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.