Jake McGehee strums his Fender Telecaster, picking out the melody of a tune he wrote years ago in what seems like a different lifetime.
McGehee, 28, has been singing and playing guitar and drums for practically his whole life. He's played on stages all across Texas and Oklahoma with his band, The Jake Adams Band.
McGehee strums with a pick mounted to a metal joint, attached to a gel sleeve he wears over what remains of his right arm.
He lost the lower half of his right arm in a workplace accident on May 24, 2012, a date he'll never forget. The date is emblazoned in a tattoo on the inside of his left wrist, the date wrapped around a wooden cross with a Phoenix hovering above.
Today, he sits on a love seat in a little house on the ranch he works in Choctaw. Outside, newly weaned calves whine for milk, almost in tune with McGehee's song. It's 100 degrees out, and a window unit air conditioner chugs along trying to cool the house as the musician croons.
“I want you, I need you, can't stand another minute without you,” he sings, eyes shut, sincerity flowing through the strains. He's a cowboy — it's clear from the Southern twang of his voice, not to mention the rack full of cowboy hats and the riding saddle that flank the fireplace in his tiny living room.
The music speaks volumes of McGehee's talent; his soulful playing is a testament to his strength of determination. He's one of three Oklahomans being honored with an Integris Jim Thorpe Courage Award on Aug. 17.
Rising from the ashes
It was a chemical burn that nearly stole McGehee's music and, in fact, his life.
He had been working as a shop foreman, pulling tools that contain lithium. That day, as McGehee looked into a container to see what was clogging it, it exploded, blasting deadly chemicals on the right side of his body.
“I remember everything from the point it happened up until the hospital,” he said.
First came the searing pain of the burn.
“The lithium, it pretty much eats anything in its path,” McGehee said. His arm, he said, looked like burned hamburger meat.
His colleagues bathed the wounds in water as instructed by the chemical manufacturer's instructions. But soon, his wrist started to swell, and very quickly the entire lower half of his right arm was enormous.
“That was more unbearable than anything,” he said. “The pressure was tremendous.”
He remembers going through a decontamination shower at the hospital and being taken to an intensive care unit room.
That would be his last memory for two months.
The next eight weeks of his life are a complete blank for McGehee. Doctors had placed him in a medically induced coma and temporary paralysis to treat the extensive internal and external wounds, including kidney failure and a collapsed lung.
When he came out of the coma, McGehee slowly absorbed where he was and what had happened.
“I knew when it happened I'd be extremely lucky to have the arm because I knew how bad the burns were,” McGehee said. “When I actually remember waking up and being coherent, I remember looking around the room, raising my arm up from under the blanket and saw it was gone.”
Once doctors removed his tracheotomy and McGehee was again able to speak, swallow and eat, “It seemed like every day was a little bit better,” McGehee said.
When he was deemed ready to leave the hospital, McGehee went to Integris Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation, where he spent a week and a half.
By the time he got to the rehab center, McGehee said he was just ready to go home. He'd lost so much time from his life, he said, he was more motivated than ever to get home.
“It got to the point where I felt like I was going nuts,” he said.
So he decided that no matter what, he would make it out of Jim Thorpe as soon as humanly possible. That meant relearning how to brush his teeth, shower, walk up stairs without assistance, and “this and that and the other, before they would say ‘You finished your therapy and you can go home.'”
No place like home
One day, back home now, McGehee was sitting around with some friends.
“Somehow the conversation got turned to guitars, and somebody ended up dragging one out,” McGehee said. He remembers feeling sadly resigned to not being able to do what had once been so natural to him.
“I had kind of accepted the fact that I would probably eventually play, but it was going to take some time.”
One of his buddies, Karl Tisdell, who owns the TX3 ranch where McGehee works, started asking questions about what it would take to get McGehee strumming again.
“I said if we could create something to extend my arm back out and hold a pick and do all that, at least I could strum and do rhythm, if nothing else,” McGehee said.
Within 45 minutes, Karl had bent several welding rods into an L shape, taped two together, stuck a pick in between them and taped it up tight.
The guys used vet wrap (used on animals to tape up wounds) to wrap the welding rods to McGehee's elbow.
Next thing he knew, McGehee was strumming his guitar, awkwardly at first, but strumming nevertheless.
“I can tell you there wasn't a dry eye in the place,” he said.
He worked with the picking tool every day, slowly realizing that he could do more than just strum. He could play lead guitar and solo, almost like he could before the accident.
“It was such a relief to say OK, at least I can play and sing,” McGehee said. “It was just like a major burden had been lifted.”
A new normal
Today, a little more than a year after the explosion, McGehee strums and solos with a prosthesis made by Muilenburg Prothetics especially for him. He takes care of the ranch on which he lives. And he's looking forward to getting back into gigging with his band.
The band played a few weeks ago at Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill for the first time since the accident. The audience of diners, usually not so attentive to the live music, was riveted to the player whose talent and courage outweighed a roadblock that could have ended the music.
McGehee is humble about the Jim Thorpe Courage Award he is to receive. He said during his journey he saw people make strides he thought far surpass his own. But he's honored that others consider him worthy of the award.
Sometimes McGehee feels his phantom limb — when he brushes against a tree, when he shoves his left thumb in his pocket the way he used to also shove his right thumb.
This new life is a bit surreal, he said. He often has moments when he has to shake his head and remember that the past year was real and not a dream.
But the music is still there, a reminder to McGehee and all who witness his gift that with determination and hard work, nearly any obstacle to happiness can be overcome.
I had kind of accepted the fact that I would probably eventually play, but it was going to take some time.”