Andrea Meyer

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“When I’ve tried and failed, then you can tell me I’ll never walk again.” 

I am not sure if it was the way I said it or the look on my face, but the doctor just shook his head, turned, and left. That was the beginning of what has been the most difficult challenge of my life; in a sense, it’s when I first picked up the gauntlet.

I was a student pilot. On April 6, 1993, a day I can’t remember, I was scheduled to work with my instructor to practice flight emergency procedures. That morning, I arrived at the aero club, filed my flight plan, and signed out my plane. I performed the usual preflight check and, after pulling the aircraft out of the hanger, I received clearance from the tower and took off. We headed to a practice runway to log a few touch-and-go’s and simulate a failing engine. This runway was in the middle of cornfields that were a fair distance from most of the city. I was told that on the way to the landing strip, we passed another student pilot who was headed back to the club due to inclement weather. It was a cold, wet, Nebraska spring morning.

At some point during this flight, the left wing lost lift and we went into a flat spin. We disappeared from radar at about 700 ft above sea level and crashed into the ground. When we could not be reached on the radio, emergency teams were dispatched to find us.

About 2 hours later, an apple farmer noticed a stray piece of metal in the distance across the field next door. Thinking it was a piece of a silo that had blown off in a storm, he decided to take a look. He got into his truck and headed out across the field. As he drew closer, he realized it was an airplane. He got out of the truck to take a closer look and I surprised him by saying, “We’re okay, get help.” I had a large gash in my forehead that had covered my face and sweater with blood. He called for help and the emergency crews who were searching the area were finally able to find us. My instructor unfortunately was more severely injured than I, so he was immediately flown to the nearest hospital. I was hypothermic, so I was pulled into an ambulance to warm up while we waited for the second sky med helicopter to arrive. I was later told that the EMTs working the scene did not believe either of us would survive. My instructor did not.

My first memory of this accident came 3 days later when I awoke from my coma. Everything was white and bright. Suddenly, I saw my dad’s face before it disappeared as he quickly left the room to find the doctor. The doctors did not believe I would wake up. I tried to move my arms to shield my eyes and, when they wouldn’t move, looked down to see that they were tied down. I didn’t understand where I was, and I didn’t know how I had gotten there. It was 1 week before they felt my mind could handle knowing what had happened. I had been paralyzed.

My injuries included a burst fracture, an incomplete spinal cord injury, two broken legs, a broken coccyx, numerous broken ribs, collapsed lungs, a concussion, and massive bruising to all of my internal organs. By waking up I had come out of the woods, but I had a long road ahead of me. I spent the next 2 years in a wheelchair before I was able to move to a walker, then two canes, then a quad cane alone, and then a straight cane until finally I was able to walk with only the assistance of bilateral ankle-foot orthotics. It probably goes without saying that my world is different now.

I can’t say that if given the choice I wouldn’t change it, but I can say that my accident helped make me who I am, and I have learned more from this experience than I ever would have otherwise. My accident taught me, among other things, that giving up without trying is not an option for me. When the doctors told me I couldn’t walk, I decided to prove to myself that I could.

I am a big believer that everything happens for a reason. At 22, my path was headed in a different direction. After completing my degree in mathematics, I had decided to pursue a master’s degree in oceanography and use my love of aviation in the course of that work. Instead, my accident generated an alternate path, which led me to NASA.

I am now part of NASA and am working on the last few missions of the space shuttle. I am dedicated to NASA because it is an organization that, like me, doesn’t give up. NASA sets a goal and, as evidenced by the presence of an American flag on the moon, finds a way to achieve that goal no matter how insurmountable it may appear.

Biography

Andrea Meyer’s life was changed irrevocably when, on one cold Nebraska morning while practicing emergency landing procedures with her flight instructor, her airplane went into a flat spin before crashing into an empty cornfield. Yet despite the severity of her injuries and the death of her instructor, Ms. Meyer, like a phoenix, rose out of the ashes of one life (that of a degreed mathematician who aspired to get a second degree, a master’s, in oceanography) to establish a new life as a program analyst in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer at NASA Kennedy Space Center. It is there, as she writes, that “she has worked for the past 9 years in support of a mission that inspires the imaginations of minds both young and old, and improves the lives of people around the world.” Ms. Meyer is “a big believer that everything happens for a reason,” and that her “accident generated an alternate path, which led [her] to NASA.” Today, Ms. Meyer is working on the last few space shuttle missions. She is “dedicated to NASA because it is an organization that, like [her], doesn’t give up.” Moreover, Ms. Meyer, who obtained an MBA from the University of Central Florida, Orlando, before coming to NASA, contends that the agency “sets a goal and, as evidenced by the presence of an American flag on the moon, finds a way to achieve that goal no matter how insurmountable it may appear” – very much like Ms. Meyer herself.