The Mountain Times

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Broken spine, broken hearts: Kevin Brooks’ powerful example

WOODSTOCK - Canadian Kevin Brooks wouldn't wish what happened to him on anybody, so much so that he travels all over the continent to do what he can to make sure it doesn't.

Once an athletic young man who enjoyed snowboarding, skateboarding, hockey, and hard partying, today, he speaks from his wheelchair about the horrendous consequences which can reverberate from a single bad choice.

"They called me 'The Creature,'" he told a packed audience at the Woodstock Union Middle and High School last week. Brooks spoke at the behest of the school's Teen Leadership Safety Program, which invited him to share his experience.

Brooks' story is tragic, but hardly unique: he and his best friend Brendon were partying to celebrate graduation night back at their local high school; Brooks' sister Alison had just graduated. Both Brooks and Brendon had too much to drink. They got into Brooks' car, drove around at excessive speed, made a wrong left turn, and then the world changed forever.

"I never thought it would be the last time I'd bounce my baby sister," he said of that day. "I could have been in a cab. I could have slept over... I could have done many things and not be in this chair."

About all he recalls is getting into his car, stopping at a red light, and a left turn.

"I was doing 90 in a 45 mile an hour zone," Brooks said.

In Brooks' case, the accident broke his vertebrae, collapsed a lung, broke many other bones, and made his survival dependent on machines and feeding tubes. He was 21-years-old.

What he did not know was that his mother, a nurse, responded to the scene and helped treat him, and keep him alive, an experience which shook her to the soul.

"Twenty years on the job and she had to take a leave of absence," he said. "They told me later one thing kept me from dying. I remembered my seat belt. That's what saved me."

Brooks spent weeks in intensive care, and little by little, he found out just how far-reaching the consequences of his bad decision were. He'd ruined his sister's graduation, and gave his mother her worst nightmare. He had no idea what happened to Brendon.
"'Kev, he didn't make it,'" Brooks quoted his mother telling him. "Brendon died."

The next blow came when he tried to move his legs.

"They wouldn't go," he said. "I tried to wiggle my toes, and nothing… I took risks, did stupid things, and I was always able to walk away. I told myself it was a skill, but it was just luck. And luck runs out."

Probably the hardest thing Brooks had to do was to pick up the phone and call Brendon's parents. To his surprise, they did not hate him. They had asked mourners at their son's funeral to pray for him, raised some money for him. Somehow, they had found forgiveness.

"They told me he could have made different choices, too," Brooks said. "They said, 'You could just as easily have been a passenger in that car, too.'"

It took Brooks a long time to cope with the reality that he would probably never rise from his wheelchair, and recovery took a long and painful time.

But he said he has finally found peace. "I'm a happy man," he said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control said that alcohol-impaired driving killed more than 10,000 people in 2010, accounting for nearly a third of all U.S. traffic deaths. Of those, 34 percent were between the ages of 21 and 24.

In Vermont, according to the nonprofit Century Council, there were 17 drunk driving fatalities in 2010.

WUHS Senior Reid Lansone said Brooks' presentation made him think.

"He made people look at life differently," Lansone said. "One decision can change someone's life for the worse."

Marissa Farvman, a junior who is involved with the teen leadership program, said she had seen Brooks speak before, and thought his message should be heard by her peers.

"I had a good feeling about him," she said, "and with prom season coming up, this seemed like a good time for him to bring his story to us."

For more information on Brooks his visit to Woodstock, visit www.kevinbrooks.ca.