When I contacted Brad Hurtig, a TEDx, safety, and motivational speaker, about interviewing him for this article, he was using his COVID-19 lockdown time to do some remodeling. Pretty standard, as many others were doing the same, except Brad had lost both of his hands (one just above the elbow and the other just above the wrist) in a factory accident when he was just 17 years old. But that’s just Brad. He doesn’t let people’s expectations get in the way of his capabilities. And this is exactly why I reached out to him.
My friends, it’s not easy right now for any of us. Six months ago already feels like the nostalgic good ol’ days. But it is my hope that Brad’s insights, gained from extreme pain and loss, will encourage each of us to be more compassionate, dedicated and determined, regardless of what we are facing. His talks center on his trademarked phrase, Find A Way. However, we will be focusing on other parts of his story which provide more timely advice.
Even if it’s all about you, maybe it shouldn’t be
On the night Brad lost both of his hands, he knew his world was forever changed. He had been a varsity starter for football, basketball, and baseball. Now what? Would he even be capable of playing sports again? While he was still digesting these jarring thoughts, he remained present to those around him. His twin, Chris, and their best friend, Keenan, had been working beside him at the factory when the accident occurred. It was Keenan who had pressed the button after they had yelled “clear.” Keenan’s dad, Kreg, was the factory owner. Each of these lives were irrevocably touched in that one moment, not just Brad’s. So, as he was being taken back by the hospital personnel, he told Kreg that it wasn’t his fault. It was an accident, and he wanted Chris and Keenan to know that, too. “I’ll never forget, laying on that gurney that night and seeing that expression on Kreg’s face. That bothered me. I wanted to show I was strong, that I could handle it and things were all going to be OK. There was no sense in making everyone more upset than they already were.” This determination to show strength, even in his brokenness, was fuel for his recovery. Later, when Chris struggled with guilt and didn’t want to leave the house, Brad wouldn’t accept it. Since they had done everything together, it was natural that Chris felt alone, but that didn’t stop Brad from calling him out. He expected Chris to get back on the football field and worked hard to join him soon.
Find people who will push you until it hurts… and keep pushing
“You want something to drink? If you’re thirsty enough, you’ll find a way.” That was the football coach’s response to Brad’s request for water. And after initially being baffled by this unsympathetic response, Brad proceeded to drop to his knees, pick up that water bottle with his arms, open it with his teeth, and squirt the water into his mouth.
But that was just the beginning. Those coaches helped Brad discover his new boundaries. Once he was through the haze of trauma and medication, there was still the fact that if he didn’t learn to adjust his movements then there was a risk that impact (which there is a lot of in sports like football) could force the bone through his skin. Part of this alteration involved his coaches throwing passes that were out of Brad’s reach just so he could dive for them and learn how to maneuver his new body. It hurt, and missing catches was frustrating, but his coaches’ goal wasn’t for him to catch. They were doing the necessary groundwork that made it so he could regain his position as starting linebacker, record 111 tackles in one season, and receive all-state honors.
Don’t waste the pain
“I have the privilege of speaking to companies all across the U.S., sharing my story. It is my hope and desire to encourage employees to embrace a safety mindset.” It’s been over 18 years since that accident, and from the beginning Brad has been inspiring and challenging people. Apart from his TEDx talk, he is a motivational speaker at schools. He tours companies and talks to employees on what he refers to as The Why, The What, and The How of workplace safety. Because his personal story is so traumatic and his recovery so astounding, he is able to use it to make people stop and listen. He does this because his amazing recovery does not change one simple fact: this is an accident that never should have happened. He should still have both of his hands. That is what motivates him to continue his outreach for safety — to save others from going through what he experienced and having to relearn how to do even the simple things, such as brushing teeth, getting dressed, or making lunch.
For me, the wonderful thing about Brad’s story is his brutal honesty. In his talks he removes his prosthetics and allows the audience to see what is left of his arms. He is very blunt about the agony he went through and the trauma. He weaves humor into his storytelling, like the initially-terrifying-and-now-hilarious story of when his prosthetics detached from his arms while riding an ATV, nearly causing a serious accident. He removes all barriers and helps us experience his struggles, not as a victim of fate, but by inviting us on his campaign to push boundaries, challenge people’s expectations of us, and fight for safety.
None of us will leave this life without experiencing some life-changing trauma — whether it’s disease, loss of a loved one, violence, or an accident. Nor will we handle our trauma perfectly. However, Brad and people who have shown strength in times of adversity can help us learn and prepare. And when fate determines it is our turn, we can hope to come out on the other side braver, more compassionate, and more resilient.
Jacquelyn Adams is a career development enthusiast and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, delving into more effective employee training strategies… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.
Becky Pocratsky recently started working as a freelance editor and writer. She works from home with her two sweet (loud, energetic, help me!) daughters. Also she is a super geek who went to Hobbiton on her honeymoon.