Jared Estes came to town to share his story of tragedy and of hope
The Augusta High School auditorium was crowded with students from Augusta and Douglass to hear a powerful message. Jared Estes, sponsored by the Augusta Lions Club, came to town to share his story of tragedy and of hope.
“I’m not here to give advice. There are more qualified people around you for that – I haven’t earned that right,” Estes said. “I have my story and although it’s about fear, loss and tragedy, it’s not unique. What I want to share is that the changing of an attitude can make a difference. It changed my life.”
Although the topic is serious, Estes’s unique sense of humor helps tell his story. His connection with the students was spontaneous. He had their undivided attention.
A video of a news documentary produced by a local television station told the story of Estes and his high school sweetheart, Paige – how they met at Bucklin High School, how they fell in love, graduated from college, married and looked forward to a long, wonderful life together. That dream was cut short in September of 2004, just six months after their fairy tale wedding and honeymoon.
A drunk driver speeding in excess of 120 miles per hour slammed his Porsche into the back of the couple’s Toyota on Wichita’s Kellogg near West Street. Estes, Paige and two friends had been to a Thunder game and Paige was driving.
Their car exploded on impact and was engulfed in flames. Their friends were both badly injured.
Estes was pulled from the wreckage by a passer-by, but he suffered burns over 50 percent of his body.
“It was surreal. I remember feeling pain, watching my shirt sleeves burn and trying to find Paige,” he explained.
He remembers looking down the road and seeing two bodies, unaware they were the Porsche driver and his passenger. Estes was frantic and kept asking if Paige got out of the wreckage. When emergency personnel wouldn’t answer his questions, he began fighting their efforts to get him on a gurney and into an ambulance. He eventually cooperated after one of them lied and assured him his wife had indeed gotten out of the car. Certain he would have continued fighting, he believes that lie helped save his life.
The young man slipped into a coma in the ambulance on the way to Via Christi. He remained in a coma for two weeks.
“When I woke up, I was surrounded by people I had known all my life, but I didn’t recognize the look in their eyes...fear, pity and sadness,” he said. “I was scared. I kept asking for Paige.”
Everyone left his room except for his dad, who had to tell his son Paige didn’t survive.
“The one voice I wanted to hear - the one who would make everything all right was gone,” he said. “I prayed to God to let me die. I didn’t want to live. It was my darkest moment.”
But Estes found a reason to go on. His goal to get well enough to leave the hospital and visit Paige’s grave became the focus of existence.
“Everyone else had attended her funeral and they had all gone through the hard grieving,” he said. “I hadn’t.”
In order for his badly burned body to avoid atrophy, the doctors and nurses had Estes out of bed and trying to walk.
After two months in the Burn Center, he was in rehab, and then an outpatient for six hours a day, for a year.
During that time, he was able to make the car ride to Bucklin and to the cemetery. At Paige’s grave, he realized being there did not bring the comfort he sought and he no longer had a goal.
“I wallowed. I was done and beaten. I had no plan, no future...but then I asked my self what if I had died and Paige had been left. I would want her to be happy. I was being selfish while others worked so hard to help me through. It’s never just about me,” he continued. “I had a new goal. I would do it for her. And here I am.”
He wears sleeves and a glove to protect the skin that was grafted onto his arm and he wears a hat over his brown hair. After more than 50 surgeries and an artificial ear – which he jokes about, he said he’s doing well.
The driver of the car that caused the fatal crash pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and five counts of aggravated battery in the accident and was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Estes feels empathy for the driver’s family.
“His family was apologetic to my friends and family. My anger is gone. He isn’t a bad guy - he just made bad choices,” he added. “It’s all about choices and the ripple effect. Everything we do affects those close to us and others, too. My experience changed me. It made me look at myself and think about others. I’m not the Jared I used to be – I couldn’t be him...I had to let him go...grief changes shape, but it never ends.”
He shared with the students he has decided to commit to speaking and sharing his message full time. He asked for feedback and visits to his Facebook page.
“I feel like this is what I am supposed to do right now,” he continued. “At some point for all of us, life will knock us down – and hit us while we’re down – but we have to get up and fight back..now I put friends, family and my faith in front of every choice.”
Estes can be contacted at his Facebook page or at email@example.com.