When we say someone was on top of the world before he experienced a sudden fall, we usually mean it as a metaphor. In the case of Morris Goodman, it was literally true.
On March 10, 1981, Goodman was flying a single-engine Cessna 172 around Chesapeake Bay. Thirty-five years old and one of the top life insurance agents in the world, Morris lived in a 5,000-square-foot home in Virginia Beach, Va., with his wife Sandy, drove a Cadillac Seville and had purchased the Cessna just the day before.
As Goodman prepared to land, the setting sun reflected off the water. “It looked like a million diamonds just for me,” he recalls. “I was at peace with the world.” But his engine suddenly lost power during the runway approach, and Goodman saw power lines directly in front of his windshield. The plane ripped through the high-voltage cables and flipped as it crashed in a field.
Twenty-two minutes later, Goodman arrived at a hospital emergency room. Doctors diagnosed a broken neck and crushed spinal cord, jaw and larynx. The nerves in his diaphragm were so badly damaged he couldn’t breathe. A tracheotomy was performed, and he was connected to a respirator. His bowels, bladder and kidneys weren’t functioning. He was unable to swallow. Goodman needed care at a hospital with more resources, so he was rushed to Norfolk (Va.) General, 40 miles away.
There, his family was told to prepare for the worst. “The doctors said it was unlikely he’d make it through the night,” his sister Pat Waldo recalls. Goodman defied the odds by surviving a nine-hour operation, his body stitched together with wire and plastic. But the outlook was still grim. “We were told he wouldn’t have functioning below his ears,” Waldo says. “He might be able to see and hear, but speech was unlikely, and he’d have no movement from the neck down.”
Goodman, now 68, had other plans. “I believed with all my heart and soul that I would one day be normal—not hooked to machines, not silent, not fed through tubes, not pushed in a wheelchair.”
Eight months after the crash, Goodman walked out of the hospital.
He would go on to write a book, The Miracle Man: An Inspiring True Story of Motivation & Courage —the “Miracle Man” part taken from the nickname he was given by his doctors—and to a flourishing career as a motivational speaker, alongside his mentor Zig Ziglar, and, later, for Fortune 500 companies. He appeared in the inspirational films The Secret and The Opus , and Hollywood producers are hoping to turn his story into a feature film. (Goodman would like to see Robin Williams portray him.)
More recently Goodman’s resilience and positivity have helped him rebound from the grief of losing his second wife, Cathy, 48, to breast cancer about four years ago. He finds comfort in his deep Christian faith and in an adage by his hero Napoleon Hill: “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache, carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” And Goodman is a believer who has been tested.
As a young adult, he seemed to lack the drive and focus to overcome great obstacles. In fact, Goodman was a somewhat aimless college dropout on a 13-week trial as a salesman with a life-insurance company when he came across Hill’s Think and Grow Rich paperback in a drugstore.
“If someone can get rich just thinking about it, that sounded pretty good to me,” Goodman recalls, speaking in his light Southern drawl from his Virginia home. The book sat on his nightstand for weeks, “but it wasn’t working by osmosis.” Goodman finally cracked it open.
Hill’s message was simple, and for Goodman, revelatory: “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” Those words were “the beginning of a new life for me. [They] made me realize how much power we have within us.” Up to then, he says, “I’d pretty much wandered through life, letting circumstances dictate what I would and wouldn’t do.”
He began to shape the kind of life he wanted.
Following Hill’s admonition to create a “mastermind alliance” Goodman cultivated mentors. Among them were a local orthodontist who introduced him to fly-fishing and Christianity, and Ben Feldman, a legend in the life insurance business who had $50 million in yearly sales. Feldman inspired Goodman to ditch the long, elaborate proposals he was presenting to potential clients. “They’d look beautiful,” Goodman says, “but I had the feeling that as soon as I left someone’s office they tossed them into the trash. And I wasn’t getting the results I wanted.”
Feldman wooed customers with a pithy one-pager. His philosophy: The thicker the proposal, the stupider the salesman. “That one sentence was worth millions of dollars to me,” Goodman says. “I streamlined everything. I’d come in with one idea, and three or six months later I’d come back with another. Selling, I learned, is about building relationships, and that takes time.”
When he crashed his Cessna, Goodman was well on his way to reaching his goal of selling $15 million in insurance policies that year.
“By the mile it’s a trial; by the yard it’s hard; but by the inch life’s a cinch!”
Goodman’s sister Waldo stood by his bedside a week or so after the accident—monitors, catheters and a ventilator maintaining body functions—and remembered a teenage conversation with “Skookie,” as she calls him. “We agreed that if we were in a catastrophic accident, we wouldn’t want to live knowing that we would be tied to a machine for the rest of our lives,” she says.
Waldo gently suggested to Skookie that he was at the end of his life. “I don’t know how to describe the look he had other than to say he was totally alarmed. His eyes almost bulged out of his head.” Waldo asked whether he wanted to be kept alive. “He’d blink and pause, then blink again and pause,” she says. “He kept on doing this. It was his way of saying, yes, yes, yes, I want to live. He did everything in his power to stay alive.”
Blinking became Goodman’s means of communication. Waldo, a special-ed teacher, created a system of cards that allowed him to “talk” by fluttering his eyelids. One card divided the letters of the alphabet into four boxes, each with two lines. To converse with him, Goodman’s nurses, doctors and visitors would point to a section of the card and ask him whether a box contained the letter he wanted to spell. He’d blink if the answer was yes. Next, they’d pinpoint the line, and, finally, the letter.
Every aspect of Goodman’s recovery was equally painstaking. To prevent him from drowning in his own fluids, the plug to his tracheostomy was removed every four hours and mucus suctioned from his lungs with a tube and vacuum pump inserted through the hole in his throat. For months he had to wear a halo vest. The Frankenstein-like device, which supported the muscles of his neck, was attached to his skull with screws that were tightened with a wrench. Each turn of the wrench caused blood to flow and pain so excruciating, “I thought for sure I was going to pass out,” Goodman recalls.
Then there were the bodily humiliations. He lacked bowel control, and the resulting cleanup and immodesty were “sometimes harder to bear than all of the physical pain.” But it spurred him on. I will not live like this for the rest of my life, Goodman told himself.
Anyone walking by Goodman’s hospital room would have heard the deep-pitched voices of his favorite motivational speakers. Tapes by Ziglar, professional coach and motivational speaker Bob Proctor, and positive-thinking master Norman Vincent Peale were the soundtrack to his persistence. “When you turn on a light switch, you don’t create electrical power,” Ziglar said in a recording that Goodman played frequently. “You simply release the power that is there all the time.”
Goodman reached deep within to summon that power.
Every time the respirator took a breath for him, he’d attempt to inhale, first 100, then 200, and later 300 times in a row in his struggle to breathe on his own again. Goodman told no one about this grueling program, which took hours at a stretch, for fear the doctors would tell him his goal was unattainable. “I refused to think of quitting even though I had no indication that this was doing any good,” he says. “Without a 100 percent commitment, I couldn’t have sustained the belief that I could succeed.” On May 25—2½ months after the crash—Goodman was taken off the respirator.
Next he focused on relearning motor skills. With neurological damage sending skewed signals to his nerves and muscles, this was an immense cognitive challenge as well as a physical one. In occupational therapy, he was given a tray with different-shaped pegs and holes, the sort of thing you’d give a 1-year-old. “It took me an hour to get just one peg in a hole,” he says. “It was like climbing Mount Everest.”
Goodman was a dogged patient—scheduled for an hour of physical therapy, he’d stay two or three—but not always a cooperative one. After weeks of being on a glucose drip, he was finally allowed to eat solid food. Given a steady diet of chopped turkey, a food he detested, he went on a hunger strike. When doctors re-inserted his feeding tube, he ripped it out of his stomach, drenching the sheets with blood. The patient prevailed, soon enjoying milkshakes and grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Goodman had set a goal: He’d walk out of the hospital without mechanical assistance before Christmas.
He beat that deadline by a month: He was home for Thanksgiving.
Although therapy was ongoing—it would be another year and a half before he could button his own shirt—Goodman started a new chapter in his life: motivational speaking. Truth is, he had begun this enterprise when he was still in the hospital, spurring patients to work toward a recovery that seemed unimaginable.
Waldo recalls a roommate who’d fallen off of a ladder and had been told by doctors that he’d be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. The man ended up regaining use of his upper body. “I remember this guy telling me if he hadn’t had Skookie’s outlook, he wouldn’t have had any outlook at all,” Waldo says. “I think Skookie found his calling in the hospital.”
As word about the “Miracle Man” spread, Goodman was invited to give talks at local Lions and Kiwanis Clubs. With his riveting story and folksy style, he was soon invited on the motivational speaking circuit with his idol Ziglar, along with Bob Harrington, who was known as the “Chaplain of Bourbon Street,” and Don Hutson, an expert in negotiation, sales and entrepreneurship. “Zig told me I was the best speaker he ever heard,” Goodman says of his late friend. “And I told him there was nothing to it. All you had to do was go out and buy an airplane, crash it, and then spend eight months in the hospital.”
Goodman’s message of triumph against enormous odds through a Herculean effort combined with a refusal to let himself be SNIOP’ed (his acronym for “susceptible to the negative influence of other people”) resonated with corporations as well. He has presented scores of motivational programs to Fortune 500 companies such as GM, GE, IBM, Tyco, 3M and Xerox, both in the United States and abroad. Here are some of his tips:
The Six Secrets to a Fulfilling Life
1. In life it doesn’t matter how many times you stumble and fall down. What really counts is how many times you stumble and get back up.
2. Live each day as if it’s your last. It just might be.
3. Set goals you can stay passionate about. Passion is power.
4. In order to receive, you have to believe.
5. Start each day with prayer. Thank God daily for everything you have. Gratitude improves your attitude.
6. Money is important, but remember, money can buy a nice house but it can’t buy a home. Money can buy a nice bed but it can’t buy a good night’s sleep. It can buy food but not an appetite. It can buy medicine but it can’t buy health. And it can buy companionship but it can’t buy love.
Today, after caring for his wife through the last years of her life, Goodman (TheMiracleMan.org) is eager to get on the road again. There’s a good chance he’ll show up at a motivational rally near you sometime soon.
“Once I’ve decided on a goal, I’ll move heaven and earth to achieve it. The ability to zero in on one goal and concentrate 100 percent of my mental energy on it is the principal reason I’m here today.”
Shelley Levitt is a Los Angeles-based freelancer who writes for MORE, WebMD and Women’s Health, among other publications. In the October 2012 issue of SUCCESS, she wrote about Ed Asner’s “Family Cause.”