He's got two wheels and a new attitude
Jake French channels accident into career move
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 friends 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 hadnt 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, youve 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 youre bent over, you cant brace your fall, he says. The weight of two bodies, thats what snapped my neck.
Despite the sudden, violent injury and Frenchs 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 didnt 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 hasnt stood upright on his own since that early morning moment in Eagle Creek. A quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair, French hasnt 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.
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 couldnt 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 its what weve 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 Frenchs 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 wouldnt have happened.
Despite Frenchs calming words of wisdom from the hospital bed, his mothers 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 Jakes exercise and treatment options. When his brother, Brad, who came over from Idaho to go fishing, Jake would go, Yeah, its not the same. Its not as fun. I dont want to sit on the handicapped dock.
Eventually, Jake Frenchs self examination started to pay off. Realizing hed 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. Im not a writer. I wasnt 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 hes 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 wouldnt bring any real satisfaction, monetarily or otherwise.
Hes not the same kid I grew up with, French says, noting he barely acknowledged to police that he saw French that night. I dont have time to get mad. Im only interested in moving forward.
To learn more about French and his inspirational offerings, visit JakeFrenchinspires.com or email JakeFrenchinspires.com.