Did you ever fall out of a tree when you were a kid?  About how high would you say the average tree that the average kid would climb is?  Five feet, ten feet?  Taking into account you are clearly an above average individual, let’s just double it & say you fell from 20 feet.

Anyone ever fall off a roof or ladder?  How high?

Let’s get a visual going… I’m five feet tall so if I stand on a chair, I’m about the height of, well… an average man.  The 94th floor observatory of The John Hancock Building is 1000 feet above Michigan Avenue.

It’s a fairly sunny day and the wind feels nice in contrast to the warmth of the sun.  A nice man with giant hands and a giant parachute asks you if you would like to participate in a once in a lifetime event.  He’s going to go out on the roof of The John Hancock Building where he will strap on his parachute and then run to the edge.  The wind will fill his parachute wing and he’ll be able to fly by controlling the wing.  He will land safely in the grass by Grant Park.  If you want to go, it would only be $50 for the ride and all you have to do is relax and enjoy.  He’s an experienced pilot and he’ll do the rest.

Do you strap yourself in for the ride or do you say, no thanks, I just came up to snap a few pictures and have a drink, then I’m going shopping on Michigan Avenue.

Would you give him the $50 bucks and go for it?

What is it that has some people go for it & others hold back?

What was it that had me say yes on August 31, 2007 on the top of a mountain in Croatia when a paragliding pilot asked me if I would like to do a tandem ride?

What was it that had me say yes, when in my heart I didn’t really want to go?  Perhaps I rationalized that I had done a tandem paraglide ride twice before and really enjoyed it.  Perhaps I wanted to look cool… how many other people can say they’ve been paragliding in Croatia?  Perhaps I wanted to renew an adventurous spirit I once had, but had since forgotten.  Who knows why I said yes, but I did.  And of all the times when I’ve had buyers remorse & returned the item, and all the times I changed my mind and called it a woman’s prerogative… why didn’t I do that on that day?

As I put on the flight suit and the pilot zipped me up and attached the harness, I remember thinking, “I don’t really want to do this…” but nothing of the sort came out of my mouth.

As the pilot got the paraglider all set up and the wing spread out, I checked to make sure my camera was tight on my wrist so I could snap some good photos.  A big gust of wind tried to convince me to change my mind, but we started to launch.  I was running and my heart was racing… but it was no good.  We would have to try again.  Yet another opportunity to say, “No thank you.  I’ve changed my mind.”  But the words were still only uttered in my mind and I took no action.

We prepared again and there it was… the big gust of wind we needed to launch the paraglider and lift the 275 pound pilot and little ole me into the sky.  We had about 120 seconds of fun, just enough time to snap a photo of my feet in the sky and myself smiling.  Then the wind shifted and the pilot said “Oh S***!”

“Oh S***!?!” I screamed.  “You’re kidding me!  You are going to get us down safely right?”

That is all I remember.

Here’s what I was told later…

Right after we launched, a thermal (big gust of warm air) swooped us up about 1000 feet over the ground and was blowing us back to the other side of the mountain.  The other side is not suitable for landings in emergency situations because of the rocky terrain.  Without being too dramatic… we may not have survived the landing from that altitude on that side of the mountain.

So the pilot made some quick decisions to help us lose altitude as we continued to get carried up higher and blown back farther.  He collapsed the wing in a maneuver called a B-line stall (for all you paragliders out there).  We lost altitude quickly (not exactly a free fall, but not exactly a calm glide either) & landed in the trees on the merciful side of the mountain.

I went into shock.  My husband, Dave, called 911 (apparently it’s universal!) and the next thing I remember is Dave calming me down and reassuring me that Jake (our 4-year old, home safe in Chicago with Grandpa) was okay because that’s all I was asking about at the time.  No less than 20 mountain rescue guys appeared out of nowhere.  They put an IV in & wrapped up my leg.  Here’s where you’ll think I’ve gone “Hollywood” on you… it started to hail.  No, I’m not kidding.  The helicopter can’t land, big hail stones are clobbering us & it’s freezing.  They wrap me in a tinfoil blanket and ironically the paraglider shields us from the pelting hail.

Four guys plus Dave carry me down the mountain & five others carry Jerko, the Croatian pilot.  I’m told later that one of the guys carrying me said “she’s so light!”  (Man, the things you have to do for a compliment!)

We were carried to an ambulance & driven to the helicopter which flew us to the hospital in Split, Croatia.  In the emergency room, I sobbed & went in & out of consciousness.  Mostly I just wanted to be with Dave & Jake.  I wanted to wake up from this nightmare.  Jerko extended his hand to me in the emergency room & I said, “I’m going to have to start calling you ‘Jerk-off’ now” since he told me earlier that’s what his American friends call him.  It was my best attempt at humor under the circumstances.

The doctors did X-rays of my legs, spine, ribs and neck.  I broke my right leg in 3 places.  They put me under anesthesia & set my leg in an immobilizing cast.  There I sat in the Croatian hospital from Friday night until Monday, 5am when we left for the airport.  That in itself was a miracle.  Because of the injuries, all below my knee, they were able (after much pleading) to cut the cast below my knee so I could bend it because if not, I wouldn’t be able to fly and I might still be in a Croatian hospital right now.  We also had concerns about them letting us leave the country without first paying our medical bills… who knew what a mountain rescue could go for these days?  We lucked out & only got charged for the medical services and hospital stay.  The mountain rescue was their way of saying “Thank you for visiting Croatia and please tell your friends.”  Honestly that could have cost us tens of thousands of dollars; instead $800 was the total bill.  Aaah… another opportunity to be thankful.

Now that I’m home and I’ve had my surgery, which went well, I’m able to focus on all the little things for which I am grateful.  I am grateful for the opportunity to live knowing that all that matters is right now, right now, right now.  I am grateful for blue skies and gentle warm breezes across my cheeks as I sit in my temporary wheelchair and watch my son ride his bike.  I am grateful for having the time to read and write because when my driving leg is in full working order, I’m too busy running around to stop and do anything peaceful (except that now I have learned my lesson and I have time to form new habits).  I am grateful for all the people who care about me and all the people who cared for me when they didn’t even know me.  I am grateful for each lesson this experience is teaching me.  I am grateful for my husband who has stretched himself in his capacity for on-going compassion.

Of course, regular life does set in after a while and though I’m trapped in a cast on the leg that represents freedom (to walk away from difficult conversations or just take a drive), the rest of the world is ready to get back to normal.  Perhaps there is a formula for compassion… for the common cold you are granted 24-48 hours of compassion, for a broken bone you get 1-2 weeks and injuries that could have cost you your life get you 3 full weeks of compassion.  After that, it’s back to business as usual… for everyone else in my life.  For me, I’m still healing and though I will be able to walk again, I will never take a step forward for granted.

One thing is certain, while my broken bones will heal, my new found gratitude for precious people and everyday moments will remain with me forever… just another souvenir along with the plates and screws in my leg.

Merit Gest teaches people how to become Possibility Thinkers at conferences around the globe.  To book Merit for your next event, please call 720-980-1286, or visit www.MeritGest.com


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