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Making the right choices

Ten years ago, John Westhaver made a bad choice. He decided to get into the car of a friend who was driving way too fast. The driver failed to negotiate a corner travelling 140 km-h, spun out of control and crashed.

Ten years ago, John Westhaver made a bad choice. He decided to get into the car of a friend who was driving way too fast. The driver failed to negotiate a corner travelling 140 km-h, spun out of control and crashed.

The horrific accident killed the driver and two passengers, and left Westhaver, who narrowly escaped death, to deal with the resulting tragedy. He later awoke in a coma with life-threatening burns covering 75 per cent of his body.

"I nearly died on the operating table three times that night," said Westhaver, 28. "But I was lucky - I got out."

The accident left lifetime mental and physical scars for Westhaver, who has now turned the tragic event into an emotional and educational lesson that he shares with thousands of students all across North America. At Don Ross Secondary on Tuesday night, he talked to a roomful of students and members of the 835 Griffin Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron.

During his presentation, Westhaver shares the lessons he learned from making one wrong decision that has changed his life forever.

"This wasn't something that I chose to do - this was reality and I had to deal with it."

Westhaver has been dealing with it every single day for the past 10 years. He has undergone 30 different surgeries and has unmistakable burn scars on his head, arms, hands, face, neck ,ears, chest, shoulders and stomach. After the accident, his bandages had to be changed twice every day, an excruciatingly painful process which Westhaver recalls in his presentation.

"It was hell," he said. "All I wanted to do was die. I thought I lost my identity. I though there was no reason to live."

But incredibly, by turning the harsh reality of daily life as a burn victim and an accident survivor who lost his best friend and two others, Westhaver has found that there are many reasons to live.

"I always had a smile on my face and I still do - you gotta have fun no matter what you do. My entire physical image was changed, but I like it. I'm different now and I want to be. I like who I am. I realized that underneath the scars and bandages I was still the same guy."

Throughout the 90-minute long presentation, Westhaver recounts the moments leading up to the crash. It was just a typical night out with the boys. Three of them had been drinking at a local pool hall (the driver stayed sober) and they were having a great time. He thought about his upcoming graduation, his friends, and what they were going to do later on that night.

"I thought I was invincible because I was a regular teenage guy," said Westhaver. "But my life was changed forever in one moment. Why? Because I made the choice of getting into a car with someone who was speeding. I missed out on my high school graduation - everything. Just because I made the wrong choice."

Making the right choices is the central theme of Westhaver's presentation, and is what he hopes students will learn from him.

"By giving them the education of making the right choices - that's what will help them to make the right decisions," he said. "Once you provide them with the education about making the right choices, then they'll be able to make decisions on their own - and that's where respect comes in."

After hearing what Westhaver has gone through, respect was overflowing among the students in the crowd.

"It's a real shocker to see someone who's had first-hand experience from a car crash," said Warrant Officer Jonathan Fraser, who was in attendance for the presentation. "When you actually see someone who's been injured by an accident it really opens your eyes."

Although Westhaver has been through an unbelievable amount of physical pain and countless surgical procedures, he doesn't dwell on the negative aspect of the accident.

"It's not about me, it's about the kids," he said. "I've already dealt with the pain and suffering - it's my time to start giving back."

And he does plenty of that. Westhaver has been giving presentations for a year and a half now, and each time it provides him with the feeling that he is making a difference in the lives of teens.

"It's very rewarding because I see an impact and I'm able to help other kids out," he said. "if I can help just one kid to make the right choice, then all of this has been worth it."

Don Ross Secondary Grade 7 student Mark Shillito seemed to have gotten the message. After the presentation, Shillito said, "I think he's still going through a lot of pain because he lost his friends. It's great what he's doing to let others know what he felt and what he went through, and he wants us to think about making good choices."

John Westhaver can be reached at (250) 889-5646, or by visiting his website at

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