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DU students Jesse Martin, Joe Monteith tell how to overcome adversity at TEDxDU Xpress

When Jesse Martin was lying on the ice, thinking he was paralyzed after a devastating hit in a hockey game, the DU standout said everything important to him in life ran through his mind — and hockey was not one of them.

“I’m not saying hockey isn’t important to me because I’ve played the game for 18 years and I absolutely love competing and being part of a team — especially this team that I was on, but what went through my mind was my family, being able to take care of myself, being able to have a family, have a kid and teaching my kid how to skate,” Martin explained Jan. 20 at the first TEDxDU Xpress luncheon.

The TEDxDU Xpress series — organized by DU students — is a branch of TED, a nonprofit devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” Martin was the first of two speakers on the topic of “overcoming adversity.”

Martin described to a hushed crowd what happened after he was slammed by North Dakota forward Brad Malone during the Oct. 30 game in Grand Forks, N.D.

“It was about 20 seconds until the trainer came, and those 20 seconds felt like two hours to me,” Martin recalled. “Being alone and not being able to move and thinking to yourself [that] you broke your neck or back is probably the scariest feeling I’ll ever feel and I really hope no one will ever have to go through that.”

As Martin was placed on a stretcher, he heard a loud crack. When he looked up at the emergency medical technician and asked if he heard the noise, the technician had turned white.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this guy is going to faint on me,’” Martin said. “So I pretty much told him ‘Stay with me,’ so it went from me being scared to me being really scared that two of us would go in the ambulance.”

An MRI showed that Martin had broken his C2 vertebra in three places. His doctors were shocked he was still alive. Of those that break a vertebra as Martin did, 98 percent die instantly. Of the 2 percent who survive, 98–99 percent become quadriplegic. Martin survived because a small bone chip got stuck in between two vertebrae, which kept his spinal cord from severing.

After the hit, Martin was airlifted from Grand Forks to a hospital in Minneapolis, where doctors recommended fusing his neck as the safest way to treat his injury. His father intervened at the last second and asked for a second opinion. Martin and his family were encouraged to consider other procedures, and, 10 days after the accident, Martin underwent surgery at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minn. It was another stroke of luck for the DU senior, because Regions was one of only five hospitals in North America that could perform the surgery and it was 20 minutes away.

“Whether you want to call it luck or faith or whatever, it was on my side.”

Two days after surgery, Martin was able to take two steps. Today, he’s wearing a neck brace, attending class and is just two quarters away from graduating. And he says playing hockey again hasn’t been completely ruled out.

DU senior and hockey standout Jesse Martin addressed the first TEDxDU Xpress luncheon on Jan. 20.

“There were all these people that came into my [hospital] room that said they felt so sorry for me — that happened daily — and for me that was the last thing I wanted to hear,” Martin said. “Everyone was so focused on what I didn’t have. I didn’t look at it like hockey was taken away from me. The way I looked at it was that my life was given to me. I didn’t for one second feel sorry for myself because I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.”

But for him, his luck has also been his biggest struggle, a fact that hit hardest when he started physical therapy at Denver’s Craig Hospital.

“To be able to walk into that [therapy] room should have felt unbelievable — as I said, my life was given to me — but I quickly realized I was the only patient that walked in that therapy room and that was something extremely difficult for me to handle,” he said. “I would go through my therapy and I’m doing lunges and squats and I’m looking over and someone is learning how to control their wheelchair … I would think to myself and say, ‘Why on Earth did I get this gift when there are moms and dads and sons and all these great people that weren’t so fortunate?’”

Martin was followed by another DU student with a much different set of obstacles to overcome. Joe Monteith, a second-year student studying economics, is the first felon to be accepted to DU in 12 years.

Monteith spent five years in a federal prison after being charged with dealing cocaine.

“I’ve been shot at, I’ve been stabbed with a beer bottle, I’ve been jumped about 12 times, I’ve gotten my teeth knocked out about six different times and it was all a construct to the choices I made and what I did to people,” Monteith said. “If you treat people poorly, you’ll get treated poorly. If you treat people properly, then you can get treated properly. That’s the concept and it took a long time to figure this out.”

After he stopped blaming everyone else for his problems — his parents, his surroundings, the system — that’s when his life started to turn around, he explained. He never learned how to read or write, so when he was in prison he started studying the dictionary with another inmate.

Teaching himself taught him his most important lesson: “No one owed me anything. I realized it was up to me to get what I want in this world. It’s not about the situation you are in, but what you do with the situation that makes it so great.”

After being released from prison in 2007, Monteith went to a halfway house, got a job and started community college. Now he’s at DU on a full-ride scholarship and is the lead discipline tutor for DU’s Learning Effectiveness Program.




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