Speaking to a rapt audience Sunday afternoon, Keynote Speaker J.R. Martinez shared his story and message of overcoming life’s greatest obstacles.
Serving in Iraq in 2003 with the U.S. Army, his Humvee hit a roadside bomb, ejecting the other three soldiers and trapping Martinez under the burning vehicle. He spent 34 months recovering from the accident, undergoing 33 surgeries in attempts to heal the burns on nearly half his body. In his early 20s at the time, Martinez decided to use his life-changing experience to improve the lives of others. After answering an open casting call for the soap opera “All My Children,” Martinez turned a three-month stint into a three-year role. However, he may be most widely known for winning the “Dancing with the Stars” competition.
“No one would think I would go from being in a hospital bed to being in the entertainment industry,” he told a crowd that welcomed him with a standing ovation. He said that he jumped at the opportunity to speak to the nurse anesthesia community at the Annual Meeting.
“I looked at this offer and said ‘absolutely,’” said Martinez. “It’s important for me to give back to the individuals who give so much.”
He added that he was a little hesitant about speaking, however, after failing several times to pronounce “anesthetist.”
Martinez shared his story, from how he moved with his single mother from Louisiana to Arkansas when he was nine. He had a difficult time adjusting to the new location and was picked on in school.
“None of us in life like change,” said Martinez. “Life forces us out of those comfort zones.”
To help adjust, he decided that his long-term goal would be to become a pro football player, and everything he would do would lead up to that point.
“When you find yourself dealing with change, you have to adapt,” he said.
After convincing his mother to move to Georgia for high school to help him pursue his football dreams, Martinez found himself unable to play football in college because of his poor academics. To remedy the situation, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army, serve for three years, then go to college and play football.
“I believed in it,” he said. “There was a lot of fear, a lot of risks, a lot of gambles.”
In March 2003, after going through a year’s worth of training for the army, Martinez found himself being sent to Iraq.
“When I joined the U.S. Army, I knew war could be a possibility, but I didn’t think it would by my reality,” he said.
His reality was changed forever when, on April 5, 2003, he was trapped underneath the burning Humvee. Two of his sergeants pulled him out and saved his life, but he has sustained massive burns all over his body.
“I could see my hands changing in the way you only see in those big-budget Hollywood films,” Martinez said, as he thought of how everything he wanted in life was suddenly gone.
After being put in a medically induced coma for three weeks, he was eventually flown back to Texas, where a doctor cemented his new reality by telling him a nurse would have to do the simplest tasks in life for him—down to feeding and bathing him.
Martinez became good friends with the nurse, a bearded man named Mike. Mike was with him when he looked at his face for the first time after the accident, several weeks after being in the hospital.
“What I saw was the character I was afraid of growing up and watching movies,” said Martinez. He fell into a deep depression, but was helped out of it by his mother and by beginning to visit other burn victims and share his story.
“I let them know it has been done before and [they’re] going to be another person to do it,” he said. He began speaking to progressively bigger venues, and the tenacity he felt carried him through the audition to “All My Children” and to “Dancing with the Stars.”
He closed by thanking the medical community in the audience again and saying what an impact their attitudes and love of the profession have on patients.
“You guys are part of the process of helping people adapt,” he said.