Trenton amputee works his way back to himself after gruesome accident
Kevin Blackburn was an industrial painter. He had skills. Goals. Purpose.
He had hands.
Then, high in a bucket lift, thousands of volts of electricity ripped through his body and took most of that away.
"I've probably told the story a couple hundred times," says Blackburn, 42, from his darkening living room in Trenton. He'd just as soon not, but some people are politely curious and others are rude, and it's hard to hide two bulky prosthetics with pairs of hooks where his fingers used to be.
Bottom line, he got hurt and he got low — and now, almost 4 ½ years later, he's back up.
That, he's willing to talk about. Trained in an innovative program at JVS Human Services, he's been working since early July at the Amazon sorting center in Brownstown Township.
Not just working, but working full-time, earning a promotion in a plant where few employees are granted 40 hours a week. Not just full-time, but for October, he was selected employee of the month.
On the fifth Thanksgiving since everything changed, he's a whole new man, or maybe back to being the old one.
"I'm lucky," he always says. He knows a guy who went through the same sort of electrical accident, and he's in a wheelchair. But the holiday will be special.
"Everything's different," he says, and then he thinks for a moment and says it again. "Since I started working, my attitude about everything is different."
The first year after the disaster, he didn't get much farther from his house than the corner store. At first, he didn't have his rubber-and-metal limbs, and then he got them but wouldn't wear them.
Across the next few years, he accepted the notion that he'd never work again. Embraced it, even. He couldn't toss around 5-gallon paint cans anymore, and any place he applied, strangers stared.
Now, though? Now, he gets politely edgy as the sun sets. If he doesn't leave soon, he'll only be 15 minutes early when he clocks in for his 6 p.m. shift.
"He's one of the topmost performing employees that we have," says Avi Prakash, 32, an operations manager at the sorting center. At Amazon, with its warehouses full of acronyms and euphemisms, a new task is a "process path," and Blackburn has traveled down as many of them as he can.
He was married when he was rushed to the hospital, but that ended. He loved to shoot hoops with his son, but now he can't.
Some things are beyond reclaiming.
Dignity, it turns out, was within reach.
Strangers sometimes see his hooks and thank him for his service. He sets them straight right away: all he volunteered for was a Saturday shift.
The customer was a granite and marble supplier in Royal Oak. The paint was gray. The task was challenging, the piece of a month-long job his boss had saved for last: the tall second story on the side of a warehouse where a power line was unsettlingly close to the building.
It took 10 minutes to jockey his hydraulic basket into position between the wire and the wall, Blackburn says. He was holding a 6-foot-long metal extender for his spray gun. He noticed that his spotter on the ground had disappeared, and he still doesn't know where. The bathroom, maybe?
With no witnesses, what happened next remains uncertain. Back in mid-July 2015, his family told a TV station that he'd touched the power line with the extender. Blackburn says the electricity might have arced. It's possible the basket wobbled into a danger zone.
No matter. The effect was more important than the cause.
His hands grabbed the rail of the basket, the last thing they would ever do. The electricity started up his legs. He felt it travel through his arms.
"I was awake the whole time," he says. "I could feel my body getting hotter and hotter."
Then it shot out his back and left him to deal with the rest of his life.
'You figure it out'
Until then, the plan was to become a boss. He'd bid jobs and hire painters and let them work the overtime while he spent more time with his kids, a girl and a boy, now 15 and 12.
That ended with the amputations, about halfway between the elbow and wrist.
"A year later," he says, "my son asked me when they were going to grow back."
In a sense, Blackburn was waiting, too.
He learned to live with prosthetics. He's grown comfortable enough with them to do the same mindless things anyone else would — adjust the blue bandana around his mostly shaved head, or scratch an itch near the 4-inch-tall Olde English D tattooed on his neck, a tribute to a deceased friend.
"Taking a shower, little things. You figure it out," he says.
The big things, though, seemed beyond his grasp. He stopped caring. Or at least, that was the public face, maybe because he thought no one cared about him.
James Willis, JVS' vice president for workforce development and rehabilitation, saw a different side.
Michigan Rehabilitation Services, a state program focused on disabilities and employment, referred Blackburn to JVS. He was doubtful he could do the work, but his reluctance didn't show; the first day, Willis says, he showed up at 8:10 a.m. for a 9 a.m. training session.
In partnership with Amazon, Southfield-based JVS has set up two simulated workplaces at its building in Detroit. One teaches sorting, with an actual conveyor where workers pull cartons and place them on plastic pallets that correspond to ZIP codes.
The other is geared for fulfillment centers, the 800,000-to-1-million-square-foot warehouses where robots push racks of products toward workers who read a computer screen to know what's needed, pluck it, scan it, and place it in a carton that's whisked away at speeds almost suitable for traffic.
Since March, Willis says, JVS has placed 47 workers in $15-per-hour jobs with Amazon, either where Blackburn works in Brownstown or at the warehouse facility in Romulus. Many are on the autism scale, ideally suited for the rote and repetition of the fulfillment center. Others deal with cognitive or learning disabilities, hearing impairment or mental health issues.
Become proficient through JVS, Willis says, and there's no interview with Amazon. Pass a drug screening and background check, go directly to work.
It's important to note, Willis says, that Amazon has already hired for the holiday rush. JVS will not resume recruiting and training until February, though names are being taken at jvshumanservices.org/amazon.
Also important, he says, is the level of support from Amazon, which has found both better attendance and better retention with disabled workers.
One new hire from JVS was having trouble remembering pieces of product codes. He'd read the B-881 for Twinings Irish Breakfast Tea on the computer screen, but forget the B by the time he was facing a rack of products.
Rather than cut him loose, Willis says, a manager blasted an email to every other fulfillment center in the country, asking for potential solutions. A suggested tweak in the process worked.
"We were totally blown away," Willis says, "that an employer would take the time to do that."
In Blackburn's case, his greatest problem came on his first day.
Workers punch in by pressing buttons on a scanner. The tips of his hooks were too big for the numbers.
In short order, Willis says, they worked around it.
Admired as it is by JVS, Amazon is not always beloved, for reasons widely reported. It's been called too big, too knowing, too carnivorous, too dangerous. Willis says he has safety discussions with his graduates, particularly those bound for the larger and more frenetic fulfillment center.
The company's Alternative Workforce Supplier Program, however, has been a model Willis hopes others will follow. Since 2015, the company says, working with nonprofits, it has put more than 750 people with disabilities to work in 40 facilities across 14 states.
Among the things it has done for Blackburn is put him back on the road. His Jeep Cherokee was laid up for better than a year for lack of a relatively cheap repair.
"I knew it was real when I got my first paycheck," he told Willis, and with it a level of tangible, steerable independence.
The Jeep has rings on the wheel designed for prostheses, but he says he doesn't need them. Adapting the hands for work at Amazon, he had his technician add rubber pads and tighten the tension, the better to grip boxes.
"You can get different attachments. Tools, clamps, whatever you need," he says.
He sticks with the hooks. On a standard night last week, he's using them to unload a truck, placing parcels on a conveyor belt that extends deep into the trailer.
They have to be three or four inches apart, says Prakash, the operations manager, so a sorting machine can read the labels. Blackburn keeps up with the belt, occasionally reaching out and giving a box a farewell pat.
Then he switches to a dishwasher-sized cardboard box called a gaylord, filled with padded mailers known as jiffies. Sometimes when he clasps multiples in a prosthetic, he has to use the other to push them free. Still, he keeps pace.
A few co-workers pop by for brief hellos. They're protective; they pass a message through Prakash that "he's shy. Take it easy on him."
"Some people complain about the job. I don't see why," Blackburn says.
It's already given him at least as much as he's put in. A few times, management has even brought in catered meals.
"I've worked some places where they wouldn't buy a $5 pizza," he says, and here he is getting pampered while he puts food on the table, just the way he used to.
For Thanksgiving, he says, it'll be a small gathering. His mom. His kids, who live with him. His brother, Robert Delozier, who shares the house.
They'll serve turkey. Maybe he'll carve it, or maybe someone else will.
What matters is that it's there, and he can.