Suffering through a four-hour flight delay until 3 in the morning sounds pretty appealing after listening to someone who was shot in the head by terrorists who hijacked her plane.
Sounds a bit intense for an 8 a.m. keynote speech following breakfast at a Connecticut casino, but it accomplished the task at hand: Making attendees grateful for what they have and giving them a desire to push through tough times to meet their goals.
Everyone gets hijacked at some point in their lives when circumstances beyond their control force them to make new decisions and change the way they’ve always done things, Jackie Pflug told a group of roughly 200 guests at JMT Consulting’s customer conference at Mohegan Sun. Whether it’s an instantaneous act of violence like she experienced or a drawn-out battle with cancer, these events spark the same feelings of fear and frustration. “In the end, it’s not about the story, it’s how you rise above the story,” Pflug said.
Pflug was an American passenger on a flight from Athens to Cairo in November 1985 in which 59 of the 98 people on board died from gunshot wounds, explosions or smoke inhalation. Fifteen minutes after takeoff, a group of five men who called themselves the Egypt Revolution waving guns and grenades confiscated their passports.
When the plane made an emergency landing in Malta, the terrorists demanded fuel and safe passage to Libya. Because the request was not granted, they started shooting one person every 15 minutes.
Pflug was next in line.
Almost four hours passed and nothing happened, so Pflug started to relax. Then they came for her.
“I thought my brain exploded and then I felt like I was floating," she recalls. In reality, they had shot her and thrown her down a flight of stairs, but she couldn’t feel the pain. “Then I felt something hard and I thought I hit heaven, so I opened my eyes and realized I was on the runway.”
Pflug quickly shut her eyes, fearing that if the terrorists saw her alive, they would shoot her again, as they had done to another woman on the plane who survived the initial shot to the head.
She laid there “playing dead” for five hours and started thinking about her outfit.
That morning, she only had one clean top left and it was an oversized T-shirt she didn’t like. She was mad at herself for not having any other clothes and having to be in public dressed that way. Now that loathing turned into gratitude for the fact that the bagginess prevented the terrorists from seeing her breathe.
Suddenly she was lifted up and thrown into a vehicle by two men she presumed were the terrorists. When one of them turned her over, she gasped for air and they started screaming “She’s alive.” She didn’t know what to do, so she just listened to them speaking as they tried to guess her nationality. She realized they weren’t the terrorists, so she asked, “Are you the good guys or the bad guys?”
It turns out they were medics who were originally heading to the morgue, but turned around to transport her to the hospital.
The story isn’t all happy endings. Pflug lost a great deal of her peripheral vision, her short-term memory and some of her speech. The doctors told her she’d never drive again, never be able to go back to work and never read above a kindergarten level.
After four years of deep depression, she said she “got tired of who I had let myself become.”
“I made a commitment to put the smile back on my face and to feel whole again.”
Two years later, she got a driver’s license, then she started a new career in motivational speaking. After 19 years, she advanced to a 12th-grade reading level, but she had to work at it every day.
She left guests with three pieces of advice that can be used in their personal and professional lives:
Have a great attitude. Expect more success than failure.
Be grateful. She is reading a book called “Simple Abundance,” which recommends people write down five things for which they are grateful at the end of each day. Pflug purchased a blue spiral notebook, labeled it “journal” and follows that advice. “It takes your focus off what you don’t have to what you do have,” she says.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. The morning of her flight, airport security lines were longer than normal and two men cut in front of her. She was so angry, until she was on the plane, waiting for her turn to be shot. “Don’t get sidetracked by things that don’t matter.”
Her story made me reflect back to last week, at my own airport frustrations. After three delays, the captain told us that JFK had closed all but one of its runways due to an accident. The good news was, we were going to depart (not to mention, we weren’t in the accident). The bad news was there were literally 100 planes in line ahead of us and we’d likely be taxiing for two hours.
After overcoming the initial shock, the passengers who decided to stick through it instead of deboarding started making jokes and laughing. We all wanted to reach our destination, and staying angry was actually making some of the people ill with migranes.
The taxiing only lasted an hour and we were grateful for that, and for finally landing safely.
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