Living on borrowed time – one man’s story of survival

The year was 1961. It was around 7:00 p.m. on a day in late September. Seven-year-old Bryan O’Connor was lying on the pavement at the end of his street in the Ottawa neighbourhood of Eastway Gardens. He was wearing his older brother’s striped shirt and knew that it was ripped and bloodied. His elbow hurt. As he worried that he’d be in trouble for wrecking his clothing, he was vaguely aware that a large fold of skin had been torn from the left side of his chest. There was an ominous whooshing sound coming from his body.

One of his eyes was pressed against the pavement, obscuring his view, but through the other he noticed a commotion beginning on his street. Neighbours were yelling and he saw his father running toward him, with only socks on his feet, a look of panic on his face. Police officers arrived at the scene and an ambulance was called. A discussion began between Bryan’s father and one of the police officers. The ambulance was taking too long – couldn’t one of the officers drive Bryan to the hospital? It was a matter of life or death. An officer agreed and Bryan’s father climbed into the backseat of the police car, Bryan on his lap. As he watched the streetlights go by through the window, and listened to the urgent wail of the siren, Bryan was struck with a devastating realization that he might die. As they drove to Ottawa’s old hospital downtown, Bryan’s voice rang out, a constant loop of, “Am I going to die? I don’t want to die. I’m too young to die.”

Upon arriving at the hospital, Bryan was rushed into the operating room for an eight-hour surgery. The whooshing sound Bryan had heard was quickly identified as a punctured lung. He had broken many of his ribs - some were completely and forever destroyed. His injuries had very narrowly missed his heart. Having survived the surgery, Bryan was hospitalized for six weeks, with tubes up his nose and in his back.

As a result of his injuries, Bryan was forced to be extra careful growing up. He wasn’t allowed to play contact sports and his mother sheltered him, worried that he would be injured again.

This experience instilled in Bryan the importance of taking the time to consider the repercussions of his actions; of "looking before he leaps". It's also given him an overwhelming awareness that he’s lucky to be alive - that he’s living on borrowed time.

One of a very lucky few

Now 57, Bryan still lives in Ottawa and works as a marketing and communications consultant. He is reminded regularly of his brush with death by a one-foot long scar that stretches from the left side of his chest around to his back. His mother still lives in the home he grew up in, on the street where he nearly died. He visits her regularly and relives that awful fall day every time he’s there.

Bryan is a survivor. Very few people have gone through what he did and lived to see another day. Bryan was hit by a train.

On that day 50 years ago, Bryan was out playing with his young friends, ages five and six, in the area near the tracks for the commuter train that runs between Toronto and Ottawa. The tracks run perpendicular to the street he lived on, marking a dead end. It was not unusual to play there. The neighbourhood kids, including Bryan’s two older brothers, used the area around the tracks as a shortcut to visit their friends, as a fort building spot, and as a quiet spot to take a first date. There was no sense that this was a dangerous place to be – or that doing so was considered trespassing.

Bryan found a small toy that whistled when he swung it through the air. He ran along the tracks, beside a train headed in the opposite direction, waving his arm in the air. The train hit him - the stairs catching the left side of his body and flinging him high enough that he could see the train’s passengers through the window. Had his arm been down, he would surely have lost it.

How is it that this is still happening?

Bryan contacted Operation Lifesaver after he read an article about a 17-year-old girl from Utah who lost both of her legs when she tried to hop a freight train (you can read that article here). He couldn’t believe that people are still being injured and killed as a result of unsafe behaviours around railway property. By sharing his story, he hopes to remind kids that it’s never safe to play near trains and the consequences of doing so can be deadly.

“I’ve lived 50 years that I’m lucky to have had. Not many people survive being hit by a train. It’s because of my sense that I’m a bit of a rarity that I contacted Operation Lifesaver. I am alive to share my story and it's worth it to do so if I can stop even one person from going down the route that I did."

For Bryan an important part of his story is the recognition that older kids can influence those that are younger than them. His decision to play around the tracks was largely due to observing his older brothers and older kids in the neighbourhood doing the same.

"I had older brothers and they were out on those tracks all the time. I was dying to do everything they were doing - to follow in their footsteps and to be like the 'big kids'. So the message to older kids is to remember that younger kids are watching you and will act the way you do. Following rail safe behaviours will not only save your life - it will also save the lives of the kids that are emulating your actions."

Bottom line: Bryan was very lucky to survive - most people aren't. Stay off the tracks and stay alive.