Get It Right Today, Not Tomorrow: Lessons Learned from a Plane Crash

January 2017 Vol 8, No 1

The morning after her 21st birthday, Mercedes Ramirez-Johnson woke up in plane wreckage on the side of a mountain, with no recollection of how she got there. In a keynote speech at the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators 7th Annual Navigation & Survivorship Conference, Ms Ramirez-Johnson shared the lessons she learned from surviving that harrowing plane crash that killed 160 people, including her parents.

She says she made 3 choices during her recovery: the choice to live with intention, the choice to gain perspective, and the choice to persevere. “If we’re just surviving day to day, we’re missing out on so much, not just for ourselves, but for the people we’re helping on a daily basis,” she said. “In the field of navigation, many times the only thing the patient is worried about is surviving, but there’s a huge difference between surviving and thriving.”

The 3 Choices

She and her parents were on their way from Miami to Cali, Colombia, when, due to pilot error, their plane crashed into the Andes Mountains. She spent 18 hours on the side of the mountain before being rescued, and that’s when she made the choice to live with intention. “I could see many motionless people, and after a lot of prayer, begging, and deal making, I promised myself I would no longer just go through the motions. If I was going to get a second chance at life I was going to make it count,” said Ms Ramirez-Johnson, who became a leadership and workplace safety speaker after spending a decade in high-level sales in the pharmaceutical and medical software industries.

In the hospital, she learned she was 1 of only 4 survivors, and that both her parents had perished in the crash. She found herself unable to walk, confined to a wheelchair, and struggling to define her “new normal.” She said she felt sorry for herself and envied the people walking around the hospital, until she remembered her parents would be disappointed to witness that negativity, especially after she made it out of the crash alive. She realized she didn’t know the struggles of the people she was judging, and that’s when she made the choice to have a better perspective. “I didn’t know what battles they were facing, and mine wasn’t any more life-altering than theirs, because if it has the power to turn your world upside down, it’s all the same,” she said.

The third choice she made after the crash was the choice to persevere. She said she used all kinds of excuses during physical therapy, but her therapists pushed her as far and as hard as they could to make her walk again. “They didn’t take my excuses, they looked past my fake tears, and they kept pushing me to get better and stronger, and to actually believe in myself,” she said. “It made me realize that even on days I don’t want to push and fight, I’ve got to for the people who believe in me. That’s what being a fighter is all about.”

The Problem with Autopilot

When these choices are applied in life and work, it makes a huge difference, she said. “And if the choice to live and work with intention had been made on December 20, 1995, that plane crash never would have happened.”

About 15 minutes before landing in Cali, the pilots accidentally entered the wrong code into the flight computer, causing the airplane to make a U-turn and head back toward Bogotá on a direct collision course with the mountains. “These pilots were good-hearted, hard-working men who just had a really bad day at the office,” she said. When the pilots realized their error, they tried desperately to pull the plane up and clear the mountains, but the landing gear sequence had already begun, and the speed brakes were engaged.

After a 5.5-year investigation, it was determined that had the speed brakes been released, the plane would have had over a 95% chance of clearing the mountain. “They went into survival mode. They thought of 1 thing only—to save everyone on that plane—but there’s a huge difference between knowing what to do and actually putting it into action,” she said. “We can’t allow a survival mode mentality to seep into our lives and our work days, because then, the simplest solutions that are right in front of our noses completely disappear.”

Never Lose Situational Awareness

Gaining perspective is about maintaining situational awareness. In aviation, situational awareness is a pilot’s knowledge of the location of the plane in relation to the flight plan. When we lose this awareness in our day to day, it’s when the mind is doing one thing and the body is doing another, she explained. “You’re the pilot of your own life, and for the patients you navigate,” said Ms Ramirez-Johnson. “If you’re on autopilot every day, you’re letting other people have the controls, but when we maintain situational awareness, we maintain control in the cockpit each and every day.”

Navigators lead people through the most turbulent times of their lives, helping them to pick up the pieces and focus not just on surviving, but thriving. “I challenge you to start making the choice to live, the choice to persevere, and the choice to have a clear perspective,” she told the audience. “If you can employ these choices each day, I’m confident you can get over pretty much any mountain that comes your way.”

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Last modified: August 10, 2023

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