IMAGINE THIS: You wake up one morning, do your normal routine, go to work and suddenly you are in a freak accident that leaves with more than 35 percent of your body burned and, after numerous surgeries, a double amputee.
That is what happened 17 years ago in the line of duty to 45-year-old retired Marine Capt. John O'Brien, of West Chester. He lost his left leg just below the knee and the left arm just above the elbow.
"I always wanted to be a fighter pilot," John recalled. "The summer of '86, the movie "Top Gun" came out and it motivated me to go for it! I graduated a commissioned officer in 1989."
In 1992 he received his wings and was awarded the Rolls Royce of planes, the AV-8B Harrier jet. He flew it for 13 months until that fateful day in September 1993 when his plane crashed during a routine training exercise.
After nearly losing his life, John - now regional director of regulatory affairs at Flight Safety International, an aviation training company in Delaware - finds the holidays are even more significant and special.
He credits his family and particularly his wife, Tina, who was his girlfriend at the time of the accident, for supporting him through those challenging days of recovery and rehabilitation.
"She stuck with me through it all - a true test of our relationship. Many girlfriends and spouses can't deal with it. . . . But I asked her to marry me one day in the burn center and she said yes! A year later, we were married in October 1994.
"I didn't want to go down the aisle in a wheelchair. My goal was to walk down the aisle, and I did [with a prosthetic leg]."
Their union has produced John's true pride and joys, his three beautiful daughters, now 12, 10 and 8.
As time moved on, like many busy parents, John noticed he was picking up weight. Once the poster boy of fitness, he began to eat poorly. The lack of exercise, prosthetic limitations and mobility issues exacerbated things.
"I always wanted to exercise and be fit again, but exercise is really a challenge when you're a double amputee," he told me.
Not one for giving up - and fed up with his gut - John decided in the summer of 2008 to take on the Marine Corps Marathon as his next big challenge. With the support of his wife and a buddy, he began training.
They changed their eating habits, having more vegetables, fruit, salads, shakes and lean protein like fish and chicken. Instead of skipping meals, they had six micro meals a day.
Combined with his training, he dropped a whopping 21 pounds in about four weeks and would ultimately lose 33 pounds. He triumphantly crossed the finish line this past October in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. His impressive time of 4:54:19 demonstrated to everyone that it is never too late, or impossible, to fulfill a dream.
"All things are possible if you believe . . . that's what my amputations have taught me," John said. "I don't see myself as having a disability. I only see my ability."
John's can-do attitude and positive philosophy are good medicine for us all. The holiday season is the perfect time to reflect not only on what we are grateful for, but to recognize, too, that these moments are the best times of our lives. That's right - right now, not when you lose the last 20 pounds or when the economy turns around.
Like John, we need to focus not on our limitations but on all the things we can do - and then do them. Will 2011 be the year you resolve to live life to the fullest? To be happy, healthy and wise?
Kimberly Garrison is a certified personal trainer and owner of One on One Ultimate Fitness in Philadelphia (www.1on1ultimatefitness.com).
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