Jonathan Merchant’s Story

Nine Lives: Amazing Stories of Survival

Jonathan Merchant was just back from his first tour with the U.S. Military in Bosnia. He and his girlfriend left the base to go dancing when she lost control of the car in the rain. The car flipped. Jonathan had a faulty seatbelt and was tossed around inside the vehicle.

The 19-year-old broke his neck in three places and suffered quadriplegic spinal injuries. When he woke up in a neck brace, this 6-foot-3-inch athlete couldn’t move a single limb. After three months in the hospital’s ICU unit on a ventilator with around-the-clock care, he was moved closer to his parents in California, spending nine months at the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital.

The doctors told him he would never work again and would forever require 24-hour care. They said he could live seven years if lucky because he was now high risk for bedsores, infection and pneumonia. That was in 1999. Nearly 17 years later, Jonathan is thriving.

“If something doesn’t go your way or isn’t perfect, just keep on going, keep trying … I don’t give up,” he said.

He told the nurses in the hospital to put a bar over his bed and created a pulley system so he could focus on building the strength back up in his arms.

“Movement is better than no movement,” Jonathan said.

Against all odds, he now drives his own car and does all of his own care. It took him nine years to learn how, but that was a better option than days stuck in bed, lying in his own feces and waiting for the VA home health nurses to show up. If he was going to survive, he needed to learn to do it himself.

He now works as an Advocare advisor, teaching people about health and nutrition. He works out at a gym several days a week when he’s not riding his custom-made hand-cycle at 20-something mph. He became the first quadriplegic (in the world) to finish the Half Ironman triathlon. He has since completed four more triathlons.

While still strapped to a wheelchair, Jonathan horseback rides and ballroom dances, winning competitions in both. He trains as a paraplegic, which means he has full use of his arms, but is actually quadriplegic since he doesn’t have feeling in most of his arms and fingers. He is constantly dropping things.

“I’m not naturally patient. If I drop something, I would pick it up. If I failed once, it is ok. If I failed twice, it was ok. I just have to keep doing it,” he said. “Anything is possible if you never quit, if you never give up. It may take you a long time, but you keep trying.”


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