Stories from Dr. Yukari, Story 44, Trauma and Growth

[Stories from Dr. Yukari ]

Guided by the hope of St. Nichiren, we continue to work towards a peaceful society. Honolulu Myohoji Mission collaborates with Psychologist Dr. Yukari Kunisue, a trained and experienced therapeutic life coach, to offer a safe online space: Stories from Dr. Yukari


155 Passengers and crew members who were being rescued from the aircraft landed on Hudson River


Shortly after taking off from La Guardia at 3:24PM, the engines of the US Airways Flight 1549 were suddenly shut down. Captain Sullenberger (“Sully”) quickly realized that a flock of Canadian geese were the cause of the aircraft suddenly losing power while flying over New York City in the middle of winter. The retired air force pilot Captain Sully tried to return to La Guardia or attempted to make an emergency landing at a nearby New Jersey airport but found out shortly afterwards that he had to land on the Hudson river to save his 155 passengers and crew members.


Passengers treaded through floating luggage in the water to escape the plane and waited on the wings for rescuers. It was below zero degrees and many were suffering from shock and hypothermia. Fortunately, only a handful of passengers were seriously injured from this incident. Within 30 minutes, all passengers and crew members were rescued from this harrowing experience. This incident was later referred to as the “Miracle on Hudson”, a rare successful story in commercial airplane history. 


While the heroic actions of the captain were praised by the media with even a film being created from this incident, many of the survivors were left traumatized.  Flashbacks where one would remember the emergency landing were common along with more severe cases of panic attacks and anxiety. Others felt withdrawn and stopped going to work or even began avoiding taking airplanes. The victims all showed some form of the so-called acute Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. 


You might think that it is completely reasonable for one to develop a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) especially such a traumatic incident. The numbers have shown that around 50%-60% of Americans experience a traumatic event, but only 5%-10% of those people actually end up developing a form of PTSD (except for soldiers who are up to 30%). There are a group of researchers who focused their research on a group who did not develop PTSD despite experiencing a near death incident. Professor Richard Tedeschi and his team at the University of North Carolina called the positive change after a crisis as Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome (PTGS).


As a life coach, I often come across people who are very resilient. They seem to have acquired various tools in life to better help them handle traumatic experiences. These tools can involve their faith and religious beliefs or it could be channeled from loved ones. It could even be down to their overall mindset and attitude. I find this topic to be very intriguing since life often has its own way of throwing curve balls at us. How can we learn from them? Also, how can we help people with PTSD and have them transcend towards experiencing PTGS?


Allow me to share the story of Dave Sanderson, a passenger on the same flight known as the Miracle of the Hudson along with his personal experience. He was an ordinary passenger who was one of the many passengers who struggled through the ice-cold water in hopes of surviving. During his struggle, he recalled his late mother speaking to him and said, “do the right thing. Then God will help you”.


The flight was in total chaos with panicked people everywhere. Aisles were full of luggage dropped from the compartments, injured people were struggling to stand, and water was also rushing into the aircraft with people crying and yelling all around him. Instead of putting himself first, he listened to the words of his mother and pushed all of the luggage out of the way, helped the disabled exit, and even returned to instruct others on how to exit safely. He ended up being one of the last people left on the aircraft including the captain. 


By the time he came out of the airplane, the wings had no space for him. He could have been thrown into minus seven-degree water at any minute. He jumped into the ice-cold river letting fate take control. He began swimming towards one of the life boats with extra spaces. Upon entering the water, he began experiencing hypothermia and did not feel any bodily sensation. He worked to raise one hand in and out of water to push himself forward. Luckily, someone was able to pull him out of the water and into the boat. He still does not know who pulled him out, but he was rescued. He was convinced that his mom was right and because he did the right thing, God was on his side. 


Dave felt dramatically different after this life changing experience. He did not experience nightmares or flashbacks but instead, he understood his mother’s words completely. He was not afraid of traveling by plane either and felt somehow felt that everything would be okay. While he did return to work, he felt like he needed to share his experience with others. He soon became a motivational speaker and felt his sense of gratitude and appreciation grow. He often donated money from his talks and gave $8 million dollars to the Red Cross New Jersey, the same organization that provided rescue blankets to passengers. Dave Sanderson became one of the living proofs of PTGS bringing positive change into his life even after a life-threatening experience. 


In life, we often face various challenges and unfortunate traumas. There is no one who lives without issues or hardships despite us having choices in life. If we reflect back to Dave’s mother’s words, the choice is to do the right thing and to help others. Accept unwanted challenges and take it as a step towards becoming a better person. 


Tom Hanks played the leading role of Captain Sully in the movie Miracle on the Hudson.