After a near-fatal accident – and lots of bouquets – Larsen Jay has found a new calling
No one ever sent Larsen Jay flowers before he fell off a ladder and ended up in the hospital. Some 22 days later, when he finished his hospital stay, he had more than 50 bouquets – and an idea that would launch more than 60,000 smiles.
On July 29, 2007, Larsen was doing some work on the roof of his “dude oasis,” a garage workshop he owns in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and two children. Losing his balance, he fell about a story and a half off a ladder, slamming onto the concrete floor.
He broke his left arm, left and right wrist, right elbow, right femur and nose. He also fractured his skull in 10 places. He was rushed to the Level 1 trauma center at the University of Tennessee Hospital.
“I was screaming for help for a little while,” Larsen says. “I sort of had that ‘I’m awake, I’m alive, do something’ moment. I eventually got to my phone and battled through the pain and dialed 911.”
While recovering, he received multiple flower bouquets from friends and family daily. It got to the point where the florists started to joke that all they were doing was going from their shop to his room.
“It was an amazing outpouring of support from people from all walks of life,” Jay tells PEOPLE. “As word spread about my accident, more flowers came and it really helped me focus on recovery and reinforced that I had a lot of support.”
By the end of his first week in the hospital, he was getting a bit stir crazy and asked the nurses to take him for a stroll in his wheelchair. It was then that he realized he had just gone from a room that he dubbed “a jungle of joy, happiness and celebration of life” to “stark industrial hospital bleh.”
“It was a huge visual contrast,” Jay says. “Room after room, there were no flowers, it just looked lifeless.”
It struck a chord with him and he went back to his jungle of joy to start ripping cards off his bouquets and loading them onto his wheelchair to start delivering them to other patients.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Jay says.
The very first delivery went to a woman in full headgear and wires.
“Those desperate eyes you never want to see.”
When he handed her the flowers, that sad look disappeared and turned into a big, bright smile, Jay says.
He spent a lot of time in a wheelchair in his room thinking about the interactions he had with people and thought there must be an organization already doing what he was doing on his own. But after doing some research, he found out there wasn’t. He thought about all the flowers that are thrown away every day, from weddings to funerals.
Seed of an Idea
That thought gave birth to his nonprofit: Random Acts of Flowers, which recycles used bouquets and delivers them to hospitals across the country.
Working with a network of 600 volunteers, the organization solicits flower donations from wedding venues, funeral homes, grocery stores and florists.
Jay himself spends three to four hours a week delivering flowers personally. Based in Knoxville now, he plans on expanding his charity to five different locations by spring.
During a hospital delivery in July 2010, a nurse came running down the hall to get Jay’s attention. She asked him to deliver a bouquet to a 94-year-old patient who wasn’t doing well. The patient had been in the hospital for two weeks and hadn’t received a single visitor.
When he delivered the flowers to the woman, she burst into tears. “You don’t understand, no man has ever given me flowers in my entire life, you have no idea what this means to me,” Jay recalls her saying.
“I remember standing in the hall after thinking about how we just changed someone’s life after 94 years with someone else’s garbage. That’s really cool.”
Jay fills a void in the healthcare industry by focusing on the emotional side of getting better as opposed to the physical, says Dr. Jim Lewis, a surgical oncologist at the University of Tennessee Hospital and a former board member.
“I often focus on the physical aspect and forget people are hurting in a variety of ways,” he says. “It’s a pretty humbling feeling as a doctor, to see the patients touched in a different way.”
Michelle Grimm is a single mom to three daughters. For the past 15 years, she’s been in and out of Parkwest Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee, fighting three forms of cancer, severe asthma and blood clots. She’s usually hospitalized about two to three times a year for two to three weeks at a time.
In February, 2012, she was having a crummy day in the hospital.
“I was having one of those days where I was just kind of feeling lonely and sorry for myself,” Grimm tells PEOPLE.
Then, a nurse came in with a gorgeous bouquet of yellow roses and immediately brightened her day.
“It’s hard to explain how much something that seems so little could really lift you up when you’re starring at walls and not feeling well all day,” Grimm says.
As for Jay, who with his wife, Adrian, works full-time for his charity after selling their production company in 2010, the joy he gets from delivering flowers helps him manage the aches and pains he still has from that fall.
“There hasn’t been a day in seven years that I haven’t had some aches, some pains, something hurt somewhere,” he says. “I guess you just sort of learn to live with that after a while. I got a second chance at life, so I’ll just take it.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine