Many Miracles: the John Cairns story of Tragedy and Triumph
BY SHARON HARRISON
Most individuals don’t get the opportunity to climb a mountain in a lifetime; some try and are unsuccessful, but most don’t even try. Belleville resident John Cairns tried and made it. On August 7, 2016, he successfully summited Mount Kilimanjaro in east Africa, the world’s tallest free-standing mountain at almost 20,000ft. In 2018, his goal was Mount Everest base camp, nearly 18,000ft. another endeavour successfully undertaken. He speaks to the Highway of Heroes Bike Ride he recently completed from Belleville to Toronto – all 220 kilometres– plus the training required. He competed in Dancing with the Stars Quinte in 2016, where a back flip was just part of the routine. He swam the Bay of Quinte. He scuba dives and sky dives, he is a golfer and a snow-boarder. John Cairns will tell you he is not a mountaineer, he is not a cyclist, he is not a sky diver, a scuba diver, a swimmer or a dancer, yet he is all of those things, and so much more.
For an ordinary individual to undertake any of these activities would be considered remarkable. While Cairns may be described as an over-achiever, a goal-seeking individual with something to prove, maybe to himself and others, his efforts, his feats and goals are all the more remarkable because Cairns is a double-amputee. Twenty-seven years ago at the age of 26, he lost his right arm and right leg in a catastrophic workplace accident in a train yard in Toronto. The day began as usual, but ended when he was literally run over by a railway car. Cairns had just come off a shift when he was asked to take another four or five hours. He says he recalls thinking the extra income would be helpful.
“I kissed my wife goodbye and I said I’ll see you at three. And three never came,” he says. “At 11.34 am on a crisp windy cold day, I was hit and run over by a rail car.” Cairns describes how at that moment in time, his dreams, hopes, ambitions, were instantly shattered, and everything he thought he was evaporated. “It became like grains of sand slipping through my fingers, everything just slowly vanished.”
It was 30th November, 1992, he was working on a process called shunting in which a single rail car, weighing 68 tons, had to be moved. It’s a process that occurs every day and there is nothing unusual about it, until that is, he saw the rail car coming down a track where people were working. Cairns knew he had to get to the car before it went down the wrong track and possibly into people and he was able to “run to the car and stop it, everything was fine.” But then the very rail car Cairns was on was struck by another car. “I was not braced for impact, I was not aware of the imminent threat right behind me.” Cairns ruefully notes he was one step away from turning around and getting off the car. “One step away,” he repeats. He describes the impact as incredibly abrupt. “I remember thinking to myself, I am lined up with the wheels and wherever the wheels touch, if it doesn’t break it and it doesn’t sprain it, it will remove it. I could be decapitated, cut in half, and in that instant it was a surrender.”
He describes how he was laying on the ground looking up at blue sky thinking he was alive, unaware of the damage yet to be discovered. The rail car had in fact run over him and crushed his right leg as it ran over his mid-thigh. “I lifted my right arm up and all I saw was spaghetti, it looked like spaghetti, and I realized it was mangled and crushed bone, tissue, tendons, everything.” For fourteen minutes bleeding to death, he could feel the life running out his body, in what he describes as an eternity. “I went into what they call multiple organ breakdown; I was shutting down.” He survived, and talks about the many miracles at play that day, and subsequently. “I didn’t realize what a fighter I am, even in the beginning in those early moments, I was fighting. Later on, I wanted to die, and I tried to commit suicide three times.” On that November day, John Cairns’ life was forever changed, his path reassigned. “It was a day when the hell began,” he says, “But I was alive.”
Airlifted to Sunnybrook Trauma Centre and the Intensive Care Unit, he spent a week on life support. “They didn’t even amputate; they didn’t do anything, unsure whether I was even going to live or not.” Once discharged, he spent the next few months in acute recovery. “I remember looking to the bottom of my bed looking for two feet as though it was a dream, and hoping to wake up and this will all be over. I remember laying there as though the world had turned its back on me. I remember laying there lifeless, hopeless, in such dark despair. The more I laid there, the more I lived, the more I wanted to die.” Life prior to the accident, was good and a life he loved, now he questioned what lay ahead.
Shortly after the accident, his marriage dissolved as he recalls feeling how he had lost everything. “I lost hope and I lost what I believed was reality and I lost my vocation; I loved my job, but I have no regrets.” Cairns is grateful for what happened and glad it happened. “It saved my life, gave me a whole new passion, power and purpose for living.” From Sunnybrook, he went to Downsview Rehabilitation Centre. Here he would re-learn the basic skills that would help him function day-to-day and help him reintegrate back into society. He talks about the day he was brought a prosthesis, describing it as a despairing discouraging day. “I couldn’t spell the word,” he explains, “What is a prosthesis? It was so foreign, what is this object you call prosthesis?” When he was told it was his new leg, he refused it. “I was in such of place of denial, depression, post-traumatic stress, and just a lack of any will or hope, but it is a place I will never forget,” describes Cairns. “I don’t live in the past, but I remember where I have come from.”
He speaks to his mission to ‘aspire to inspire’. “In the philosophy that was imprinted on my heart from the beginning, it is not what happens to you in life, it is how you respond that makes the difference. I was at the intersection of ability or disability, and I wasn’t going to let circumstances determine my attitude.” Using a wheelchair for a period of time was like an enemy. “It just seemed like the world was an enemy, it wasn’t a friendly place anymore and I was navigating in unfriendly and uncharted waters; I was drowning in an abyss of hopelessness and helplessness, I just wanted to give up and die. And I haven’t forgotten that place.”
He also speaks fondly of his parents describing them as his pillar in his darkest hour they never left his room. “My dad would often say to me if this was to happen to somebody that’s going to be a somebody, it’s going to be you.” Cairns’ father lost his wife to lupus – meaning Cairns lost his mother when he was just two years old. He continues on, explaining how his father lost his only daughter (his sister) when she was killed on his twelfth birthday. “Then my dad almost lost me. Dad was powerful, he had faith and insight, he said to me, “You’re going to be a change maker.” Cairns talks about how he had to confront misery, doubt, fear, depression, despair, loneliness. The first step was believing, “That the spark of life remained, that the flame couldn’t be extinguished.”
Admitting to missing some everyday things, such as jumping into the shower, he talks about the challenges of being right-handed, but no longer having a right hand, and learning to become left-handed. “That was another leap into the unknown. So what seemed impossible became possible. I understood that I can choose to lay here, or I can choose to have the attitude knowing that I do need to sweat the small stuff.” They say don’t sweat the small stuff; no, do sweat the small stuff he reiterates. He had to learn to eat, to write, to bathe, to do up shoe laces with one hand, to walk, to navigate slopes, to traverse snow, ice, slush, sand, grass and gravel. “I tell people run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl, but keep moving.” Cairns could choose to live a life of disabilities or a life of abilities. “The imprisonment wasn’t so much the loss of my right side, the loss of my right arm and my right leg, the imprisonment was my mind; the imprisonment was my mind giving in and giving up.” Three choices: give in, give up or give it your all. “You decide, then you commit, then you act, then you succeed, then you repeat,” he says, as he describes how it took him three months to walk fifteen feet.
During his two-and-a-half years of rehab, the more reality sunk in, the more he wanted to give up. Cairns describes the journey as one of utter emptiness that attacked his self worth, his sense of identity, his self esteem, and his body image. “I didn’t look in the mirror for six months; I thought I looked like a freak.” He talks about coming to some degree of acceptance of what had happened. He says he often refers to being given a clean slate but he refuses to be a victim. “I had to take ownership, I had to take responsibility; I acknowledged depression and mental health.” Cairns agrees climbing a mountain would not undo what’s happened and it won’t put his leg back, but it did build confidence. He describes how he was confident enough to get on a plane, travel to another continent, and stand at the base of a giant. “It was a climb I will never forget; a climb of victory, it was inspiration to my life.” He doesn’t believe growth happens in a comfort zone. Time on a mountain was a natural boost to bring life and perspective into a place that takes you to a whole other passion level. His challenge was “To embrace life that has all the odds against me; with gravity against me, oxygen against me, one arm, one leg against me; mountainous terrain, inclines where I took five steps only to gain one step.”
Cairns summited Mount Kilimanjaro on a Sunday at 6.30am. “It was a hell of a climb literally; it tortured me mentally, physically, psychologically. I’ll never forget we got to base camp and my guide said it’s a six, seven, eight hour hike and this isn’t going to be a nature ramble. The summit was the end goal, but not the ultimate goal says Cairns. “The ultimate goal was I’m here, and while I might fail, and fail many times, I will get up again and the higher I went, it was as though the mountain wanted me to succeed.” There was a time where the world was on top of him, but “Now I am standing on top of the world at 19,000 feet. I’ll never forget that.”
After rehab followed nine years of study at the University of Waterloo in the Social Development Studies and Social Work degree program. This Belleville boy talks about reaching pinnacles and horizons, reaching the summit on Kilimanjaro, buying a restaurant, receiving Canada’s Walk of Fame Unsung Hero Award of Canada. He is also the founder of the Wheelchair of Hope Foundation. There’s always another horizon. “You don’t park it, you keep moving.” Cairns has served on many boards in the Quinte area, and his list of accomplishments is a long and growing one. His role as Honorary Colonel of 2 Air Movements Squadron at 8 Wing Canadian Forces Base Trenton is an appointment made to an individual who has made a significant contribution to community and to humanity. “My role is to foster esprit de corps which is the liaison and connection of military and community, to share our platforms together and to highlight the sacrifices and the logistics and daily operations of our Canadian Air Forces, and the impact that they have and the freedoms which we enjoy.” Cairns said the appointment came out of nowhere, but was a natural fit for him.
John Cairns purchased the downtown Belleville restaurant, Earl and Angelo’s, because it presented opportunity and challenge, and as someone who had no experience in the restaurant industry, he knew it would be an uphill battle. He saw it as a business, but a business of making a difference. “As a humanitarian and a philanthropist, I also saw this place as a platform, and I wanted to connect with community at a different level.” As a Rotarian and past president with the Rotary Club of Belleville, he already knew about community and getting involved. Every Christmas Day, he opens the doors of Earl and Angelo’s so no one eats or sits alone on Christmas Day. A full Christmas dinner with all the trimmings is provided free of charge, on china plates. Most are homeless but not all, “They are guests; they are someone special who shouldn’t be forgotten.” It’s also his way of giving back. “Earl and Angelo’s is about pride and providing a premium product that is born in hard work, dedication and always striving to improve.” They fed over 220 individuals last Christmas Day, and they also brought in clothing, and didn’t have a stitch left by day’s end.
Life now for this 53-year-old is one of motivational speaker, “My role is to encourage, to empower, and to leave an audience with that challenge isn’t enough; I want to take people on a journey and I think I do. I survived a near-death experience for a reason, and everything happens for a reason,” says Cairns, who admits to days of debilitating phantom pain. He describes how the accident was the worst thing that happened to him, and the best thing that happened to him. He is not gifted, but he is driven. “You’ve got to believe in what you can’t see,” he adds. Cairns’ advice is to live in the moment, but never park it, something he strives for every day, adding he believes progress is the key to happiness. “Never be satisfied; I believe that is a dangerous place to be,” he says. “All of it was worth it, all of it, but it’s far from over.”