When I first met Khoa in the seventh grade I instantly took a liking to him. He was seemingly always happy and as far as I was concerned, he didn’t have a bad word to say about anybody. He was the kind of kid you wanted to be friends with; a happy go with the flow guy that just engendered laughter and smiles. In fact, that was the one thing I always remembered about him from our high school days – the smile; no motive, no malice just a happy smile. Years had passed since we both graduated high school and went our separate ways, so I was taken aback when I saw him over a decade later at a mutual friend’s wedding. My old mate was sitting in a wheelchair. I didn’t know what had happened to him since we all left those school gates in the year 2000 and I was afraid to ask in case he didn’t want to talk about it. From afar I thought to myself ‘oh my god you poor thing’ but then I noticed that the familiar Khoa smile was still there. We were both at a friend’s wedding to celebrate a joyous occasion and everyone was drinking and having a good time. Old friends had reunited that evening and we all circulated the room and caught each other up on the years that had passed, and the same went for Khoa. It was initially shocking to see him confined to a wheelchair but once I snapped out of my own preconceptions, I saw the same happy go lucky guy that I knew way back when and his new wheels were nothing but a new mode of transportation for him.
As it turns out his story is one that we can all learn from. After graduating high school Khoa got a job at Burger King, then moved to another job as you do. He was living an average life, making money, socialising and enjoying life. He was earning a pay cheque and coasting along.
A holiday to South America with friends opened his eyes to the fact that Australia was a privileged country in many regards. We have good health care, our general quality of life is relatively good and for those that have the drive and perseverance there are opportunities galore. These realisations stuck with Khoa and affected him in two ways. It made him appreciate his position in life with respect to the aforementioned aspects, and it also made him decide to enjoy life more. It was on a fateful night out with friends then that one wrong decision led to a tragic turn of events. Khoa and his friends had been drinking at a party when they decided to drive home. Khoa was not driving that night but it didn’t matter as everyone in the car had been drinking. They were involved in a terrible car accident. Weeks later Khoa woke up in hospital. Having been in a coma, Khoa was unaware of what had ensued and what the ramifications were. When he woke up his legs were gone. Amazingly his first reaction was not shock or panic or even sadness. Perhaps it was the haze from the pain killers or perhaps the full extent of his circumstances had simply not sunk in yet, but his reaction was rather indifferent. His legs had been amputated but to him that was just another day, nothing to write home about.
It took just a mere two or three days for Khoa to decide that he was not going to let the amputation stop him from living his life. He made a conscious decision to accept his circumstances and move forward instead of wallowing in self-pity. With the support of friends and family and the doctors and nurses looking after him he picked up the pieces of his life and got on with things. His response to the accident was “there was no use of thinking what could’ve or would’ve been, no use thinking why did I go to the party or get in the car”. The only thing left to do was decide what next.
Khoa has no resentment towards the driver of the car either. He had decided that carrying any resentment or anger was just a burden he did not want to bear. Getting back on his feet and becoming independent again warranted more of his time and thought. This however was a long process – getting a prosthetic leg was trial and error as traditional prosthetics didn’t work well for him. “The down days would’ve been when I had the old socket prosthetic when it took 15 minutes to put each leg on” he says. Khoa wanted to walk straight away, he was determined to get his body back to where it had been before the car accident. First, he learned to walk on crutches at home with help from his mother and brother. He focused his energy on exercise and muscle building as part of his rehabilitation. It took a year for him to learn how to walk on sockets, but the pivotal point of his recovery came in 2014 when he received surgery for osseointegration – a procedure that involved inserting an implant in his leg bone, which facilitated an easier and quicker connection of the prosthesis to the leg stump. This gave Khoa an extra boost of confidence.
During down time he went to the gym with his brother - in his wheel chair. It took him a while to build the courage to venture out of the house though. “At the start I carried the fear that people were judging me, so I didn’t really want to go out” he says. But soon enough that changed, “I still had that stigma of people looking at me and judging me, but now I realise they’re just curious”. Children look at him with curiosity while shopping for example, but he made a conscious decision not to care what people thought. This decision was liberating for him and made him go out more. If people look at him, he looks back and smiles. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him and he welcomes the questions regarding his wheelchair or prosthesis – he welcomes the dialogue so he can share his story and his views. He wants people to know that he is just another normal person, a happy go lucky guy who cracks jokes. The amputation doesn’t define him he says. These days now with the new prosthetics kids think he’s “cool”. Part of that is because “I’m always smiling, I make eye contact with people and I’m not looking down” – Khoa is not ashamed of his circumstances, nor should he be. People also tell him he’s an inspiration. These various interactions motivate him to share his story.
Even after his accident he still maintains his love of cars though, especially his love of driving fast cars. How? He’s not sure but perhaps the fact that he doesn’t remember much from the accident has helped. “There’s no use being afraid of what might happen” he says. He races cars legally on designated tracks in a controlled environment. He says there is no point living in fear when in reality the worst thing has already happened to him.
It took him 3yrs to get behind the wheel again though. Khoa was reluctant to drive again but not because of any lingering trauma from his accident. Rather, he simply didn’t want to drive a modified car. Nevertheless, Khoa wanted complete independence and this meant he needed to learn to drive again. However not content with accepting the status quo Khoa began researching ways in which those like him got around “the driving thing”. He stumbled across youtube videos of people with prosthetics driving unmodified or “normal” cars and this gave him the motivation to try and do the same. He spoke to his occupational therapist about what he wanted to do and was given the support he needed to reach his goal. When the occupation therapist and driving instructor tested his “faculties” he tested well. They found with his integrated prosthetics he could use his legs as per normal in an unmodified vehicle, so he was given the greenlight to try for a normal car licence. A couple of lessons later he passed his driving test and got his full licence back.
When asked if there are any limitations to what he can do Khoa replies “The world is not flat, for example it’s hard for me to walk downhill…but there are always ways around things”. If he fails, he just keeps trying until he gets it right. “Persistence pays off” he says. “Smile and Be happy…You’ve only got one life so turn that negative thing in your life into a positive…Change the ratio”. What does he mean by that? Appreciate the little things – don’t take it for granted. There might be one thing you can’t do but there are probably ten other things you can do and do very well. He doesn’t have regrets as that to him means he’s still holding onto the past. He’s not interested in that.
Now Khoa is co-owner of a gym and does public speaking as a motivational speaker. When asked why, he says gyming may have saved his life. Before that pivotal car accident Khoa used alcohol as cure for boredom, as a lot of young people did. After the accident however he made a conscious decision to stop drinking. But he needed something to fill the void while he tried to rebuild his life. He needed a healthy outlet to keep him occupied and focused especially during those quieter times when the doctors and nurses and friends and family weren't around. He needed something he could do by himself and for himself and working out was it - the gym was where he built up his physical strength and this inturn nurtured his mental and emotional wellbeing.
Khoa was a shy kid in high school but now he wants to step outside his comfort zone. He is taking a course to help him become a public speaker. He feels like he has a responsibility to tell his story and help inspire others in a similar circumstance. His aim is to travel the world giving encouragement to people who may need it. “There’s no use being in your own little bubble” he says “…get out there be positive, tell your story and help others… Looking on the brighter side now I’m taller than what I was” he says. With this I saw the positivity and sense of humour in the Khoa I knew all those years ago. He is still that same person but now that kid from high school is a man with a purpose and determination to overcome his setbacks and help others do the same.