Actor Obi Ndefo works to move far beyond the hit-and-run crash that took his legs
Leap forward, grind backward, repeat.
Progress can stutter along after a devastating traumatic injury.
You feel hopeless. You glimpse hope. It disappears again. You chafe at the speed of salvaging all you can of your old life.
Obi Ndefo is one of the most determined people I’ve met. Just over five months after a hit-and-run driver tore his body in two, leaving him without legs, he is doing everything he was doing before the crash with the exception of driving.
This 47-year-old actor recognizable to many for his appearances in such TV shows as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Stargate SG-1" has made it clear that he wants his life after to be bigger than his life before. And watching the way he moves everyone he talks to leads me to believe that it will be.
He’s so focused on that future that he tries not to look back. He doesn’t want to think much for now about 25-year-old John Michael Maese, who faces three felony charges in the Aug. 17 crash.
But even Obi’s courage and optimism can’t let him hop over the hardest parts of adapting to his new reality, as Dr. Milton Little, the orthopedic surgeon who saved his life, reminded him in a checkup this week. Obi doesn’t like to dwell on this but he knows it is true.
I have watched Obi’s grueling sessions at the Hanger Clinic, where his costly prosthetic legs and the sockets they fit into are being painstakingly shaped and fine-tuned for him. I have watched him strain, gripping parallel bars, to get used to a future of walking with them.
I have flinched and grimaced with him as he does so because I have seen sharp pain ripple through him. His residual limbs are still changing shape and remain very tender, as he does.
Try as he might, I know he doesn’t get through a day without sadness.
About how this peace-loving raw vegan, who wants to make the world healthier, more creative, more inclusive and kinder, was loading salad greens into a cooler in the trunk of his parked car on Beverly Boulevard when a driver veered out of lane and slammed his SUV right into him. About how his right leg was severed in an instant, his left leg amputated soon after. About how in the space of an hour this 6-foot-4 paragon of fitness who had always favored highly physical parts became a bilateral above-knee amputee.
Almost from Day One, he looked outward and thought to use his own traumatic experience to help others.
He chose hope and optimism, he said the first day we met, as a means of survival. “This is just so horrendous what happened to me, why would I compound this by feeling bad about it?”
Which leads me to another person who had a choice, and who left Obi for dead, all alone on the street. Frankly, Obi would rather I skip over the driver of the SUV — but for me that’s not possible.
Slam into someone, reverse, drive off.
There are far too many hit-and-run crashes in Los Angeles. Last year, according to the LAPD, 225 caused injury, while 62 were deadly.
Many hit-and-run drivers are never arrested and charged.
But in Obi’s crash, a criminal case recently has been filed.
A hit-and-run took Obi Ndefo’s legs and nearly his life. Now, he has big plans to live it
Maese faces one felony count each of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08% or more causing injury, and hit-and-run driving resulting in injury to another person, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
He faces a misdemeanor count of driving with a license suspended after a DUI conviction (in 2016 in Bakersfield). The charges include a sentence-extending allegation that he inflicted great bodily injury. If convicted on all charges, he could serve a maximum of seven years and two months in state prison, the D.A.'s office told me.
Maese is scheduled to be arraigned in criminal court downtown on Valentine’s Day. I hope to be there, but I do not know if I will see Obi, whose own sentence is for life.
Move forward, move on, make a splash.
Obi intends to be striding comfortably soon on his new legs. He already is ahead of schedule on that front, and moving fast all over town by Uber and wheelchair in the meantime.
I went with him recently to talk to casting agents. He’s hoping to get acting gigs soon — and thus help fight for greater inclusiveness in Hollywood.
He’s back to pitching “Juice Bar,” the TV show he’s spent the last few years writing and workshopping with a large collection of friends. It’s a gently satirical, playful look at a natural-foods emporium, much like Obi’s beloved Erewhon but with a twist of Willy Wonka, in which harried city people with a host of modern woes come in search of cures of all kinds, from magic herbal potions to every kind of New Age healing.
It pokes fun at that world, but lovingly, with an intent to shift thinking. Obi now finds himself its perfect ambassador.
The crash and Obi’s brave approach to its aftermath have attracted a lot of attention. He gets frequent requests for interviews. People want to tell his story. Obi never says no.
But he’s getting tired of having the focus stay firmly on the crash. He has so much else he wants to talk about, and it’s hard to answer in succinct sound bites questions from strangers about how it feels to suddenly find yourself without legs.
I saw him field such questions from children in December when he returned for the first time since the crash to Bridges Academy, the private school in the Valley where he has been teaching after-school yoga for five years now. The kids, curious and direct, rushed right up to stare at his scars and then asked and asked and asked: How do you go to the bathroom now? What happened to your legs? Where are they? (“I don’t know. I’ve wondered that myself,” he replied with an easy smile.)
It’s a little different coming from adults who are filming you while simultaneously checking the time.
But Obi soldiers on and is unfailingly polite. I love watching him trying to change the subject.
As for the driver who hit him, I have no idea how that person feels. But I do hope he’s keeping up on all the news about Obi.
Do harm. Sit with it. Change.
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