Nanaimo students encouraged to make smart choices

NANAIMO – John Westhaver shares graphic and personal story with Dover Bay Secondary School students

People make choices every day – some are small, like medium or dark roast coffee, and some change lives forever.

John Westhaver was 18 years old when he and his friends made choices that affected not only them, but their friends and family in tragic ways.

Westhaver shared his story with a few hundred Grade 12 students at Dover Bay Secondary School Thursday, and earlier at Nanaimo District Secondary School, as part of an ICBC-sponsored speakers series aimed at helping prevent drunk driving and car crashes among youth.

“I want to make sure 18 years from now, you are not standing in my shoes,” Westhaver said.

His talk began at the back of the darkened room, a photo of his 18-year-old self projected on a large screen. Students craned their necks, trying to identify the voice in the dark. When he walked to the front of the room, into the light, the students were shocked.

It was less of a shock than Westhaver’s parents received when they met a police officer at a New Brunswick hospital after learning of their son’s car crash.

“He had to prepare them because I was badly burned and horribly disfigured,” Westhaver said.

Over the past 18 years since the car crash, Westhaver endured 30-40 surgeries to rebuild his face and graft skin to burned areas.

His story starts like that of many teens heading out for some pre-graduation fun on a typical weekend – he and his buddies Jimmy, Jason and Aaron picked up some beer, hopped in the car and drove to the next town to play some pool and flirt with girls.

Although Westhaver said he regularly got blackout drunk, the friends decided Jimmy would be designated driver that night and he stayed sober.

The rest didn’t, cracking beers during the drive and behaving like drunk teens do.

“[Jimmy’s] trying to drive while all this commotion is going on,” Westhaver said.

They took a pit stop halfway home, cracking fresh beers and getting back on the road. It’s the last thing Westhaver remembers.

“The next thing I remember is slowly opening my eyes – I was in so much pain,” he said.

He couldn’t talk with the breathing tube in his throat, but he was told he suffered first to fourth-degree burns over 75 per cent of his body. He wasn’t expected to live.

He learned later that Jimmy got his car up to 140 km/h and took a severe corner without slowing down to the posted speed limit of 90 km/h.

“There was no way Jimmy could’ve made that corner at that speed,” Westhaver said.

The car rolled, ejecting Jimmy – who wasn’t wearing seat-belt – killing him instantly. After travelling end over end, the car slammed into a telephone pole and burst into flames. Westhaver escaped – how, he doesn’t know – while his two friends died.

“They were screaming for someone to pull them out of that burning wreck,” he said.

What followed for Westhaver was a long, painful recovery physically and an even more challenging one emotionally.

“There were times – many times – when I wanted to die,” he said.

He credits his family with getting him through the physical pain and the pain of losing his three best friends.

“My best friend was killed and I was left behind,” Westhaver said. “But my family was there and they helped me get through it.”

He told the students he was OK with standing out and with people staring, which offers him the chance to tell his story and encourage people to consider their choices. To say nothing while his friend sped into a dangerous curve or refrain from encouraging him to wear his seat-belt are choices he hopes the Dover Bay students don’t make.

“It’s simple, but it’s not always easy,” Westhaver said.

Grade 12 student Shaelyn Rice said that while she and her friends don’t drink or use drugs, they do drive, sometimes late at night.

“It was a rather shocking story,” she said. “And it does make me think about my friends.

“Those small choices – they can change your life really bad.”

Students can share their good choices with Westhaver by tweeting @jmmspeaking and using the hashtag #choices2012.

arts@nanaimobulletin.com