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March 10, 2020

One woman's history: Vallie Collins survived the crash landing in the Hudson River

Five key learnings from her experience and the hidden problem she faced.

Vallie Collins was a passenger on US Airways flight 1549 that successfully landed in New York’s Hudson River after having both engines knocked out by a large flock of birds.

She recently spoke to several hundred professionals, many from HR, at an event sponsored by Marsh & McLennan Agency. She described the nearly four minutes from take-off at New York’s La Guardia airport to the now-historic successful emergency landing in the bone-chilling January waters. Her talk was by turns funny, frightening and, above all, inspiring.

As Vallie said to herself once the plane was down, “That wasn’t so bad.” No one died and no one was seriously injured. Everyone was cold, wet and shaken, but every passenger — including Vallie — appeared to be alright.

But the truth was much more complicated. After she had returned to her home and family in Tennessee (by car, not plane), Vallie realized she was feeling not at all her old self. She was able to handle her job and family responsibilities, but something wasn’t quite right anymore.

“I was happy to be alive but moving on wasn’t so simple for me,” she said.

Vallie was eventually diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a not uncommon result of stressful situations much like the one Vallie and her co-passengers had gone through. What she learned from going through this intense, incredibly frightening and unexpected experience is why she was speaking to a room full of mostly HR experts.

Diversity isn’t an issue when your life is on the line.

When Vallie looks back on her experience, she is struck by how everyone on that plane worked in unison to make sure they all survived.

“We were male, we were female. We were corporate CEOs, and we were housewives. We were Buddhists, we were Muslims, we were Christians and we were atheists. We came from all walks of life.”

It didn’t matter at all who each of the 155 passengers was in terms of race, religion, or economic status. All that mattered was that they came together to help each other get out of the plane safely and be rescued without incident.

That was the positive lesson from the crash.

But what happened after is what hurt most.

Vallie spoke eloquently about her struggles with what she described as a mental illness — PTSD — and how it is often an unseen problem. She talked about how even she didn’t realize what was wrong with her at the time, and how millions of people around the country are having that experience every day. Someone might look fine on the outside, but you don’t know what they could be wrestling with inside.

It’s a good lesson for everyone in any organization to consider. And, according to Vallie, there are “little things” that can help anyone cope.

Five important things you learn after you’ve survived any traumatic incident…like a crash landing.

  1. The importance of simple kindness

    Think of every personal interaction of every day as if it were your last. Were you as kind to that person as you could be? You don’t really know what’s going on in their lives; your kindness can make a difference.

  2. The value of empathy

    Going through diagnosis and treatment for PTSD brought Vallie an entirely new understanding of what people go through when they have mental issues. A little bit of empathy — especially for those things you don’t understand — can go a long way.

  3. The importance of physical fitness

    You never know when you’re going to have to save your own life, the life of a family member or that person who was sitting next to you on an airplane.

  4. Perspective

    As Vallie put it, she now has a “whole new scale” to calibrate how upset to get over something that happens during her day. The cliché, “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is really quite true, according to Vallie.

    Also, the relationships you make every day are hugely important. Your effect on people’s lives can be incredibly profound. You may not think of yourself as being “important,” but to more people than you may realize, you definitely are an important part of their lives.

  5. Take time to live a little bit every day

    None of us know exactly how much time we have left. So, as a book Vallie read after the crash said, “Live every day as if it had been stolen from death.”