Having courage does not mean that we are unafraid. Having courage means we face our fears. We are able to say, “I have fallen, but I will get up.” -Maya Angelou
Years ago, our sister Berta suffered a major setback but used optimism to pick herself back up. Since reaching a milestone is always something to be proud of, we’re taking a page out of our own book (pun intended) to revisit her story and celebrate not only her birthday but also one of her many superpowers: courage.
Our sister, Auberta (aka “Berta”), has always been the nurturing type – from patching up her little brothers’ wounds to helping around the house to baking and gifting the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookies to everyone she knows while working her way through college. She chipped in with our other siblings to replace home furniture for the family with her very first student loan. Quite naturally, in her early twenties she became a registered nurse.
Always an athlete, Berta was on a ski trip in Vermont with our sister Eileen in 1988 when she had a devastating, life-altering ski accident, breaking her neck and leaving her completely paralyzed. She was 28 years old.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall, Berta remembers Eileen asking, “Do you want me to untangle your legs?” and replying, “I don’t even know where they are.” When the ski patrolman arrived and asked her to squeeze his hand, she recalls, “I could not, and I knew I was in big trouble.”
In the days that followed, Berta lay immobile in a hospital in northern Vermont. Her neck injury was so unstable that it was unsafe for her to be transported to Boston. Her doctor informed her it was unlikely she would ever walk again. Eileen knew Berta needed to be surrounded by love and support; she spread word quickly, which resulted in a blizzard of cards, gifts and friends filling up her hospital room. All visitors, including us, were given strict orders from Berta herself: “I don’t want anyone coming in sad for me. I need laughs, not tears.”
Lying alone, she fought the darkness of her situation and made a conscious decision.
“If I’m sad, my whole family will be sad,” she thought. “It doesn’t help me or anybody.” It was hard and strange to rely on others for absolutely everything, even scratching her nose. She desperately craved good signs to focus on, and slowly they appeared. One day, she shrugged her shoulders, and a few days later she moved an arm. Many of us were gathered around her bed on the day Berta finally was able to move a toe on her right foot. She had been wishing it so hard, she said, that she wouldn’t have believed it if we hadn’t all pointed and erupted in celebration.
For five weeks, Berta had zero hand movement. But every day she spent in that hospital room, she focused on the good, on the progress, on doing a little bit more. She was fortunate to have an exceptional primary nurse named Betty, who went above and beyond normal duties — even visiting on her days off to brighten Berta’s spirits.
Six weeks after the accident, Berta underwent a risky and complex seven-hour surgery to fuse and stabilize her spine. Its success allowed her to begin rehabilitation. She had to relearn how to do everything, including rolling over and crawling. With assistance, she was eventually able to stand and take a few steps. “That was REALLY exciting,” she says. That same day she was transferred to a rehab hospital in Boston.
“You have to look at the good things,” she says. “It’s okay to be sad sometimes. I’m not saying I didn’t cry a lot back then. I did. It always felt good to let it all out. But then I’d turn the page and focus my thoughts on getting better.”
In rehab Berta saw many people who had it worse than she did — a reminder of how lucky she was. Her hospital friends organized a 5K run to raise funds for her living costs, and we followed suit with a fundraiser basketball tourney. Eileen was there by her sister’s side in every way, transporting Berta where she needed to be, coordinating visits from friends, and sorting through all the bills. Berta eagerly embraced her exercises, craving every possible sign of progress. “Every step of the way,” she said, “I felt lucky.”
Within two years, after fanatical dedication to rehab, Berta was not only walking, she was able to bicycle as well. Six months later, she went back to work as an outpatient nurse, helping others with similar hardships and living independently all the while.
To this day, Berta deals with significant daily challenges related to her accident. Her overall motion is limited, and her hands can be particularly frustrating. Yet she manages, through it all, to maintain her resilient, positive energy and lifelong focus on the wellbeing of others. When you see Berta, you get a bright smile, a warm hug, and then sincere, earnest questions about your life.
“I have a lot of setbacks,” she says, “but I try to look at them as things that may ruin my hour, but not my day, or my week. Put ‘em in the rear view mirror and keep looking forward. When that first doctor way back told me I was unlikely to walk, I swore at him in my head. I immediately thought of people who walk and run marathons after they’re told that. You can’t always believe one doctor or one medical report. I always feel like there are options, possibilities, even when you don’t know what they are. You just have to be open to them. I know I’m lucky, but I do believe the first thing you can do for yourself is believe.”
A friend once told Berta that he could never maintain her attitude if put in the same circumstances. “I don’t think I’d have the courage to face each day with a smile the way you do,” he said.
“You don’t think you can do a lot of things until you’re faced with choices,” she said. “What are my choices after the accident: smile or frown? If smile is the courageous choice, that’s an easy one for me,” she said with a big Berta grin.
Easy? Hardly. Courageous? For sure. Many of our Fuel letters over the years have come from people in similar situations to Berta’s. Faced with tremendous obstacles, courageous people somehow find a reservoir of courage to help them look forward and focus on the good.
This article is excerpted and adapted from the book Life is Good by Bert and John Jacobs, published by National Geographic on September 1, 2015. Copyright © 2015 The Life is Good Company. Read more in Life is Good: The Book