Coast Mental Health's Courage To Come Back Awards presented by Silver Weaton takes place May 16. John Westhaver will join five other recipients on the stage at the Vancouver convention centre as 1,500 people salute what current chair Lorne Segal calls "the miracles of every day life."
Growing up in the small border town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, John Westhaver was a typical teenager in the 1990s. He listened “alternative” bands such as Tool, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails, but he couldn’t quite shake his hair-sprayed love of ’80s metal acts Poison, Twisted Sister and, naturally, Ratt.
Westhaver was big for his age, which helped him on the wrestling team. He was the second youngest of eight kids, had lots of friends and was known for helping others and for his fun-loving demeanor. His life, to use the parlance of the day, rocked.
Then in 1994, six weeks before graduating from high school, life took a tragic turn.
Westhaver and three friends had driven to another town 45 minutes away to check out a pool hall they had heard about. Although Westhaver and the other two passengers had been drinking, the driver had not. On the way home, while Westhaver rode shotgun, the vehicle skidded off the road and exploded in flames, killing everyone but him.
Doctors informed his parents that their son wasn’t going to make it — his body was starting to shut down from the severity of the burns that covered 75 per cent of his body. To reduce the pain, doctors put him into a drug-induced coma. After he survived the first few days, doctors began operating, first to reduce the infection caused by the burns, then to start reconstruction.
Westhaver wouldn’t learn of these harrowing details until a month later when he woke up staring at a ceiling he didn’t recognize, in a town he didn’t live in, wrapped up “like a mummy,” with his broken arm outstretched in a splint.
“I’m this carefree, fun-loving teenager, just getting used to my body, thought I was pretty good looking kid, dressed a certain way, had all these superficial concerns like all teenagers,” recalls Westhaver. “Then I wake up and I’m in a hospital room… and I’m just really scared. I have no idea what’s going on.”
After two-and-half months, Westhaver returned home in the dead heat of summer, covered in bandages. Nurses would come to his home to change his dressings twice a day, which felt like being peeled alive.
And while the accident took an unfathomable physical toll on Westhaver, the emotional scars were equally deep — at least initially.
Westhaver says he felt angry for being the only survivor of the accident, focusing his anger on the driver of the vehicle, his friend Jimmy. He was also angry at the nurses and doctors when an operation didn’t go well. He underwent more than 35 cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries over the years — some successful, others not.
“I was just angry and I hated everything. I hated life,” says Westhaver.
The turning point came when his father sat him down one day and told him he had a choice. He could either be angry or he could forgive.
“[My dad told me] you can sit around and sulk and be angry with the world, but it’s not going to help you out. And he really had me get the forgiveness piece, because I was able to forgive Jimmy and everyone in the car. I was able to let go of the anger.”
His father also helped him accept his appearance after the accident.
“When he helped me realize that no matter what the doctors do, I’m never going to look the same again — it’s not realistic — and the sooner that I deal with that the better it is…. that helped tremendously in my recovery.”
In fact, Westhaver credits his entire family for helping him get back on his feet and into the world.
“I think one of the reasons that I am the person I am today and I recovered the way I did is because my family didn’t treat me differently,” says Westhaver. “They said, ‘Sure John, you’re burnt, you look different, but you’re still the same John on the inside and you still have to take out the garbage.’ You still have to have get up, you still have to move on, you’ve got to do stuff. My sister Karen was always making sure I was in the public eye and I wasn’t stuck home sulking. Not that sulking is always bad, but she was committed that I get through this and deal with it, and the best way is through practice, getting out there, dealing with it hands on.”
And get out there he did. Westhaver enrolled in college and became a computer repair technician. A few years later, he travelled to Victoria by bus to visit his brother who was stationed at the Canadian Forces Base in Esquimalt. Westhaver liked B.C.’s capital so much he decided to stay. That was 17 years ago. Since then he has dedicated his life to helping others — volunteering with the Burn Survivor Group of Victoria, the Firefighters Burn Fund and as a full-time public speaker, talking to high school students across the country about road safety and motivation. To date, he has given close to 600 talks and is currently on a five-week speaking tour.
While in Victoria he also started dating for the first time since high school, though he never lost hope in finding someone to share his life with.
“My hands were badly burnt… But the only finger on my hands that wasn’t burnt was my ring finger,” says Westhaver. “And so here I am, there’s one finger that’s not damaged, so that must mean something. And that’s what I held onto.”
He met his future wife online and they married 11 years ago. Six and half months ago, they had their first daughter, Abigail.
“Wow… life changes,” says Westhaver when asked about becoming a parent. “It changes for the better. And you realize your life lives on beyond yourself.”
Already a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, he describes the Courage To Come Back Award as “a big high five.”
“It’s a big ‘you’re doing good work and you’re on the right track.’ It’s just an awesome feeling. I don’t do what I do to get an award — I do it to make a difference. And to get an award like this here is just a huge confirmation that I’m doing good.”
As for what he’d like people to take away from his story and what he’s overcome, he says it’s pretty simple.
“As great as I look, as good as I look, it doesn’t hold me back,” Westhaver says with a laugh. “Your life is your life. Don’t let people control your life. Don’t let other people tell you how you’re supposed to feel. On the flipside, don’t stop living because you had a traumatic event happen to you, or don’t stop living because someone said no or you didn’t get the promotion or didn’t get the new car or someone rejected you. Stand inside yourself and get that you’re awesome in who you are, and you’ve got everything you need to get through life. And to own your own life. For me, I don’t give away my power. I seek to please people, but when everything is said and done, I get to control my life. I get to say if I’m going to have a good or bad day.”
With that kind of attitude, Westhaver’s good days far outnumber his bad ones. In fact, when asked to describe his life today Westhaver sounds like that fun-loving, carefree high school kid back in St. Stephen who has his entire life ahead him.
“I’ve to got say my life rocks — my life literally rocks,” Westhaver says. “I’ve got an extraordinary wife, a newborn baby. I have awesome family. I have awesome friends. I have an awesome career. I live in an amazing place. We own our own house. So yeah, my life rocks and I’m just in love with life. I wake up and bounce out of bed and say, ‘Hey, what’s up today?’”
For details on the Courage To Come Back Awards, go to couragetocomeback.ca.