Editor’s Note: Thirty-six-year-old Aaron Baker of Valencia, California, sums up the type person he’s been his entire life with one word: athlete. Baker has captured the mental, emotional and spiritual essence of a true athlete and says, “Although I’ve been highly successful racing motocross and cycling, the most important part of my life is today and making it the best day ever.” A new film, Coming to My Senses, captures Baker’s 15-year journey to regain movement.
Aaron’s Lifelong Passion for Motorcycles
My passion for motorcycles began when I got my first pee wee motorcycle Christmas, 1981, when I was 3. My family had ridden motorcycles in years past. At age 5, I started racing on a flat track. I soon had many trophies bigger than me.
But when I was 9, I had an accident, and my mom made me quit racing and put a guitar in my hand instead. Mom was an importer of Asian antiques and Persian rugs, and I traveled all over the world with her.
Then when I was 12, my dad took me to a motocross race, and I wanted to race again. My mom told me, “You can get back into racing, if you’ll sign a contract with me to maintain a 3.0 average in school and play music.” I signed the contract and upheld my end.
For me, riding a motorcycle, jumping over jumps and sliding my bike around corners was easier than walking, although I broke my leg a couple of times and my collar bone. Then in 1995, I was the Amateur National Champion, the Amateur International Grand Champion and the Youth World Champion. I turned professional in late 1998 with my first big sponsor, Fox Racing, the company making all kinds of protective riding gear for motocross racers. I’m still sponsored by Fox today.
Engine Failure Caused Baker to Become a Quadriplegic
Late in the afternoon of May 26, 1999, I was working on my Suzuki racing bike’s rebuilt motor. The engine was cutting out. While testing the bike, I approached a big jump at full throttle in fourth gear running wide open – about 50 mph. Just as I hit the top of the jump, the motorcycle cut off, catapulting me over the handlebars, and I flew about 80 feet in the air. I knew I didn’t want to land on my feet and break my legs. So, I over-rotated, tucked my body into a ball, landed on top of my head and actually heard my neck break.
My entire body went completely numb. Although I was barely breathing, I thought, “Crap, this is really bad. I just broke my neck!” I whispered to everyone, “Don’t touch me; don’t remove my helmet; call the paramedics; and get a helicopter to come get me.” Then I told the paramedics, “Don’t worry about anything except my neck’s broken.” I broke the C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae in my neck. Once on the backboard and in the helicopter, the only thing I could think of was, “Breathe, Aaron.”
At Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Cal., I still had my helmet on and couldn’t feel anything. A nurse showed me a pin, and I said, “Go ahead, and poke me.” She answered, “We’ve already been poking you.” I woke up a few days later as a complete quadriplegic. Later, I learned that the doctors had used a butterfly plate and screws to fuse my neck internally, had completely rebuilt my C5 vertebra with a cadaver bone and then tied all this erector set together with metal plates and screws.
My mother brought me a CD player that played music and ambient sounds like rain forests, rivers, water and monks chanting to transport me out of my body and that place. I also meditated and visualized. When I was hurt, my mother gave up her business, walked away from her life, lived in the hospital, and liquidated her assets to help care for me. She never looked back.
Baker Discovers What’s Important in Life
Six days later I had respiratory failure and had a profound experience that changed my perspective. I realized that everything I thought I knew and considered to be important really wasn’t.
The physical reality around my body started to dissolve, and I recognized I was connected to the infinite. I experienced a bliss hard to describe. I was in spirit form with a great deal of understanding, immediately recognizing life’s futility, its’ fleeting nature of life and what was really important.
As I was resuscitated and brought back to life, I understood I’d been put on this earth to share my time and love with others. My mission was to give those things away – something I still do today.
After that experience, I made a decision to work as hard as I could to heal my body from my injury, regardless of how difficult the work.
I realized the only way I could repay my family and doctors for their energy, love and time they gave me was to work as hard as possible to heal myself.
As I rehabbed, I became grateful for any form of progress my body made, for relationships and for the time I spent with caring people.
A Spark of Progress Fueled Baker’s Hope
The first signs of progress occurred when my left big toe twitched. The doctors had told my mom and dad that my chance of even feeding myself was one in a million. I knew what my condition was. Since I already had died clinically with respiratory failure, I realized my life could be taken away at any time. I focused on each day I had to live and worked hard to recover whatever mobility I could. I felt I’d been given my life back.
I soon saw how my dedication and my willingness to work hard inspired my family and my close friends. If I portrayed the role of a victim and succumbed to this injury, my friends and family would be affected negatively. By sharing with my family and friends what I learned by going through a death experience, their lives became better.
Often we take for granted the incredible miracle of life, and that we’re allowed to live it. I learned if I could show through my words and through my actions what the human spirit was capable of, then my time here on earth would be well spent and worthwhile.
One of the greatest competitions I ever entered was competing against myself to get back the function I’d lost. My brain and my body told me I couldn’t, but my spirit and my work ethic told me I could. I learned the brain had the ability to make the body do what it didn’t want to do.
My sister had painted each of my toenails a different color, to aggravate me. But then my left blue big toe moved when I concentrated all my energy on it.
The ability to visualize an action or an event and then make that visualization become a reality was a basic and very critical part of my training as a motocross rider and then to make my body do what I wanted it to do. My big toe moving was more exciting than winning a motocross race. Once we recognize the miracles that take place around us, we can live happier and more thankful lives.
Next, my left leg twitched, I was able to shrug my shoulders, and then I saw my left bicep contract some over weeks, months and years of hard work. After 6 months of inpatient therapy, I could sit up with plenty of bracing, abdominal binders and supportive equipment. Later, I could stand in 4 feet of water, and the water therapy helped my recovery.
Baker Surprised His Doctors But Not Himself
My doctors were dumbfounded at how much progress I had made at regaining function. I realized that a doctor’s prognosis was based on general statistics and not wanting to give a patient false hope. But I think perhaps a better way to tell a patient his or her prognosis is:
- pursue a life of health and wellness,
- move your body as it’s intended to be moved,
- take into consideration good nutritional practices and
- allow your body to rest when it needs to rest,
then I can tell you that your body and bones will degenerate. But if you take care of and build up your body, I can’t tell you what your outcome may be.”
No one knows what an individual with spirit, a work ethic and drive to rebound from a tragic injury can regain.
I’m a strong believer in goal setting. While in the hospital, my hair grew irritatingly long, and I set a goal to walk into a barber shop for a haircut. A year later, I was in a body brace, wore leg braces and used a walker, but my dad helped me shuffle through the door of a barber shop. Other goals I wanted to achieve were to hold a pencil and write, feed and dress myself and become independent.
I started riding a stationary bicycle and next rode a tandem bicycle with my mother in marathons. One day I said. “I should ride this tandem bicycle across the country like Forest Gump.” For 3 years, my mom and I planned, trained, raised money and talked to sponsors about a cross country tandem bicycle ride from San Diego, Cal., to St. Augustine, Florida – 3,182 miles. In 2007, “The Rise above Tour” took us off the beaten path to rural towns where we made presentations to medical clinics and rehabilitation hospitals.
Baker Redefined Himself as an Athlete
After my injury, I wanted to define myself as an athlete, feel my body working and getting better, tell about what I’d learned and the experience I had when I died and share the satisfaction that came through suffering, physically exerting myself and giving all my effort to the process of getting better. An athlete subjects his body to discipline that causes his body to do more than it thinks it can.
When you give all your effort to a process required to achieve a goal, you find out what your spirit is really made of, who you are, and what you can do. In the process of testing myself, my body was healing itself, gaining strength physically and emotionally.
I started riding a bicycle I’d built from carbon fiber and lightweight titanium with two wheels in the back and one in the front. My mother and I took another bike tour in 2008 and rode 4,102 miles from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Then the U.S. Paralympics committee contacted me about racing that bike in the International Class at the Paralympics.
In 2009, I began training with the Paralympics team, went to three national championships and won a national championship in 2011. I enjoyed training and competing as an elite athlete again – racing, eating, sleeping and training. But being an athlete was an ongoing process of victories and defeats. Two days before I was to fly to Rome, Italy, for the World Championships, I got a bladder infection and had to go to the hospital, causing me to miss the trip.
Baker’s New Focus on C.O.R.E.
With all my training, I was doing more harm to my body than I was helping it. I wasn’t able to walk very well or progressing in other ways. Yes, everyone has goals and expectations for themselves, however, sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way you wish.
I closed the chapter on motocross and cycling after learning many lessons. Today I’ve shifted my focus in a different direction to C.O.R.E. (Center of Restorative Exercise), a niche gym that fills the gap between traditional rehabilitation and an average gym. When someone has had a catastrophic injury or a debilitating condition, insurance companies only will provide for a limited amount of rehabilitation before discharging you.
My mother and I knew the need for this type facility. In 2011, we decided to build the gym and develop the program with Taylor Kevin-Isaacs, a professor of kinesiology at a local university and an exercise physiologist. We’ve developed our own proprietary system of exercise that we’ve have named restorative exercise that isn’t physical therapy. It’s based on the science of human movement. We work with individuals with all types of disabilities, which statistics have shown is one in five Americans.
The Journey to the Big Screen Begins Now
A director, Dominic Gill, and a producer, Nadia Boctor, both with Encompass Films, learned about my story and documented some of my training to get ready for the Paralympics. We struck up a great relationship, and they wanted to make a film about my story.
When I couldn’t go to the Paralympics, I decided to walk 20 miles across Death Valley – an exercise in managing my time, energy, risk, body awareness, hydration and body temperature. I’d have to practice everything I’d learned about myself physically, psychologically and emotionally. On flat surfaces, I covered 3 or 4 miles per day but on a mountain, I only could go a mile.
According to Boctor, “The movie Encompass Films, that specializes in sports and adventure filming with some type of social context to them, is producing about Aaron is ‘Coming to My Senses’ (www.tomysenses.com). Adventure is critical to happiness and well-being, and we want to feature social inclusion for people in wheelchairs. Our films are featured in film festival tours in the U.S. and around the world, appear on international TV and reach about 2 million people.
Aaron’s film also will be available digitally for downloading. We’re using Crowdfunding to help finance the film and to allow people to participate in the funding of the film and feel a part of the process. Major movie makers don’t produce many movies about people with disabilities. And we want to be proactive in showing many of the things people with disabilities can do and help change the perception of people about this community. Even if an individual only donates $1, they’re saying they want to see this film made and aired. Our goal is to keep filming and editing and finish the summer of 2016.”
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.