UK student inspires change after tragic accident

Alex Otte spoke on a panel at the International Boating and Water Safety Summit in Lexington, Kentucky, on March 5, 2018.

Lauryn Haas

There are moments in life that alter our expected course entirely, but even unexpected tragedy can serve as a catalyst for greater change.

UK junior and Lexington-native Alex Otte was struck by a boat operated by a drunk driver at the age of 13 and experienced multiple life-threatening injuries. Instead of letting her trauma hold her back, Otte decided to share her story across the country to spread awareness of drunk driving and work towards preventing future tragedies from happening.

Otte, now 21, had always enjoyed spending time on Lake Herrington in Danville, Kentucky, where her father lives. In 2009, she took the 4-hour class to earn her boating license and became certified to operate watercrafts. She was trained to take all the necessary precautions to stay safe, yet she still experienced the unthinkable. Her story reminds us that no one is indestructible.   

“Teenagers and young adults think they’re invincible and that it could never happen to them,” Otte said. “The fact of the matter is, I was the person it was never supposed to happen to. I didn’t move, I didn’t do anything wrong, and it still happened to me.”

On July 2, 2010, Otte was waiting near her family’s dock on a personal jet ski when a bass boat going nearly 70 mph appeared from under a nearby bridge and looked to be heading towards her. As she was taught, she remained still and assumed that the boat would go around her, but the two men inside the boat were too intoxicated to notice. They hit her from the side, throwing her off the jet ski. The boat’s propeller came down on top of her.

“I sustained a severe traumatic brain injury … I broke my jaw … I broke my neck … I broke my collarbone … I lacerated my liver … I shattered both of my femurs … [and] my foot was almost completely severed by the propeller,” Otte said.

Her foot was removed during emergency surgery that night, and the rest of her ankle up to her mid-calf was surgically amputated the next day. She spent an entire week in a coma.

“At the time of Alex’s crash, after we had pulled her from the water and placed her on the dock, her mother, Laura, a former flight nurse, told me to kiss her goodbye because she wasn’t going to make it. I knew in my heart that wasn’t true, not my baby girl, she is just too strong,” said Joe Otte, Alex father. “As the days went by and she endured countless surgeries, Alex and her body got stronger. At one point, I told Alex this man and this crash had taken her leg, but it was solely up to her if she allowed him or the tragedy to rob her of one more moment of her life.”

Alex Otte listened to her father and refused to stay beaten down. She continued to heal despite the odds stacked against her and went back to school on time. Now, almost eight years later, she is a full-time print journalism student with a political science minor, is on track to graduate a semester early, works in corporate communications at Ashland Inc., does professional sports photography for UK football for the Glasgow Daily Times and for the Lexington Legends and travels all over the country to amplify her voice. Her motivation to continue sharing her story is derived from the lack of conversation surrounding what happened to her.

“There aren’t any protests for drunk driving or more specifically, boating under the influence. There isn’t anyone who is willing to stand for change and fight until it happens. It needed to be me,” Alex Otte said. “If I don’t talk about it, it’s going to keep happening. I’m the only person that can tell this story. If what happened to me and the awful things I’ve been through mean that this never has to happen to anyone else, then it’s worth it. If what has happened to me causes one person to push away the beer or call for a safe ride home, then it’s worth it.”

Since August 2017 alone, she has spoken at conferences and trainings in South Dakota, Washington and Nevada. She was named the Mothers Against Drunk Driving national activist of the year in 2015 and is serving on a panel of survivors and families at the International Boating and Water Safety Summit from March 4 to 7 at the Hilton in downtown Lexington. In early April, she will be a keynote speaker at the California Boating Safety Officers Association’s annual conference in Dana Point, California, and in May she will speak at the sixth annual Honor Connor run in North Richland Hills, Texas, in honor of the drowned boy the event is named after.

Otte still struggles with the effects of her brain injury and the pain and soreness associated with being both a trauma patient and an amputee, but because she doesn’t appear physically disabled in everyday clothes, she deals with plenty of criticism from people who question her right to use handicapped parking. Her response to this is simple.

“You never know what battles people are fighting,” she said. “Be good to people.”