Episode #49: Published Feb. 24, 2020
During a week-long break from running track at Utah State University, Brittany fell in love with climbing the red rocks of southern Utah. And a moonlight rappel from a 200-foot cliff with a friend was just the adventure Brittany was looking for. But that night, adventure quickly turned to tragedy, leaving Brittany with a life-changing diagnosis and leading her to a new relationship with her Savior.
Brittany's LDS Living video: "'What God Sees': How Becoming Paralyzed Helped One Woman Discover Who She Is"
Brittany with her husband and son.
Brittany in southern Utah.
KaRyn Lay 0:03
Welcome to This Is the Gospel, an LDS living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host KaRyn Lay. We all know that person, you know, the one who takes all the hard things that life sends their way and eats them for breakfast. The one who somehow finds the way to remain fully cheerful regardless of their circumstances. And can I tell you a secret? I've always been a little bit suspicious of that person. As someone who generally seeks consistent happiness, but sometimes can't find it, I often wonder if it's all a show- a mask- because I felt the pressure to put on a happy face even when I wasn't feeling it, so why wouldn't someone else? And I guess you could say that I'm a little pessimistic about whether it's actually possible for someone to remain fully optimistic in the midst of really hard things. And then I was put into a church calling with someone that I would have described, once upon a time, as painfully cheerful. From the outside, her life seemed perfect. Her children were perfect. Her hair even seemed perfect. And if she was struggling with anything, it would be impossible to know. And I didn't trust it. I made it my mission to try to figure out what was really under all that optimism and hope. I brought all my suspicions to our joint service. And do you know what I discovered? To my chagrin, as I grew to know and love this woman, I learned that life her life was far from perfect, but her choice to see and speak the positive was as real as it gets. In those moments of conversation, when it would have been easy to head below the line, I could actually see the wheels turning in her heart and in her mind as she worked her way back up to the top, finally landing her words in a place of hope, and goodness, and possibility. Now listen, I'm a huge fan of honoring our vulnerability and allowing our vetted safe people to cradle us in our sorrow, but this wasn't about that. She had her people to mourn with her. But she also made a conscious effort to speak hope. To turn her words and her face to the Savior in all things. And frankly, that's something I'm still trying to learn how to learn.
Well, today we have one story from Brittany who learned her lessons in optimism in a unique way that she believes was tailored specifically to her. Here's Brittany.
In 2012, I was a 21-year-old student athlete at Utah State and I ran cross country in the fall and track in the spring, and I was always on the go. I rarely sat still. And I just loved being in nature. I genuinely loved running. Running in nature is where I would pray and felt closest to God and just loved every moment of life. I had great friends. I was doing well in school. I was healthy, no stress fractures and I felt closest to the Lord than I ever had in my life. And so just every aspect of my life really seemed to be going my way. And it was just this beautiful, busy life that was spent outdoors as much as I possibly could.
So, in March of 2012, our coaches gave us the weekend off before outdoor track season started. So, I took the opportunity to join some friends down in St. George for a little bit of a spring break climbing trip and it was there that I fell in love with the red rocks. I think I went on like six runs in one day. We started climbing at 7:30am - climbed all day- I fit in six runs in between and ended the night I think swimming. So when I got the invitation to go out for a moonlight rappel... If you haven't gotten the gist, I was always up for an adventure... And so when I got that invitation I, I accepted and, and was all for it. And it was there that we went to Cougar cliffs.
Sitting at the top of the cliff, I was just looking up at the stars and had this peaceful feeling while the fellow I with was setting everything up. And once we started the descent of the rappel, I had no idea how big the cliff was. I hadn't seen over the edge. And so as we started rappelling, that rope was really heavy and I never done a rappel like this before, of this size. The cliff was 250 feet. And so as the speed kind of picked up, I tried to slow myself down, and my hand was burning so badly that, just kind of like when you touch a hot stove, it was just instinct to let go. We later found out I had a third degree burn on my hands so I had held on for as long as I could to try and slow my slow my descent but... At that point, it was a free fall for the next 80 to 100 feet. If you've ever been cliff jumping into water, it's that same feeling in your stomach or a roller coaster. I couldn't scream. I couldn't make any noise because I was falling so fast. But I kept wondering, when's the ground going to come? When's the ground going to come? And all of a sudden, just bam, there was.I fell about 80 to 100 feet, I hit the ground. From that moment, things went a little blurry.
After the initial shock of the fall, I kind of came to my senses again. I looked up at the sky and how peaceful it was. And the fellow I was with had gone to call for help so, I was all alone. And I knew something was wrong. I assumed there was some bone sticking out in my legs, so I didn't look down at the damage... But as I looked up at the night sky, I just had this peaceful feeling again, and I thought to pray. And I think it was just instinct. And so I tried to roll over for the first time since I had fallen. I tried to roll over to maybe kind of kneel and pray and I couldn't even roll over. I didn't think anything weird of it. I just decided to stay on my back and look up at the stars and pray and it was kind of one of those desperate. "Heavenly Father, you know, please help me. I know I'm in trouble. I don't know what kind of trouble, but, like, if you help me in this situation, I'll do anything you ask." and maybe kind of bargaining with the Lord. But I I just felt such peace as I laid there alone.
Slowly, search and rescue came and found me and started boarding me up. Lifeflight had landed and they were getting ready to take me to the hospital. When search and rescue had been called, they typically get two types of calls: a rescue and recovery. Recovery, they're just going in to get a body and rescue, they're going in to get someone in danger, someone who's hurt in a tight place. And so when they heard my situation, they assumed they were coming in for recovery just to get a body. And so you can imagine their surprise when not only was I alive, but I was awake. And so from there they life flighted me to Las Vegas. I went through all the initial CAT scans and MRIs. And from there, they whisked me away into surgery, and I woke up 10 hours later, 12 hours later, I think, is how long the surgery took, with my mother by my bedside. She had had time to fly from Chicago- book a flight from Chicago and get to the hospital to be by my bedside. But I was still intubated and couldn't speak and my mom was able to just sit by my bedside and read scriptures to me to help me calm down because I'd woken up really anxious. I knew what had happened, but I didn't know why I couldn't talk or move. And so the scriptures were able to just bring peace and I was able to fall back asleep until they could take all the tubes out of my throat.
And the first few days were just cycles of in and out of sleep and pain medicine. I ended up with lots of broken bones in my legs,a burnt right hand and multiple fractures in my spine, including my T 12 vertebrae, which burst instantly paralyzing me from the waist down. The official diagnosis was a spinal cord injury and paraplegic. And it wasn't until I had been moved out of ICU. I had been filled with a lot of optimism and hope in those moments that I was awake. And it wasn't until I had been moved upstairs and I looked down my legs for the first time. I'd been so afraid that there were bone sticking out. But I figured at this point, I've had surgery on my legs. I've had surgery on my back, like, it can't be that bad. And when I looked down, I wanted to see my strong running legs, my great calves and quad muscles that helped me run fast in college. But instead, what I saw were these swollen, lifeless, cut up and bruised legs. That ...was.... that was my first moment of kind of doubt and discouragement crept into my mind. And that was the first time that I questioned "Who am I anymore?" You know, before I was this student athlete, this rock climber and this runner, all these things that I identified with my legs, and that was no more. So I kind of went through this identity crisis, wondering Who am I? doubting myself for the first time.
From Las Vegas, I was eventually transferred to another rehab hospital in Colorado, which was Craig Hospital. It was a hospital just for spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries. And it was there at Craig hospital that I learned to live life again in a wheelchair. I learned how to dress myself; how to go the bathroom; how to drive a car; how to cook in the kitchen. The simplest tasks became such a struggle to learn again, and from there I went through months and months of intense rehabilitation and physical therapy. And even after I was discharged from the hospital, I continued to learn how to walk. Once my bones had healed in my legs. I'd regained some muscle function and sensation in my legs enough to walk with a walker. And then eventually I learned to walk with crutches. And I can take some independent steps on my own, but I fall pretty quickly. And so, it was just this juggling act of wheelchair, walker, and crutches. And it was an intense year of physical therapy and healing both spiritually and emotionally.
I think one of the biggest struggles I had, on top of all the physical pain, there was neuropathic pain, which was unlike anything I'd experienced before. Then there was also just a spiritual stretching, which was painful, as I learned so many new lessons. And the hardest thing physically though, was not having running to cope with anymore which was also emotional because running was my therapy. Running was what I did when I was happy or when I was sad, when I was frustrated or when I was excited. And so finding something to fill that hole that running had left in my life.... It wasn't until about a year and a half into my recovery. I had graduated from Utah State. I had student- taught in my wheelchair. I had walked across the stage at graduation. And I had finally kind of slowed down and realized that this is permanent. That this diagnosis wasn't going anywhere. My paralysis wasn't going away. And that's when I kind of hit my spiritual and emotional low. And that's when I faced the depths of grief and depression. And those were the moments where I felt completely alone and wondered where that promise was that that God had given us saying, "I will not leave you comfortless." There I was, feeling pretty dang comfortless and questioning everything that I had... I knew about our loving Heavenly Father. But I came to learn with perspective in hindsight, during those those months of darkness and depression and grief, that Heavenly Father was aware of what I was going through. He was aware of my loss and my struggles and my sadness, but he had to allow me to feel that darkness... to feel that sadness, so I could understand what others have gone through and will go through and are going through. So I can empathize and have compassion towards them and minister to others.
It was so meaningful to know that the Savior understood my struggles individually because I was facing some really unique circumstances, some pain, some neuropathic pain that literally caused me to cry out in the night. I couldn't even describe the pain to anyone. And learning to go to the bathroom again, the simplest little task that we learn at two years old, I was learning this again and the Savior knew I was struggling with once again. He knew the pain and the loss that I was experiencing. And that meant so much because even other spinal cord injuries didn't know exactly what I was experiencing or feeling. They may have a better understanding, but only the Savior truly knew and had felt that neuropathic pain - had felt that emotional pain and loss that I was experiencing. And, it just helped me feel like I wasn't alone at all. But during that season when I wasn't so optimistic when the grief and and loss and depression was so heavy, it was hard to find the light. And that's where I just practiced CPR: church, prayer, reading the scriptures. It was spiritual CPR and I wasn't feeling it for so many months... But as I continued to do those small and simple things, there was no one light bulb moment when everything came together and I was happy again. It was more of a gradual sunrise. It was more of a gradual coming back to myself... coming back to finding joy and and choosing joy. Because we're taught that it's our reaction to adversity, not adversity itself, that that really matters. And so, we don't always get to choose what happens to us, but we always get to choose how we react. And I don't think Heavenly Father's upset with us when we feel the sadness and the darkness, but just as long as we still choose him at the end of the day.
I believe in a just and loving Heavenly Father, and I believe he doesn't cause bad things to happen, but he allows them to happen. And that night, he allowed that accident to happen. He allowed the effects of gravity to pull me down to the ground and to cause all these broken bones upon impact. I mean, that's the laws of gravity, like God is not only a just and loving God, but He's the God of order. And, and that's a part of it -- our free agency and those consequences. And so I've found a lot of peace and knowing that Heavenly Father didn't cause this to happen, but he allowed it to happen. But he also did so much more in preserving my life. First off, I mean, the fact that I even survived. I know that Heavenly Father was involved in the details. That he preserved my life and not only my life, but my ability to speak and think for myself, and have relationships... because I didn't have a helmet that night, and that there was no brain damage is such a tender mercy, a miracle in itself on top of the miracle of still being alive. So I know that Heavenly Father was involved in the details, but that he didn't cause it to happen, but he allowed it to happen.
My life now is nothing like what I would have pictured myself. If you had asked 21 year old Brittany where she would be in seven years, I would not have painted this picture. But now that I'm living it, it's so beautiful, as I've become a wife and a mother and I have my boys- my husband and my son and my dog --and I still am able to be active and get outdoors. That looks different than what I would have imagined and what I would have preferred running on my own two feet, but I still able to get out there until live a full and beautiful life regardless of my abilities and my circumstances. And each and every one of us can live this beautiful full life that Heavenly Father has planned for, for us as we learn to be content with our circumstances. I learned this before my accident, during my accident and now still. Especially when fall comes around my legs just like yearn to run again in the fall crisp weather. And it's so hard when those feelings of loss and grief resurface. But, then I look at my beautiful life and I realized that gratitude and grief can coexist. You can still mourn your loss. You can still feel the sadness, but you can also still feel so much joy and so much gratitude. And so just allowing myself to feel the sadness, but then to look up and to look around at how beautiful life still is - that I'm still getting out in nature. It may be a little different than it used to be, but I'm still out there. I'm still... I'm still me. I'm still Brittany. And that that has brought a lot of comfort to me knowing that grief and gratitude can coexist.
The other thing that I do is silly and and simple, but I call it two goods and a bad and I've been doing it since I was in high school. And it's just a practice of, you know, you may have a really crappy aspect of your day or life and acknowledging that... but then balancing it out by seeking out good things in life too. And sometimes the bads in our life are really heavy and you have to find 2,3,4,5, 20 good things to help kind of balance out the bad, but, just practicing that two goods and a bad by acknowledging the hard things in life but also seeking out the good and the sweet things.
I came across the scripture in Philippians 4:11 and Alma 29:3 and they both talk about being content with the things which the Lord has allotted you. And the Lord has allotted me so much. He's given me so much. He's given me an opportunity to bear my testimony and to share my light and to become a mother. I don't know if I ever would have slowed down enough to become a wife and a mother if I still had my own two legs to carry me through the mountains and adventure up every peak and canyon. Even if it's on four wheels instead of my own two legs, it still is a beautiful life regardless of my trials. Regardless of my circumstances, I can still become who Heavenly Father... because of my trials and circumstances, I'm able to become who Heavenly Father wants me to be.
KaRyn Lay 21:09
That was Brittany Fisher Frank. Brittany's story of incredible optimism has been featured in so many cool places, including the Today Show and People magazine. Like she said, she truly has had so many opportunities to share her testimony with the world as a result of her experience. And were you as struck as I was by the wisdom that she just casually dropped about grief and gratitude coexisting? I can't stop thinking about that. And I really think that that understanding might be one of the secrets to living a more optimistic life.
Here's my deep thought of the day. So many times we define optimism as the choice between seeing the glass half empty and seeing the glass half full. But I don't think that's quite right. If Brittany's lesson is correct, then the glass really is both things at once. And that means that I dont have to ignore the emptiness in order to see the fullness. The glass just is...in perfect balance without judgment. And I can honor the space where there is no water and also be excited about the water that is there. I think what Brittany's story teaches us is the true nature of the principle of opposition and all things. Maybe, just maybe, true optimism is just allowing ourselves to live in a world filled with the word "and" instead of the word "or."
We met Brittany when we filmed her for an LDS living video documentary, and if you wonder why you can basically hear her smile as she talks about falling off a cliff? Well, that's because she IS smiling as she talks about falling off a cliff. In fact, Brittany sent us several pictures for that documentary and I was shocked as I looked through them to see one of her grinning at the camera as she's being loaded into that lifeflight helicopter. And while we might attribute some of that to the effects of adrenaline and shock, I can honestly say how met and spoken to Brittany. That that's just genuinely who she is - no mask, no pretend, authentic Brittany. But if you were listening closely, you probably heard what I heard. Before her accident Brittany was already practicing her two goods and a bad. Before she ever had to accept the truth about her new life, Brittany was practicing the art of accepting gratitude AND grief. Now, you may write this off and say that she's lucky that she was just born with an innate ability towards optimism. And that may be true because there really are as many spiritual gifts as there are people. But we cannot dismiss the truth of the matter. That positivity, perspective, and peace are some of the fruits of practiced discipleship. If, like me, you don't feel that you already have these gifts the way you wish you did. You can seek them. You can practice toward them.
And here's the best news. Our Savior and our heavenly parents are true optimists. Elder Uchtdorf said this in his October 2014 General Conference talk, "Yes, God loves you this very day and always. He is not waiting to love you until you have overcome your weaknesses and bad habits. He loves you today with a full understanding of your struggles. He is aware that you reach up to him in heartfelt and hopeful prayer. He knows of the times that you've held on to the fading light and believed even in the midst of growing darkness. He knows of your sufferings. He knows of your remorse for the times you have fallen short or failed, and he still loves you. He knows everything about you. He sees you clearly. He knows you as you really are and He loves you today and always." Isn't that so interesting? We, you and I, are God's half empty, half full glass of water. He sees all of us and the Atonement of Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to be filled up with and feel the love of God, whether we find ourselves in joyful or dire circumstances, or both. And to me, that is some good news worth smiling about.
That's it for this episode of This Is the Gospel. Thank you to Brittany Fisher Frank and her family for letting us invade with cameras and recording equipment last year. We'll have links to the video we made with Brittany including that picture of the lifeflight transport and a transcript of this episode in our show notes at LDS living.com/thisisthegospel.
If you have a minute to tell us what you love about this podcast, we would love to hear it. Please leave us a review on iTunes. And if you're not sure how to do that, go to our Instagram @thisisthegospel_podcast and in our highlights wewill have all the instructions on how to leave a review. It really does help us and it helps more people to find this podcast. All of the stories on this podcast are true and accurate as affirmed by our storytellers. If you have a story to share about living the Gospel, please call our pitch line and leave us a pitch. We often find many of our stories from the pitch line and we love to hear how the gospel is blessing your life. Call 515-519-6179 and pitch your story in three minutes or less. This episode was produced by Sarah Blake with additional story producing and editing by Jasmine Mullen, Ashley Porter and me, KaRyn Lay. it was scored, mixed, and mastered by mix at six studios and our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. You can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS living podcasts at LDSliving.com/podcasts. Have a lovely week.