresh future — one that meant leaving his Oregon forest ranger dreams behind.

“I loved being outdoors. I was getting paid to do that. I liked bowhunting for elk, riding dirt bikes. I kept rehashing in my mind, ‘What would I be doing? If I had been at that gas station five or 10 minutes later, this wouldn’t have happened.’”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - With the help of Scott Fuller, a trainer at ADAPT in Beaverton, Jake French practices punching a soft bag to work on his upper body strength.

Moving on

Despite French’s calming words of wisdom from the hospital bed, his mother’s initial attempts to inspire her son fell flat.

“The less-than-desirable attitude he kept inside himself,” says Margaret French, who moved from Dufur to Beaverton for the proximity to her sister as well as Jake’s exercise and treatment options. “When his brother, Brad, who came over from Idaho to go fishing, Jake would go, ‘Yeah, it’s not the same. It’s not as fun. I don’t want to sit on the handicapped dock.’”

Eventually, Jake French’s self examination started to pay off. Realizing he’d been shortchanging his potential by “drinking too much, staying out late and leading a destructive life,” he enrolled in a motivational class and took an online GPS mapping system course in an effort to reinvent his career.

Motivational author and speaker Chuck Whitlock encouraged French to channel his positive-thinking impulses into a book and lecture format.

“I invested every penny I had into the book,” he says. “I’m not a writer. I wasn’t even speaking then. That was a huge step forward. I wanted to write a book that had many opportunities for the audience to find something that resonated with them.”

Rob, a West Linn High School student, says French inspired him at a school-sponsored engagement by “taking a bad thing and turning it into something that is beneficial to others. I loved it when he said, ‘Will you focus on the donut or the hole?’”

Now considering an invitation to share his story at an engagement in England, French says he’s getting the hang of sharing his message and delivery with a range of ages and audiences.

“I think I can connect with all audiences equally,” he says. “I try to use stories, interaction and humor to break it up. No one likes to be talked at for an hour.”

As for as the so-called friend who changed his life, French ultimately decided that filing criminal or civil charges against him wouldn’t bring any real satisfaction, monetarily or otherwise.

“He’s not the same kid I grew up with,” French says, noting he barely acknowledged to police that he saw French that night. “I don’t have time to get mad. I’m only interested in moving forward.”

To learn more about French and his inspirational offerings, visit JakeFrenchinspires.com or email JakeFrenchinspires.com.by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Kandice Kinney, director of therapy at ADAPT Training, helps stretch Jake French's lower body during his weekly two-hour exercise session. French lost the use of his lower body after a drunken-horseplay encounter with a childhood friend in Eagle Creek.