In Short: Seatbelts.
On March 7, 1993, in Woodstock, Conn., eight skydivers decided we would try to make an 8-way freefall formation exiting from two Cessna 182s flying in formation. Skydiving planes have all but the pilot’s seats removed and a special door is installed that can be opened in flight.
Three of us in the second plane to take off were sitting backward by the passenger door and I was facing forward at the back of the plane, legs stretched out toward the pilot. The pilot was the only one wearing a seatbelt.
The plane took off and had reached about 100 ft. by the time we got to the end of the runway. Suddenly, the engine stopped and the pilot shut off the master switch and called on the radio that we were going down while he pushed the yoke forward to keep up airspeed.
I had time to see that we had a large field to land in, but not enough time to turn around and get my back to the pilot’s seat, so I took the crash position: knees up, head between my knees and arms wrapped around my legs.
The next thing I knew, we were on the ground and the plane had been stopped dead by the trees at the end of the field. I was lying on my back behind the pilot’s seat and my legs were up and on the three other jumpers, who were getting out of the plane as fast as possible in case of a fire.
As the last one got out, my legs dropped down and I sensed all of the feeling go out of my legs. I was Life Flighted to a hospital in Worcester, Mass. We landed and the last thing I remember was being on a gurney and heading across the tarmac.
When I regained consciousness, my wife and a doctor were at my side and they explained that my spinal cord was severed at mid-chest and that I was a complete paraplegic. A doctor in a wheelchair came in and said that life would get better with time and that my attitude would be the only thing that could hold me back.
The most important thing that he told me was to look at my life going forward and realize that I could still do 90% of the things I used to do, and to concentrate on the things I could still do rather than mourning the things I had lost.
Following that advice was difficult at times, but by two years later I was in college and mostly happy with my life. I try to be approachable and freely talk about life as a cripple and observing that everyone has problems. While mine are more visible than most, mine are not necessarily worse.
I refer to myself only as a cripple because it is a perfectly good word that defines my condition; I am unable to walk. I find it to be a much more honest word than “alternately-abled” or “handicapable.”
Donald Sluter started skydiving while in the Army, packing parachutes for the First Special Forces on Okinawa (but, he’s quick to add, he was “not Special Forces qualified”). After being paralyzed from the chest down he started college, and 27 years later is still a Grad(ual) Student at UMass Amherst. He lives in Whately with his dog, Rudy, and two cats, Smudgie and Bailey.
Editor’s Note: Don is a long-time This is True reader and, yes, this is being published on the 28th anniversary of the plane crash. -rc
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