At 24, Katie McKenna was run over by an 18-wheeler while riding her bike. What happened after will seriously inspire you.
The last thing I remember before actually being run over was the hollow sound of my fist banging the side of the truck, and then a feeling as though I was tumbling.
Before I even realized what was happening, I felt pressure and then heard a cracking sound. Then I was shocked to realize the cracking was my bones. I squeezed my eyes shut, and I felt the first four wheels of the truck run over my body. I didn't have time to process the pain before the second set of giant wheels came. This time, I kept my eyes open and I watched them run over my body.
I heard more cracking. I felt the grooves in the tires on my skin. I heard the mud flaps thwack over me. I felt gravel in my back. Minutes before I had been riding my bike on a quiet morning in Brooklyn. Now, that bike's gearshift was impaled in my stomach.
That was almost 10 years ago. The fact that an 18-wheeler ran over my body, and I was breathing afterward, is beyond miraculous. (Related: How a Car Accident Changed the Way I Prioritized My Health)
The Road to Recovery
The truck had broken every rib, punctured a lung, shattered my pelvis, and ripped a hole in my bladder, causing internal bleeding so severe that I received my last rites while in surgery. After a seriously intense recovery that included emergency surgeries and serious physical therapy, not to mention panic attacks and flashbacks that would hit me dozens of times a day, today I can say that I feel almost grateful for getting run over by that truck. Because of my experience, I've learned to love and appreciate life. I've also learned to love my body beyond what I ever thought possible.
It started in the hospital—the first moment my foot touched the floor and I took a step, it changed my life. When that happened, I knew that what every doctor had told me was wrong, that they didn't know me. That all their warnings that I would probably never walk again just weren't odds I was going to accept. This body got the tar kicked out of it, but somehow was just like, Nah, we're going to figure something else out. I was amazed.
During my recovery, there were so many moments when I despised my body because it was so shocking to look at. It was such a huge change from what it was only a few weeks before. There were staples, caked in blood, that went from my lady parts all the way up to my sternum. Where the gear shift ripped into my body there was just exposed flesh. Every time I looked under my hospital gown, I wept, because I knew that I'd never go back to normal.
I didn't look at my body (when I didn't have to) for at least a year. And it took me even longer to accept my body for what it is now.
Slowly, I learned to focus on the things that I did love about it—I got strong arms by doing dips in my wheelchair in the hospital, my abs healed and now hurt from laughing too hard, my formerly skin-and-bones legs were now legit jacked! My boyfriend Patrick also helped me learn to love my scars. His kindness and attention made me redefine my scars—now they're not things I'm ashamed of but things I've come to appreciate and even (occasionally) celebrate. I call them my "life tattoos"—they are a reminder of hope in the face of grave circumstances. (Here, one woman shares how she learned to love her huge scar.)
Finding Fitness Again
A big part of fully accepting of my new body was finding a way to make exercise a really big part of my life again. Exercise had always been important to me to live a happy life. I need that serotonin—it makes me feel connected to my body. I was a runner before my accident. Post-accident, with a plate and several screws in my back, running was off the table. But I do a mean granny-style power walk and I discovered I can also do pretty well "running" on the elliptical. Even without the ability to run like I used to, I can still get my sweat on.
I've learned to compete with myself instead of trying to compare myself to others. Your sense of winning and your sense of failure are very different from everybody else around you, and that's got to be okay. Two years ago when Patrick was training for a half marathon, I found myself wanting to do one too. I knew I couldn't run it, but I wanted to push my body as hard as I could. So I set a secret goal to "run" my own half marathon on the elliptical. I trained by power walking and hitting the elliptical at the gym—I even put a training schedule up on my fridge.
After weeks of training, without telling anyone about my own "half marathon", I went to the gym at 6 a.m. and "ran" those 13.1 miles on the elliptical in an hour and 41 minutes, an average pace of seven minutes and 42 seconds per mile. I just couldn't believe my body—I actually hugged it afterward! It could've given up and it didn't. Just because your win looks different from someone else's doesn't mean that it's any less of a win.
Learning to Love My Body
There's this quote I love—"You don't go to the gym to punish your body for what you ate, but you go to celebrate what your body can do." I used to be like, "Oh god I need to go to the gym for a crazy amount of hours because I ate a hero sandwich yesterday." Changing that mindset has been a really big part of this shift and building this deep appreciation for this body that's been through so much.
I was an incredibly harsh judge of my body before the accident—sometimes it felt like it was my favorite topic of conversation. I feel especially bad about what I said about my stomach and hips. I would say that they were fat, disgusting, like two flesh-colored meatloaves attached to my hipbones. In hindsight, they were perfection.
Now I think about what a waste of time it was to have been so deeply critical of a part of myself that was, in actuality, totally lovely. I want my body to be nourished, and to be loved, and to be strong. As the owner of this body, I'm going to be as kind to it and as good to it as possible.
The thing that has helped me and healed me the most is the idea of little victories. We have to know that our wins and our successes are going to look different from those of other people, and sometimes they have to be taken really, really slowly—one small bite-size goal at a time. For me, that's usually about taking on things that scare me, like a recent hiking trip with friends. I love hiking, but I usually go by myself to minimize embarrassment in case I need to stop or go slowly. I thought about lying and saying that I didn't feel well and that they should go without me. But I convinced myself to be brave and try. My goal—my small bite—was just to show up and do my best.
I wound up keeping pace with my friends and finishing the whole hike. And I celebrated the shit out of that little victory! If you don't celebrate the small things, it's almost impossible to stay motivated—especially when you have a setback.
Learning to love my body after getting run over by a truck has also taught me to redefine failure. For me personally, failure was the inability to attain perfection, or normalcy. But I've realized my body is built to be what my body is, and I can't be mad at it for that. Failure isn't a lack of perfection or normalcy—failure is not trying. If you just try every day, that is a win—and that's a beautiful thing.
Of course, there are definitely sad days and I still live with chronic pain. But I know my life is a blessing, so I need to appreciate everything that's happening to me—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If I didn't, it would be almost disrespecting the other people who didn't get that second chance. I feel like I'm living the extra life that I wasn't supposed to get, and it makes me feel so much happier and more grateful just to be here.
Katie McKenna is the author of How to Get Run Over By a Truck.