Inspiring * Transformational * Courageous * Personable

Do the Right Thing

Wake Up and Shake Up- It’s About You!

Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish

the rest.

-Mark Twain

Doing the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing to do. In fact, it can be downright hard, especially if the people around you are encouraging you to do otherwise. Feeling like a lone ranger is not a pleasant experience. As effortless as it may be to turn the other way and take the easy way out, you’d likely find yourself looking in the mirror that evening, wondering what could have happened if you’d done the right thing.

During my trip to Colombia last month, I learned firsthand – and in a very personal way – the power of taking a stand and doing right. This lesson came from Dr. Leonardo Quintero, a man to whom I may very well owe my life. Leonardo is a surgeon at The University Hospital of Cali and the head of the county’s search and rescue division.

One of the biggest highlights of the trip was going back to the hospital where I spent ten days in critical condition after surviving an airplane crash ten years ago. Getting ready for the visit, I put on makeup and fixed my hair, and half jokingly told my uncle, “I want to make sure I look healthy so the doctors and nurses will know they did a great job on me!”

Even though I had an appointment to see Leonardo, I still had to slip some cash to the security guard before my sister, my uncle and I were allowed into the hospital. This was the first time I’d had any contact with Leonardo since I was his patient so many years ago.

I cordially extended my hand in greeting, but he pulled me in and gave me a strong hug. As he graciously welcomed us into his office, I noticed there were only two things on his walls – two poster-sized photos: one of his rescue team in front of their helicopter on the mountain where my plane crashed, and one of a person on a stretcher being airlifted of that same mountain.

“Who’s that in the stretcher?” I asked in awe as I moved closer to the photo.

With a smile on his face, Leonardo looked at the picture proudly and said, “It’s you.” I put my hand over my mouth and started to cry.

Suddenly the memories came flooding back – how utterly terrified I was suspended in that stretcher in mid-air, praying the rope wouldn’t snap, and all the thoughts that raced through my mind as that helicopter took me off the mountain.

Then I remembered the evening of December 20, 1995 – my twenty-first birthday. American Airlines flight #965, en route from Miami, Florida to Cali, Colombia, carried 164 passengers and crew members. Most were families, on their way to Cali to spend the Christmas holiday. Only minutes from landing, the pilots entered the wrong coordinates into the flight management computer, causing the plane to fly nearly 130 miles in the wrong direction. With the plane surrounded by mountains and barreling through the darkness at speeds near 400 miles per hour, the pilots didn’t realize they’d lost their position in the flight plan until it was too late. The flight tragically ended when the plane plowed into the side of a mountain.

Bringing my thoughts back to Leonardo’s office, I tried to pull myself together, but couldn’t speak without crying again. Then Leonardo shared with us the story of how his rescue team found me and the other survivors. I sat perched on the edge of his couch, hanging on every word. This was the first time I’d ever heard his side of the story:

The crash happened at 9:30 p.m. As the news spread that a flight had gone down, Leonardo mobilized his rescue team and reported to the county authorities. But instead of being greeted with cooperation and support, the authorities told him not to bother – the only thing they’d find would be dead bodies. Leonardo responded that nobody could possibly know at this point whether there were survivors and that he and his crew would go regardless. Unsympathetic, the local authorities forbid him to go, fearing they would be held responsible for the high risks the team would face with a rescue at night in the mountains. Leonardo declared, “I am a rescue surgeon. If there is even the slightest chance that anyone is alive, it is my responsibility to try to save them!”

By this time, it was close to midnight. Refusing to give up, Leonardo began making phone calls to politicians and judges in an effort to supersede the county government and give his team clearance to proceed. One of the people he awoke that evening, a highly respected judge, understood that sending a rescue team at any cost was the only right thing to do. When Leonardo presented the county authorities with the appropriate legal documentation, they had no choice but to let the team of nearly a dozen rescue workers head into the mountains.

The uncertainty of exactly where the plane had crashed hampered rescue efforts. Air traffic control provided a radius where the crash site might have been, based on its last communication with the aircraft. Residents living near the mountain’s valley reported hearing a thunderous crash, but there was no fire or smoke to indicate our location. Further complicating matters were the treacherous terrain and the heavy fog that prevented helicopters from spotting the wreckage from above. After hours trekking through the mountainous jungle,

Leonardo and his team finally found the wreckage around 1:30 p.m. the following afternoon, December 21st. I’ll never forget the intense relief and feeling of hope that overcame me the first time I heard the rescuers calling out for us from the other side of the mountain. Despite the devastation that surrounded them, they focused on the joy of finding survivors and immediately went into rescue mode to bring us down to safety. I was the last survivor to be taken off that mountain, nearly 18 hours after the crash. Sadly, 160 other people, including my parents, didn’t make it offthe mountain alive.

When Leonardo finished his story, I tried to thank him for risking his life to save mine and for all the hard work he and the other doctors and nurses did to keep me alive in the days following the crash. But it was difficult to talk through my tears. I kept telling him, “I wouldn’t be alive today, I wouldn’t have my husband and my children, if it weren’t for you.” He sympathetically took my hand and, consoling me, said, “We spend our days saving people’s lives. They leave this hospital and go back to their lives, and we never hear from them again. We had always hoped that you were happy and doing well. It’s very special to us that you’re here today – more than you’ll ever know.”

Leonardo and I formed a new friendship that day. Holding on tightly to his hand as we said our tearful goodbyes, I thanked him again for all that he did for me and for all that he continues to do for countless others. The experience was awe inspiring and profound for me. If one man hadn’t persisted and pushed his way through both bureaucracy and physical obstacles, I likely wouldn’t be alive today. After being told no for hours, Leonardo could have gone home, defeated, and told himself that he’d tried. But his integrity and his conviction for his work wouldn’t allow him to do that.

Likewise, when you choose to do the right thing, you may never know, specifically, the positive effects of that choice. You simply have to trust in the outcome.

The next time you’re faced with a tough decision, remember Leonardo’s story and the very real impact of his choice on people’s lives.  Although your choice may not directly carry life or death consequences like his did, your choice will undoubtedly produce a ripple effect on the lives of those around you. If you keep that ripple effect in mind, you’ll usually make the best choice.

About the Author
In 1995, Mercedes Ramirez Johnson narrowly survived a commercial airplane crash that killed 160 people, including her parents. As one of only four survivors of this tragedy, she vowed that she would make her second chance at life count…and that she has – not only for herself, but also for the tens of thousands of people who have heard her story and her message.

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