Getting Schooled by Middle Schoolers

In the last few months, I have had the honor of getting to talk about myself in front of groups of other people. It is terrifying and amazing and wonderful all at the same time. In the moments before these talks I feel like I am going to either giggle out of pure joy or throw-up in front of a bunch of strangers. It is awesome!
The most recent talk that I gave was for a group of middle schoolers in Vermont. Their guidance counselor had read my book, and had invited me to come and speak to the kids. I was the most nervous I had ever been - 7th and 8th and graders are terrifying! I know they scared the crap out of me when I was one of them. But this seemed like an amazing opportunity to share a part of my life with them, and maybe be helpful in some way. The talk wound up being really lovely, and the kids were absolute gems. They asked some hilarious, thoughtful and intense questions - and I did my best to answer them honestly, without fear and and with intentionality - it felt meaningful, overwhelming and so, so real.

I left there feeling hopeful and positive about these kids, the future of our country and how important it is to be kind, open and vulnerable to each other. I thought that some of you might be interested in it - so I'm sharing it below! Just imagine that you're sitting on the carpeted floor of a library while you're reading it to get the full effect :)

Hi, I am Katie McKenna, and I wanted to thank you so much for having me here! Your guidance counselor was kind enough to invite me to come and speak to you all because I just published a book, entitled “How to Get Run Over by a Truck” I have to tell you that this isn’t just an INCREDIBLY clever title - I was run over by an 18 wheel truck while riding my bike in my neighborhood in Brooklyn.  I KNOW! It's totally bonkers. Even though it happened to me, I sometimes have trouble believing that is something that someone could go through and survive.  

This is also really hard to believe because now I look pretty normal, you would never know that I broke all of my ribs, punctured my lungs, ripped a hole in a few of my organs, and fractured my pelvis in 5 places.   You wouldn’t notice that I have a plate in my back, or that I’m in pain all of the time - which to be totally honest is kind of a bonus!

It’s a pretty awkward conversation starter, and if I can avoid it, I absolutely will!  I realized every single day that I am so lucky that my injuries weren’t worse, and that I have the ability to walk, talk and look like any other person on the street. When my crash happened, I was conscious - so I remember every moment of the experience and what happened after.  I remember hearing the crack of my bones under the weight of the truck, I remember asking the EMT’s to please take me to a good hospital, and I remember a perfect stranger stopping his car on the side of the road, coming to my spot on the asphalt and praying the Our Father with me,

The EMT’s did take me to the best hospital in the area, which was more than a few miles away. Because they didn’t usually go there (they weren’t used to people with tire track on their stomach making requests) they got lost on the way there! They actually had to stop and ask someone on the street directions. I knew that it wasn’t funny, but in the back of the ambulance I started to laugh - which I am sure was VERY unnerving for these EMT’s!

When we did get to the hospital, they sped me through the emergency room and the doctors and nurses were running next to my gurney - and I have to tell you it is JUST like on TV. I didn’t think that it would be, but it totally was. If I hadn’t been really concerned about whether or not I was going to die, I am sure that I would have thought it was really cool!

As they were preparing to put me under for surgery, I asked the doctor who was the closest to me if I was going to live, and she looked me in the eyes very hard,  and told me that I was probably going to die - which was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.

Even after I was run over, I still had hope that I was going to live. I had thought that if I was awake and didn’t have brain damage that meant that there was some way that I would make it out of this ok.  But hearing the doctor say that I was probably not going to make it almost extinguished that hope. Luckily for me, I am VERY stubborn, and as they put the mask with the anesthesia on my face, I thought to myself: don’t stop fighting just because of what she said Katie. She doesn’t know you. You just got run over by a truck and stayed conscious - that’s gotta count for something!

After that, I went into 10 hours of emergency surgery, where 4 hours in,  the doctors came out and told my parents that I was internally bleeding, and that I had an hour to start clotting or I was going to die. With just 15 minutes left until they were going to let me go, I miraculously started clotting. My family was like, thanks a lot Katie, really had to make us sweat there! I said, I just wanted for you to get the full - I would really really miss her effect! It was incredibly successful! When I came out of surgery the doctors told my family that it was truly a miracle that I had made it out alive. If I am going to be honest with you, in that moment, I didn’t feel miraculous - it felt like the opposite of a miracle. It felt TERRIBLE! It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

I woke up in the ICU, hooked up to a million machines, incredibly confused, sad and also shocked that I couldn’t feel my body from the ribcage down. I laid there and willed my legs to move, but they wouldn’t. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have control over my body - and that was so scary! The main reason for my confusion was because I thought this kind of stuff didn’t happen to good people. I felt that this is the kind of stuff that happens to bad guys in action movies - and don’t get me wrong I wasn’t perfect, but mean I wasn’t a Russian spy in a James Bond movie so I was pretty sure I didn’t deserve this! I did volunteer work in my spare time, I recycled, I was nice to puppies and babies - I felt like I had checked all of the boxes!

I was in the hospital for over 2 months, and when you are just hanging out in a hospital bed by yourself, you have time to think about these big questions - so I thought about this A LOT. I wondered why the universe would let this happen to me - what I had I done? I kept thinking and thinking about it, and I finally came up with the answer - nothing.

I hadn’t done anything to deserve this - but being a good person didn’t keep me safe from terrible things happening.  It wasn’t going to serve me to worry and try to figure ou the why- I just had to accept that it had happened, to see what I could learn from it, and do everything in my power to move forward.

I’ve lived a lot of life, and from my experience I can candidly say that these things can comes at you so so fast.  I think this is part of the reason why Linda asked me to come to talk with you guys today - not just to make sure that you’re mindful of trucks when you’re riding your bikes, but also because all of us get run over by a truck at some point in our lives, right? We have this one pivotal moment that takes our vertical world and turns it horizontal, and we have a choice in the moments after that trauma - we can give up, or we can try to get back to our vertical world degree by degree.  I chose the latter. The reason why I share my story is because when I was trying to rebuild my life, I couldn’t find a story that spoke to me – that made me feel hopeful that things could and would get better. My goal is that my story can be one you can think about when you’re feeling hopeless.   

My first step to building a new life, was to stop feeling sorry for myself, and the next step was to figure out what I could do to find my way back to happy. Looking back there were 5 things that made it possible for me to get through this challenging time: they were humor, controlling what I could control, goal setting, forgiveness, and to keep punching.

I did stand up comedy in New York City for a few years before this crash, and as hard as I tried it was almost impossible for me to find something funny about getting run over by a truck. But I kept trying! Making other people laugh has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and I took it as a challenge to find whatever humor I could in this situation:

For example the first night the friends who I grew up with were able to come to see me in the hospital I was still very weak – and I am sure that they were scared to death.  I still had gravel from the road in my hair, I am wearing a hospital gown and for the first time in my life I felt awkward in front of the people I’ve known since I was your age.  To break the silence, my friend Kerrin, says, “Katie, you look so good!” I stared at her, and I said “Kerr – do I look good good? Or I do I look got run over by a truck good?” Suddenly, all of us are laughing, and in this completely uncontrollable situation – I found somewhere that I could feel in control.  I felt like myself. It was magical.

As I’m sure that you can imagine, the pain that I was in was pretty unbearable. I was given a morphine pump to manage it - but  it felt like the pain was never getting better, and I didn’t want to be a person who had to cart a morphine pump around for the rest of her life, so I started to create small goals for myself - I tried to press the pump fewer and fewer times per hour.  It didn’t have to be much.  Only once and I was so proud of myself! I lived for those little victories.  When I was going to physical therapy I had low expectations for myself, but it was really important to me that every day I tried to push myself a little further than I had the day before
I think that’s something that I learned while I was recovering too - how to be excited and proud of those little wins. We put so much pressure on ourselves go bigger, get the A+, join all of the clubs, get into the best college – we only feel successful when these big wins happen, that these tiny wins get lost.  They don’t feel like a big deal, but I am here to tell you, as a person who has built her life back by stringing together these tiny little victories -  they are a big deal, and you owe it yourself to celebrate them.  For example, I took the train to come up here from New York, and I was actually early, so I bought myself a fancy coffee, and then high fived myself when I got on the train, which was kind of awkward for the other people who were on the train because it just looked like I was sitting there doing one single clap to myself.

Something that people often ask me about is forgiveness. They wondered if I ever met the truck driver who ran me over. I actually never have.  He tried to see me to apologize but I was still in the ICU and wasn’t allowed to have visitors.  While I was in the hospital recovering I tried not to think about him too much - giving a face or a feeling to the pain and the challenges that I was going through seemed like it would be really toxic for me.  I kept with this mindset until Christmas time. I had been released from the hospital, but I was still unable to walk and was confined to a wheelchair. During that holiday I watched how my family had to change their whole life around for me. I saw it in small things, my little brother and sister came home from college and they didn’t get spoiled by my parents, and have their favorite meals made, have their friends come over. We didn’t get to do all of the traditional things that we had done together, because it was too difficult with me in a wheelchair, and everyone was too busy making sure I was ok.  

It was in those moments that I felt the angriest. I wasn’t mad for myself (ok, I’m not a saint I was a LITTLE mad for myself) I was mad that my family who had done nothing wrong, had to suffer because of what this driver had recklessly done.  When I finally let myself get worked up, really mad and allowed myself to blame him for all that he had done to me, my family and my life - I found that I didn’t feel better - I just felt hateful.  I realized that holding onto that anger wasn’t going to punish this person who doesn’t even know what my face looks like. It was only going to hurt me.  So, in order to heal myself, I knew that I had to forgive him.  So I did, and I felt a million times lighter.  Which was an incredible lesson to learn.

I think that my biggest takeaway from my entire experience, other than being more careful when biking, is that there is a strength inside of all of us that cannot be quantified, explained or taken for granted until we are put into truly challenging situations.

Since my accident, I haven’t forgotten how challenging my life had been while I was recovering in the hospital, but I had lost sight of how incredibly hopeless and helpless I was. As I had mentioned, even before I went into surgery I had been told that I wasn’t going to make it. Then as I was recovering I was told I was never going to walk again. Later during my rehabilitation a doctor told me that I shouldn’t expect to live anything resembling a normal life, that what I had hoped my life would look like, was no longer a tangible possibility.  

All of these men and women telling me “no” were all medical professionals. They were leaders in their fields. They thought they knew what was going to happen to me and my crushed little body — because they understood the facts, and the science. But they underestimated one thing: me. They underestimated what “no” would mean to me. They couldn’t quantify the passion, anger, power, and resilience that was ignited in my body when they told me that I couldn’t. So, I made it my mission to show them what they couldn’t see. I have never known purpose that was bigger than that.The driving force behind that resistance was one phrase: Keep Punching.

When I was in the hospital, every night when visiting hours were over my parents would come over to my bed where I was hooked up to about a million machines and kiss me goodnight. My dad would linger for an extra moment, and would whisper in my ear “Katie, you have to promise me one thing before I go. Will you keep punching? I know you’re in the corner, in the fight of your life and you’re getting the tar kicked out of you — but will you keep punching? Don’t give up. Keep swinging, OK?”That was enough to help me to fall asleep with hope in my heart, and a willingness to wake up and fight for one more day.

For a lot of people in our world, they are in the corner in the fight of their lives too.  There is darkness right now, there is no denying that. Every single person is going through their own personal challenge that no one else can see. What I want to make sure that you all know is that there is more strength in you than you have ever imagined. Sometimes it takes being run over to truly find it.  Keep punching, you guys. As long as we all do that, we will be able to find that light, and it will be beautiful.

The light comes to greet us every single day, we just have to be strong enough to let it in. 


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