A New Life
May 1, 2008 - Bob Mortimer doesn’t remember anything about the Saturday night that changed his life—how he and his older brother, Tom, drove their 1967 Plymouth Valiant from Hoquiam, Wash., to the state capitol of Olympia and met up with friends in the afternoon, then drank alcohol and smoked marijuana into the night. Bob was 21; Tom, 24.
by Jerri Menges
When Bob woke up in the hospital the next morning—Sunday, April 25, 1976—his distraught brother and mother were sitting beside his bed. Before long the doctor entered with a clipboard. “Bob, I’m sorry,” he said, “but I have to ask you sign this release. We need to amputate your left arm this morning.”
The trauma of the night had taken Bob’s memory, but Tom could recount every detail of the accident that claimed Bob’s arm and eventually both of his legs.
After several hours at a local tavern, the two brothers had decided to drive the 50 miles back to their hometown instead of spending the night in Olympia as planned. They took a back way to avoid getting stopped for drunk driving. Bob slept while Tom drove.
About halfway home, the car came upon several unexpected curves. Suddenly, the right tire ran off the road. Tom jerked the steering wheel to the left. The car swerved across the highway, slid down an embankment and came to a stop at the bottom of the hill.
Bob and Tom climbed out of the car and stared at the vehicle. The front end was smashed in the middle, like a V. The two brothers started back up the hill, toward the highway, unaware that they had hit a utility pole.
“This is what we think must have happened next,” Bob says. “Tom was behind me, so he didn’t see it, and I have no memory of it.”
Bob stepped out onto the highway and came upon what he must have thought was a fence. He extended his left arm out and pushed the top wire down to climb over
“It wasn’t a fence, it was a live power line,” he says. “When we hit the pole, it had snapped at the top and the wires from that pole to the next were dangling just above the highway.”
More than 12,000 volts of electricity shot through Bob’s arm. His knees hit the ground, then he fell face forward, his chest against the still-live wires.
“Electricity leaves the body when the body comes into contact with another object,” Bob says, “so when my knees hit the ground, that allowed the power to exit, but it exploded my knees in the process.”
Tom, seeing his brother’s body lying across the wire, shrunk to the side of the road, thinking Bob was dead. The two of them had always been close, especially in the five years since their father had died. Sobbing, Tom put his head into his hands, until he heard Bob moan. Then he rushed to Bob’s side and, carefully avoiding the electricity, grabbed the rubber sole of one of Bob’s shoes and tried to pull him away from the wires.
When Bob’s body wouldn’t move, Tom noticed that one of the power lines had seared into his brother’s neck. Disregarding what he thought was live wire, Tom put his hands on Bob’s forehead and gently pulled his head away from the wire until it disengaged from his neck.
Then, calling to mind all the life-saving measures he had learned in Vietnam, Tom started blowing breath into his brother’s mouth and beating on his chest, until finally he could hear a faint heartbeat when he put his ear to Bob’s burned chest.
Within minutes, an oncoming car stopped, and Tom asked if the driver could help. He lifted Bob’s body in his arms and put him in the car. They rode the few miles to the nearest public telephone, where Tom called for help.
The next morning, when Bob woke up in the hospital, he looked down at his burned body. His left arm was crisp and curled up from fingertip to elbow and from elbow to shoulder.
“My arm was swollen up to three times its normal size,” Bob says. “The fluid was building up in my body, with nowhere to go. I knew if I wanted to save any part of my body, I would have to lose something.”
So he signed to have his left arm amputated. Two weeks later, he signed for his right leg and several months later, his left leg. For six months, he remained in the hospital while doctors grafted skin to cover his chest and taught him to walk on artificial legs and to drive a one-arm wheelchair. He also learned how to drive a car.
“After I was released from the hospital, I went right back to the drinking and drugs,” he said. “I was on the same road that brought me into the hospital.”
For four years, he coped with his disability with alcohol and drugs, until he met Darla, the 19-year-old who babysat his sister’s children.
“My sister, Jeanne, called me one night and asked if I could go over to her house and take Darla and the kids some food,” he says. “I fell head over heels in love.”
Darla was hesitant. Bob’s biggest problem wasn’t his missing limbs. It was his empty heart. He did not know Jesus Christ, and coming from a strong Christian home, she knew she would be unequally yoked with him.
“I didn’t want to date someone with his lifestyle,” she says. She would only see him as a friend.
Growing up, Bob’s family had believed in God. But he had never accepted Christ as his Savior, and he had grown away from much consciousness about God. Now the whole concept of faith seemed distant. He didn’t know how to feel about dating someone who was a Christian. He didn’t want to have God thrown in his face all the time.
To his surprise, Darla seldom approached the subject. It was always he who turned the conversation to matters of God and religion.
“I asked her all the questions that we searchers ask,” Bob says. “I asked her, ‘If there is a God, why are children born with physical sickness?’ and ‘If there is a God, why is the world filled with war?’”
Darla always had an answer, and she would always suggest that he come to church with her to learn more. Finally, he ran out of excuses and agreed to go. He sat as close to the back as possible and, about a minute into the pastor’s sermon, Bob started to get suspicious. Darla has been talking to him about me.
“He mentioned every wrong road I’d ever been on,” Bob says. “He said God knew all about those things and that He loved me anyway, so much that He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, as a sacrifice to pay for my sin.”
When the pastor asked anyone who wanted to be reconciled with their heavenly Father to come forward, Bob drove his wheelchair down to the front of the church and asked Christ to forgive his sins.
The following morning, he found that he could no longer smoke marijuana and drink beer. He couldn’t return to his old ways like he had when he was released from the hospital. The accident had merely changed the shape of his body. Christ had changed his soul.
“It wasn’t my intention to quit doing drugs,” he says, “but I couldn’t receive the forgiveness I had just received and go back into the same mud I came in from. Christ changed my attitude. He changed my self-image.”
And Christ changed Darla’s heart toward Bob. Within three months, the couple was engaged. After they were married, they moved to Oregon and joined a small church. Before long, they were teaching Sunday school and leading children’s groups. Bob joined the men’s fellowship and served on the deacon board—and he accepted occasional invitations to share his testimony.
To provide for his wife and the children they would have, Bob went back to school and became a tax consultant. But it soon became difficult to fit tax-consulting into his speaking schedule.
“At first, I was getting one or two calls a year to share my testimony,” Bob says. “But then the requests began to increase. God was making it clear that He had a call on our lives to go into a speaking ministry. So, we made a decision to dedicate our lives, our marriage and our family to the ministry, and we put the tax books away. That was 19 years ago, and ever since then we’ve been answering the phone and going where God calls us, whether it’s to kindergarten classes, prisons or to speak to our military troops in Germany.”
With a tangible power, God’s call on Bob’s life has continued to change him, helping him become a good husband and provider, giving him life lessons to share with his children and giving him peace about his own identity.
“Men identify themselves by what they do,” Bob says. “Before the accident, I saw myself as a sawmill worker.”
After the accident, it became difficult for him to see himself as anything other than “the man with no legs.”
“Every day I hear people referring to me that way,” he says. “It happened twice today. But a long time ago, God helped me give up the right to be offended at that. He taught me how to turn each occasion into a positive experience.”
Children stare the most. Bob waves and smiles and motions for them to come over to his chair. Then he talks to them and helps them see him as a person instead of merely someone who is handicapped.
“God has sustained me by giving me a wife and three beautiful children,” Bob says. “He has sustained me by giving me purpose. I believe I am doing what God created me to do by not letting my circumstances control my spiritual condition, by sharing the hope and courage of Jesus Christ. God really does lift us above our circumstances.”
Two years ago, God answered one of Bob’s deepest, most heartfelt prayers. He saved his beloved brother, Tom.
“Tom was my hero the night of the accident,” Bob says. “He risked his life for me. He didn’t know that the transformer had blown when he moved my head away from the wire. He thought that the wire was still live.”
Their relationship had become distant since Bob had accepted Christ. Bob had shared the Gospel with him, but Tom wasn’t interested.
“So I just continued to pray for him and for myself that God would help me not to do anything stupid that would turn him away from Christ,” Bob says. “He quit drinking not long after I did, but it didn’t stop the hurt inside of him.”
After Tom came to Christ, he opened up to Bob about that hurt.
“He said that every time he looked at me, it hurt,” Bob says. “He blamed himself because he was driving the car when the accident happened. Finally, he is able to have peace about that night and to realize that even when hard things happen, God can turn them around for His glory.”