Lessons learned the hard way

Courtesy of a link provided by Australian reader Snoggeramus, we learn of a young man who nearly died as the result of his own stupidity.  Maimed for life, he’s now trying to prevent others from making the same sort of mistakes.

MAKING a bomb out of a small barbecue gas bottle seemed like harmless fun for Matt Lewis and his friends.

. . .

But as Mr Lewis gave the bomb a quick shake before tossing it on the ground, it detonated sooner than expected, throwing him and one of his friends into the air.

“I remember spinning through the air and landing face down on the ground,” he says of the incident in August last year.

“I said, ‘My legs, my legs’ and told my mate who bought the chemicals that it wasn’t his fault. I tried to get up, but my legs were in pretty bad shape so I couldn’t move.”

Mr Lewis did not know at the time, but his friends and family were confronted with the sort of horror seen in wars.

His legs were hanging by threads above his knees. Most of his fingers had also been torn apart and shrapnel from the gas bottle had lodged in his chest and face.

. . .

Despite losing many litres of blood and fighting life-threatening infections, Mr Lewis pulled through more than a dozen major operations to rebuild his body. Before amputating both of his legs above the knees, surgeons tried to salvage what remained of his big toes to create fingers on his mangled hands. They also sliced skin from his legs to patch up the end of his stumps where his legs had been amputated. Only some of it worked.

. . .

After spending eight months in hospital, including four months in a rehabilitation facility to learn how to sit up again and live in his new body, Mr Lewis now gets around in a wheelchair and teaches young people about the dangers of taking risks.

He is one of several presenters in the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s PARTY (Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth) program, which tries to teach teenagers aged 15 to 18 about the potential consequences of such incidents for them and their loved ones.

Once a fortnight, the hospital walks a group of students through its trauma, intensive care and rehabilitation units to show them the reality for people such as Mr Lewis who spend months trying to learn how to do simple things again.

“We set the scene so they understand what happens if you bang your brain, that it’s not quite like on television where you fall unconscious, wake up and keep going,” Professor Judson said.

“We don’t really stress death because kids are invincible and don’t really understand death … but if you show them what it would be like at their stage of life to live with a disability, that is very powerful.”

Kellie Liersch, the hospital’s trauma education co-ordinator, said the sights, sounds and smells of an intensive care unit can be particularly confronting for the uninitiated.

“We get a lot of fainters. A lot of people find it overwhelming,” she said.

There’s more at the link.

Good for Mr. Lewis for trying to use the consequences of his bad choices to do as much good as possible.  It’s too late to help him, but he may save many others from harm.

His story reminds me of my late father, who believed in the ‘School of Hard Knocks‘ as a great motivator.  When I wanted a motorcycle, at the tender age of about 15, he didn’t say ‘no’ immediately.  Instead, he took me to visit the Acute Spinal Cord Injury Unit, then based at Conradie Hospital in Cape Town.  (That hospital has since been closed, and the unit transferred to Groote Schuur Hospital.)  This was a specialist unit where spinal injuries causing paraplegia and quadriplegia were treated.

Many of the patients had been injured in motorcycle accidents, and some were willing to describe what had happened.  Some of the nurses showed me some very gory and disturbing pictures of what their patients had looked like, before they were scraped up from the asphalt and put back together into something resembling a human being once more.  (Nowadays, particularly in the USA, they’d never be allowed to do that due to patient privacy laws;  but back then, that wasn’t nearly as much of a factor.)

I learned from those young men, and the nurses, that I really wasn’t ready or able to control a large, powerful motorcycle.  I rode one later in life, but always carefully, after what I saw at Conradie Hospital.  I had only one (very minor) accident, which was entirely my own fault.  I came away from it uninjured, and learned from it.  Some years later, when I moved to a city with much heavier traffic, I reluctantly sold my motorcycle, as it was far too dangerous to ride it in traffic that neither looked for nor cared about those on less than four wheels.

I’m very glad I didn’t have to do the same thing as Mr. Lewis, and use myself as a living example of what not to do!



  1. I guess everybody has a story. Mine was a classmate that decided to build a pipe bomb and detonate it under some wrestling mats at school.

    He was successful; the bomb startled the school. Unfortunately his hand was still under the mats when it detonated.

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