It has always been said life is our greatest teacher. I’m a believer scars tell a story. I was fortunate enough to earn a Doctorate from the School of Hard Knocks in 1982 at the age of 8. With burns and burn related scarring over 65% of my body, the life of a normal kid was not a reality. The severity of the burns resulted in my right arm being melted to my side, physically impossible to lift my arm over my head. I had to learn how to write left handed to resume my school responsibilities as a 3rd grader. My neck was permanently stuck at a 45 degree angle, impossible to hold my head up straight or turn to the left. To remedy the initial scarring, skin was harvested from both my legs (half my left leg and my complete right leg, all the way around). As I continued to grow and the burn scar contractures worsened over the years, more skin was harvested from my back, buttocks and my stomach and sewn into my neck and arm. I had to wear custom plastic braces on my face, neck and chest as well as a full-body compression suit that went from my ankles to my neck to my wrists for 3 years, 22 hours a day. As you can imagine, I was quite a site. Everywhere I went, kids as well as adults, stared, commented and often turned their head in disgust from the scars with the occasional “ewww gross, look at him.”
As I resumed school, kids affectionately began calling me Freddie Krueger, the burnt serial killer who attacked his victims in their dreams. Little did I know they were helping me become a confident man who didn’t rely on the affirmation of others for self worth. Daily actions like getting dressed or combing my hair required assistance – not to mention my right ear had been amputated due to gangrene. Doctors had already told me I’d never be competitive in sports again. Little did I know they were giving me the motivation to become an All American Triathlete 30 years later. The scars on my face and neck made dating impossible and made the thought of marriage and fatherhood just a fairly tale. Little did I know it was only preparing me to find the perfect woman who’d see me for the person God wanted me to become, not to mention blessing me with 5 beautiful and healthy kids.
32 years later
As I see my scars in the mirror daily, I am reminded these scars will never go away but nor do I want them too. I am reminded daily that adversity is my friend. He is the teacher of life who doesn’t accept resumes or transcripts, but rather personally seeks you out based on your unique qualifications and purpose in life. I am reminded that physical beauty fades with time, but integrity, work ethic and compassion last a lifetime. Although the School of Hard Knocks doesn’t give you a diploma to hang on your wall, it does give you the daily satisfaction that “Anything is Possible” with hard work and sacrifice.
As a father of 5, including an 8yr old girl, I remind myself not to remove their struggles in life. I try to reinforce that their struggles are minuscule in comparison to others and to always be thankful. I remind myself it’s ok for them to fail, because they only truly fail if they don’t pick themselves up and try again. Although I pray they never endure what I’ve faced, I pray they understand our greatest disappointments in life often bring the bring the greatest joys but…we must have the patience and determination to continue on our journey until those blessings come to fruition.
Shay is an All American and World ranked triathlete, burn survivor with scars over 65% of his body and is a sought out national motivational speaker. Despite being told he’d never compete in sports again at the age of 8, Shay is living testament to “Anything is Possible”: 4x Ironman, 4x member of Team USA, ranked top 1% of Ironmen worldwide and has competed in 9 triathlon world championships, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. His mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher” but to be a “competitor.” If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other posts.