Jim MacLaren, an intelligent, athletic and handsome 22-year-old Yale graduate, was happily riding his motorcycle down New York’s Fifth Avenue when he was suddenly struck by a city bus.
He remembers nothing of the impact that threw him 89 feet into the air. He woke up in the hospital to learn that his left leg had been amputated below the knee. He spent the next several years undergoing painful rehabilitation and getting on with his life.
Within a year, he was running 10K road races and later ran the New York City and Boston marathons, in one breaking the record for amputee runners. He also determined to compete in triathlons—swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.3 miles, a full marathon, all in one day.
That decision led to his second accident eight years later. As he was competing in the bicycle portion of a triathlon in Southern California in 1993 (with one leg, remember), he was struck by a van.
He felt and remembers everything about this accident, including being hit and flung across the street, smashing his head into a lamppost, his neck snapping. He also remembers riding in the ambulance to the hospital, aware that he could not feel his arms and legs.
When we awoke from surgery in the trauma ward, he learned he was a quadriplegic, although he had limited nerve activity that allows some movement and sensation. After spending three months in a halo device bolted directly to his skull, MacLaren was released to a rehabilitation center, minus the painful halo. That’s when his survival instincts took over.
He worked hard, focused and recovered faster than anyone had expected. Just six months after the accident, he was living on his own again. At a convention of Ironman athletes, he gave a motivational speech about endurance and the strength of the human spirit. Everyone thought he was doing great.
He wasn’t. MacLaren had hit a wall. He had come to realize that his body would not heal any more. He would never walk again or be pain-free. And all of the determination in the world could not change these facts.
MacLaren won a settlement for his 1996 accident and moved to Kona, Hawaii, telling his friends he was going to write his memoirs. In reality, he says he was just running away. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had become addicted to cocaine.
His turning point came when he found himself, drugged and in his wheelchair, in the middle of a deserted highway. It turned out to be the most famous stretch of road on the Hawaiian Ironman course.
On that road, MacLaren determined that although he didn’t want to live as a quadriplegic, he didn’t want to die, either. He knew he had to make some peace with what had happened. He began to try to see things differently.
“Maybe this wasn’t a curse at all,” he thought. “Maybe it was the most exquisite blessing of my life—the opportunity to see my true self,” he said in the February 2003 issue of Readers Digest.
MacLaren turned to books for answers, including the Bible, where on his 10th reading of the book of Job, he realized what God was doing. God wanted to bring Job closer to him.
“I have come to believe that I needed these accidents to bring me deeper inside myself to a place where I could find honesty and peace,” he says.
Today MacLaren lives in a loft in Santa Fe. He can, with painful and time-consuming effort, bathe, dress and feed himself and drive a van specially outfitted with hand controls. He works out daily at a gym and is also pursuing graduate studies. People struggling with their own tragedies regularly call him for advice and comfort, and he always tries to help.
Jim MacLaren is courageous and optimistic, but he’s also lived with and accepted pain and disappointment. Instead of dwelling there, however, he has chosen to look ahead to life’s possibilities.
One of the definitions of resilient is “to recover readily from adversity.” Another definition is Jim MacLaren.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.