From Thrill-Seeker to Role Model: The Aaron Baker Story


People have very individual ways of becoming aware of themselves, of reaching the moment when they think, 'What am I doing? There's got to be more to it than this.' For some, it happens as a result of social injustice they encounter growing up, either as victims, onlookers, or perpetrators. For others, it comes when they leave the shelter of home and experience more of the world first-hand. And for a few, it doesn't happen until way later on in life and they waste their life savings on a really fast, really small car which they proceed to drive with obnoxious abandon. But sometimes, fate hands someone an opportunity to gain the awareness they wouldn't otherwise have had, an opportunity that can initially seem like it takes away more than it gives. Aaron has had just one of those opportunities.

"He wouldn't fall, and he would go faster than anyone. When he did fall, he'd never get hurt. He had so little fear that he would be completely aware of every second; he could react so fast that he would never hurt himself," says his longtime friend Lindley Zerbe.

An adrenaline junkie from an early age, Aaron was into every extreme sport you can imagine, and in 1999, he became a professional motocross racer. Ranked 249th in the nation at age 20, Aaron was on his way up--until May of that year, when his life changed completely. As he remembers it:
"I can still feel the bike beneath me," the acceleration as I shift to third gear, my every muscle moving in perfect harmony with the machine, my mind focused only on the approaching obstacle which held my fate. Everything was perfect, I was a young man chasing a dream; racing a motorcycle and being paid for it was the best thing on earth. This all changed in the blink of an eye. As I hit the jump my bike hesitated for a split second, creating a spring effect with the suspension kicking me over the front of the bike. Instinctively, I tucked into a ball to roll out of injury. Upon impact of the ground, my head hit first, compressing my spine, breaking my neck. The echo of the fracture still haunts me. I can visualize every moment of the accident, my arms and legs flailing about in slow motion as I tumbled down the hill. I came to rest on my right side at the bottom of the hill. I lay there with my left hand directly in front of my face trying desperately to move it, thinking to myself, I just broke my neck, I can't feel my body, this is bad."
The morning after his accident, Aaron woke up aware that he had broken his neck and was paralyzed, but his mother asked the doctors not to tell him their diagnosis: that the likelihood of him regaining any function was one in a million. Unaware of the magnitude of the odds stacked against him, Aaron immediately set himself a goal: he was going to walk out of the hospital. Not only that, he was going to let his hair grow, and when he was discharged, he would walk into the hair salon and get it cut. Nurses who had to maintain and wash his hair constantly offered to cut it for him, but he remained resolute. He kept visualizing himself walking, regaining feeling and function, unaware that the doctors had predicted his chances as close to none. Perhaps not knowing this was what allowed him to achieve the impossible: to Aaron, it was perfectly plausible that he would walk again, it was just a matter of working on it until it happened.
He kept visualizing himself walking, regaining feeling and function, unaware that the doctors had predicted his chances as close to none. Perhaps not knowing this was what allowed him to achieve the impossible: to Aaron, it was perfectly plausible that he would walk again, it was just a matter of working on it until it happened.

"When I was in the ICU a month after the accident, my sister had painted my toenails all different colors, rainbow colors. I couldn't move my toes so as she was sitting there painting them... I'd visualize streams of light through my body, connecting my toes with my mind, trying to visualize movement. It all started with my left big toe, which was painted blue. I started wiggling my left big toe; I'd work on it day in and day out. It eventually moved from my left big toe to the muscle group on the inside of my left leg, and I started rotating my left leg a little bit...and then my left bicep. Then it just kind of went from my left side to my right side."

Aaron took his first step in four feet of water during a rehab session four and a half months after his accident. He progressed to full leg braces out of the water, and when he was discharged from the hospital a year later, he marked his first major milestone: with the assistance of his father and a crutch, he walked into a salon for a haircut.

However, it has not all been smooth sailing and constant progress since then. Aaron's first trip out of the hospital was a brutal reality check, making him aware that his life had changed drastically: he was no longer the fearless motocross racer, the social butterfly, the young man who rallied up all his friends to party. He was a recovering quadriplegic, and rehab was his life.
"We left without permission from the hospital and went to Santa Barbara; this is where most of my friends were going to school and i was a regular stomping ground of mine. The drive was nice, seeing the ocean for the first time since my hospitalization was revitalizing, and taking in all of the outside world at one time was a little overwhelming but much needed... until I hit Isle Vista. Hundreds of kids walk up and down Isle Vista Street in Santa Barbara every Friday and Saturday night, mingling and having a good time. I had always been the one to lead the group of friends from place to place, motivating them to have a good time, but not this night. Wheeling down Isle Vista in an electric wheel chair with a Philadelphia neck collar and minor movement throughout my body was a major change of pace. Friends were all happy to see me, asking me how I felt and how I was doing with rehab. I'm sure I answered with a smile but inside I was falling apart, eye level with everyone's butts, 110 pounds and not even able to move my neck. What the hell am I doing here?, I asked myself. I'm quadriplegic! A close friend walked with me to a quiet area, where I uncontrollably broke down. Throwing myself into society like that put me face to face with what I was really up against. The hospital was a welcome sight and at the time it felt like home. I entered the next day of therapy with a blazing fire inside, thinking I'll be damned if I go there like that again. From then on I thoroughly planned my outings and made sure I was physically and mentally ready for whatever I was going to do."
For the last two years, Aaron has devoted himself to rehabilitating his body. He met an award-winning trainer, Taylor Isaacs, at the Center of Achievement at Cal State Northridge and has worked with him to get to the point where he can now walk on his own, aided only by a single cane. His goals remain as lofty as they were when he lay paralyzed on his hospital bed two years ago and dreamed of walking. Aaron now wants to complete the L.A. marathon on a tandem bike with his friend Adam, and he's working towards the day when his time with won't be spent doing rehab in the gym, but instead, running around on a soccer field together. Aaron cites the story of a man who broke his neck in the 1970's with the same injury level as him. The man was written off as a quadriplegic. It took him three and a half years to learn to walk, and seventeen years to run. He now regularly competes in marathons as well as the Ironman Triathlons.

"I see myself doing extraordinary things, because in overcoming a tragedy, whatever I do feels extraordinary. I know that in time I'll be able to achieve my goals in whatever I choose to do. I'm not going to bite off more than I can chew, but I'll take it one step at a time and see how far I can go."

In many ways, Aaron sees his accident as a blessing. The change in lifestyle, philosophy, and perspective prompted by his accident gave him a much-needed reality check. Growing up, Aaron was a self-confessed 'wild child. He would leap off of the roof of his house to scare the pizza man and bungee jump off of bridges with self-made harnesses. His peers saw him as invincible.
Aaron insists that he is different now than he was before his accident. But, we have to wonder, did Aaron change as a person? Or does the intensity, courage and focus that took him to the ranks of professional motocross, just have another outlet, now?

"[When] I had this accident, I was on the road to winning championships in motocross, but that's about it. You can only go so far with that kind of lifestyle. It's so... not real. I feel way more connected to life itself, and the meaning of everything now."

Many people who know Aaron insist that he is different now than he was before his accident. But, we have to wonder, did Aaron change as a person? Or does the intensity, courage and focus that took him to the ranks of professional motocross, just have another outlet now?

Maybe the difference is in the way he can now relate with and see other people's struggles as well as his own. This year he spoke about his experiences with rehabilitation at a national conference. He is also planning to start working as a counselor for the Tailor- Made Foundation. His long term goal is to open a rehab facility in the Monterey Bay Area, where his family lives.

While society gives most young people a message that they're invincible, and resilient, Aaron lives each day with the first-hand knowledge that it only takes a second for it to all vanish. He invests in each moment unabashedly, and his way of living makes you realize that being alive right now is a very special privilege.

If you liked this story, also check out:
People with Disabilities Get Dissed: A young woman responds to a supreme court case that weakens the ADA, Logan Perkes, WireTap February 27, 2001

Some good links to check out:
Disability Cool

The Center for an Accessible Society

Ragged Edge Magazine

If you'd like more information on the Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled at CalState Northridge, their phone number is (818)-677-2182.

Risa Okamoto is the marketing and outreach coordinator for WireTap Magazine.

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