By Ken DeLeon
This is the second article discussing my four life tragedies and the accompanying lessons I learned by overcoming them.
There are moments that can quickly and forever change your life. While we tend to worry about life’s uncertainties and setbacks, it is the things that we do not see coming that can impact us the most.
On the morning of August 17th, 1998, my prospects never seemed brighter. I had recently graduated from Berkeley Law School with High Honors, had just passed the California Bar Exam, and was slated to start as a Patent and Trademark attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in a few weeks. So when my father asked if I wanted to go on a walk with him that afternoon, I happily accepted his invitation. Little did I know that on this walk, I would be forced to face my own mortality and have my life fundamentally altered. This close brush with death became a nationwide news story (CNN, USA Today) as it was such an amazingly unique accident.
My father and I were conversing about how excited I was for my move to Palo Alto while walking along the sidewalk, which had a 20’ grass divide from the road, so it felt particularly safe. This false sense of security was soon to be shattered, along with my reality, arm, and leg. Within a second and without warning, my life changed. Behind me and my father, a car traveling over forty miles per hour veered off the road and, without braking, slammed into my right leg. The force of the impact catapulted my body upward and ripped me out of my shoes. I was launched above the hood of the car. My right shoulder and upper arm crashed through the windshield, breaking several bones in the process. My body landed, contorted and mangled, half in and half out of the speeding vehicle which showed no sign of slowing down. My head and upper body were wedged against the passenger seat while my legs were painfully sprawled out over the hood of the car.
I instantly went from walking with my father to hanging on for dear life. I screamed in agony, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” as extreme, searing pain tore through my body and inner core. Through my teary eyes and horrified screams, I looked at my throbbing leg and saw it twisted in an unnatural and hideous manner, pierced and punctured by broken glass fragments from the windshield. Then I noticed the clouds darting along overhead and realized that somehow I was moving. I suddenly stopped screaming when, through the haze of pain, I felt a new source of force being applied to my body. Unable to understand why I was being hit, I begged the driver, “Help me! What are you doing? Please help me!”
I then looked to where the blows were coming from and will never forget the dilated, bloodshot eyes of my attacker. He was clearly under the influence of mind-altering drugs. His manic eyes glared at me with an animalistic hatred and darted back and forth between me and ahead at the cars he was dashing past. His face was drenched in sweat. While beating me, he screamed, “Get Out! Get Out!” in a guttural, ravenous snarl. Doing my best to block his punches, I did my best to resist him pushing me out of the speeding car.
After my attacker ran several red lights with my twisted body still stuck through the windshield, he finally was forced to stop when there were cars filling up all of the lanes. Once that happened, I immediately tried to get out, but could not open the door with my right arm, which was badly broken. Using my left arm, I pulled the door latch and was able to barely open the door and began frantically trying to escape from his car. But because both my right arm and leg were badly broken, I could not disentangle myself. Finally, my attacker violently shoved my body out of the car and my broken arm slammed against the door and ground.
Now that I was out of immediate danger, I slowly writhed away from the car while feeling an unbelievable and unbearable pain coursing through the right side of my body. I looked at my right arm and saw that it was pulled backwards and dangling limply. My first thought was that I would never be able to write again.
I heard approaching sirens in the background. Two policemen arrived at the scene and asked me to describe what had happened.
“I was walking with my father on the sidewalk and was then hit by a car. I think my father was hit, too. The driver of the car beat me while I was inside the car and finally pushed me out here.”
After hearing this implausible story, the questioning officer drew away from me and then quietly whispered to his partner, “He’s in shock.”
At that moment, the officers received word of a 911 call from my father reporting the accident. They then realized that I was the accident victim who had been hit, and that I had been beaten and held captive for over three miles before being shoved out here. I was relieved upon finding that my father was alive and not badly injured. I felt sorrier for my father than myself, as he had to witness his sole surviving child being run down while walking alongside him.
We were walking side by side, and then my father felt a powerful push on his leg as the car tire brushed against him, leaving a road rash scar on his leg. Knowing I had been hit, my father looked all around for my thrown body. He used the term “body” when describing that moment, because he feared and felt that I was probably dead. Not finding my body, my father quickly looked ahead and saw the car speeding along on the sidewalk before darting back to the road. Seeing me inside the vehicle, my father ran after the car but soon realized that my attacker was not stopping and that he would never catch up.
My father then waved down an approaching city bus whose driver saw the whole accident. The bus driver and my father chased after the car and my body, not knowing whether I was alive or dead. Because my attacker was weaving in and out of traffic and ran a red light, the bus driver could not keep up the pursuit. My father then told the bus driver to drop him off on the side of the road and called 911.
Apprehension of My Attacker
When my attacker finally pushed me out of the car, he sped away from where he left me to escape capture. My attacker then pulled into a parking lot and discarded incriminating evidence in a grassy area adjoining the parking lot. This evidence was later found, and it was learned that he had discarded several weapons, including an 18-inch machete, a bloody baseball bat, and a billy club. Then, he attempted to destroy the most damning evidence of the attack: his car that now had a shattered windshield and blood all over the interior. He drove the car down a boat launch ramp and submerged it into the Intracoastal Waterway. Getting soaked in the process, he then stripped down to his underwear and sneakers, and ran away from the car.
A call concerning a suspicious-looking and wounded person was received by the paramedics and police, as my attacker ran from his submerged car clothed only in his underwear, and bleeding profusely from wounds caused by glass shards from the shattered windshield. Finding my attacker hiding in an alley, the paramedics dressed his wounds and the police decided to take him to the hospital before determining who he was. This is where I had a fortuitous outcome, as the police who were at the hospital interviewing me and my father heard about this new hospital patient who perfectly matched my description. My attacker was then identified and they found out that just two days earlier he was arrested on felony charges for attempting to sell drugs to minors. While he was driving and hit me on a Monday afternoon, the tests found that he was on horse tranquilizers (ketamine), methamphetamines, ecstasy and marijuana. Apparently he blacked out due to all of the drug use and that is why he swerved off of the road into me. In his delusional mindset, he said I was a “demon from the sky attacking him,” which is why he had to punch me and was screaming “Get out!” at me. My attacker was sentenced to seven years in prison and was released early due to good behavior.
Just a decade after losing my sister, my parents almost lost their sole remaining child. With this huge fork in my life, would this accident shatter my future as it shattered many of my bones? While I could not control the event, lying there in pain in the hospital bed made me realize that getting back up again and living life to the fullest was solely up to me and my mindset.
I am thankful to say that my life is truthfully better and more fulfilled because this accident occurred. While this accident could have forever kept me down and depressed, the power of the mind to overcome all obstacles is our greatest gift. With this mindset and a determination to not let my attacker lessen my life, I had many epiphanies during this physically painful but mentally fulfilling time.
Life Lessons from My Accident
I think that life events are neither inherently good nor bad. Instead, life events are open to our interpretation, and we can shape the outcome simply by our mindset. This accident, where the most likely outcome was losing my life, positively shaped my life instead and led me to:
Find a New Life Purpose – Before the accident I felt that my life purpose was happiness. I wanted to first focus on making myself happy and then share this with others. However, the several months I spent convalescing really gave me a newfound perspective and appreciation for life. I realized that with the right mindset, seeking growth and being forgiving of myself, I could use this setback as a launching pad to become even greater than before and also uplift everyone around me.
I now have made growth my life purpose. I want to grow as much as I can and also help others evolve to their full potential as well. The beautiful part about growth as my life purpose is that I can now embrace the full spectrum of emotions rather than just valuing happiness as before. This mindset is also excellent for transforming seemingly tragic circumstances into greater life growth and fulfillment. “While we cannot entirely control circumstances, we can control our perception of and reaction to circumstances. It is through our reaction, which determines the outcome, that we are in control of our lives even in an uncontrolled world.”
Live Life to the Fullest – I have viewed studies which showed that pedestrians hit by speeding vehicles going 40 mph or more have an 85% chance of dying. Having come so close to death, I have gained a greater appreciation of life. I do not fear failure, but rather fear living a mediocre life, and I do not want a life filled with regrets. The greatest crime against life is boredom. We have only one life and it could end at any moment. I try and make every moment matter because I realize it can be my last.
Pursuing My Passion – I was a very good lawyer and proud to be working at Wilson Sonsini, one of the preeminent law firms in the nation. However, my accident showed me how fleeting life can be, and this gave me the courage to pursue my passion for real estate. I always loved real estate and felt that there was a lot of inefficiency and room to improve this industry versus the efficiency of elite international law firms. Michael and I drew from our backgrounds in law to create a new, team-based salaried specialist model that is very similar to how a large law firm or top VC firm like Andreessen Horowitz operates.
Forgive my Attacker – I have given hundreds of inspirational speeches to students on a volunteer basis, or at real estate conferences as a keynote speaker. I am always asked what I think of my attacker. I honestly reply, “I don’t,” for I have forgiven and nearly forgotten my attacker. I highly recommend Dr. Fred Luskin’s Forgive for Good. Dr. Luskin, the Director of Stanford’s Forgiveness Project, talks about all of the medical and psychological benefits of forgiveness. I forgave my attacker to heal and psychologically move forward, not out of kindness. Be very selective about who you let enter your life. When someone who is unworthy of your time enters your life as my attacker entered mine, throw them out immediately, as it just takes one bad apple to poison the entire barrel.
Live Life and do not Spectate upon it – Realizing that time is our most valuable asset, I have become increasingly aware of how I and who I spend my time with. The biggest change is that instead of watching TV shows, I lead an active life. I now see my friends instead of watching the show “Friends,” or I play basketball with my kids versus watching it on TV. I want to be a good father to my children, happily work 60+ hours a week for my amazing clients, and stay in shape by exercising. I can only do all of this by efficiently utilizing my time and by actively living and not spectating upon life. As a result, everything is so much more authentic and fulfilling.
Coming so close to death, I’ve gained a greater appreciation of life. I don’t fear death; instead, I fear living a mediocre life. I try and make every moment matter because there is no promise of a tomorrow. I founded DeLeon Realty because I wanted to create a business model that, for the first time in real estate, puts the client first, as I felt ethics has always been lacking in the industry. Let us all live our greatest lives together. Life is a dance circle and the greater a dancer you are, the more people you can inspire and positively impact.
My next article will be centered on my life after recovery from my accident and entry into real estate. Everything was going amazingly well until I felt a terrible pain in my back, which was found to be a cancerous tumor the size of a softball. Life lessons also abound as I discuss bouncing back from my lymphoma and recovering thanks to the Stanford Cancer Center.