By Christina Cheakalos Richard Jerome Samantha Miller
August 05, 2002 12:00 PM

A split second after 12,000 volts shot through his body—but before passing out—Cameron Spence remembers thinking, “Now I’ve done it.” Skydiver Joan Murray had similar thoughts when, as she dropped from 14,500 feet, her parachute failed to open. Ditto Paul Wilk, as he stepped off a railroad bridge and into thin air. Yet, like the others on these pages, they overcame overwhelming injuries, confounded doctors and survived. How does that feel?

Joan Murray: Plunged 2.6 miles

What’s worse than stepping out of an airplane, discovering your parachute won’t open and smacking into the ground at 80 mph? Joan Murray, 47, did all of the above—and landed in a mound of stinging fire ants. On Sept. 25, 1999, the Charlotte, N.C., bank exec jumped from a plane at 14,500 feet and couldn’t get her main chute to deploy. Her reserve chute opened 700 feet from the ground, but in her confusion she spun out of control, causing the chute to deflate. “It wasn’t one of my finer, brilliant moments,” she says dryly. The impact shattered the right side of Murray’s body and knocked filling from her teeth.

Then came the ants, which stung the semiconscious skydiver more than 200 times before paramedics arrived. (Her doctors think the stings may have shocked her heart enough to keep it beating) At Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, Murray lay in a coma for two weeks, her 115-lb. body swelling from her injuries until “she looked like she was, 300 lbs,” says coworker Spencer Denton, 36. But six weeks later Murray had mended enough to head home, where her husband, Don, 47 (they divorced last year), and twin daughters Arriane and Carmen, 19, tended her. By June 2001 she was limping to work with a metal rod in her right leg and five 5-in. spikes in her pelvis. Incredibly, in July 2001 Murray went for her 37th skydive. “It was perfect,” she says.

She didn’t resume all her old habits. “She’s not the workaholic she was before,” says Denton. Indeed, says Murray, “I’ve learned to take time for the important things.” Among them: “Saying ‘thank you’ and ‘I love you.’ ”

Gary Weinstein: A line drive blew apart his skull

A beloved coach at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., Gary Weinstein was pitching batting practice on April 27, 2001, when senior Jonathan Bernstein smashed a bullet up the middle—striking him in the right temple and shattering his skull into 18 pieces. Knocked cold, Weinstein, 46, came to quickly. “I didn’t feel that bad,” he says. “I argued against the need for an ambulance.”

Then he lapsed into a coma. In two operations doctors at Georgetown University Hospital rebuilt Weinstein’s skull, removed blood clots and relieved pressure on the brain but gave him a mere 1 percent chance of full recovery. “I didn’t think he would walk again,” says neurosurgeon Dr. Kevin McGrail. Yet within days Weinstein was alert, and on May 16 he hobbled with assistance out of the hospital. Says McGrail: “It was mind-boggling.”

Throwing himself into months of rehab, buoyed by family and community support, Weinstein vowed to return to the adult baseball and softball leagues where he had been a star hitter and shortstop. By year’s end he was back at work as an editor for the Bureau of National Affairs—and tossing around a Wiffle ball with his son Zak, 16. “It’s like seeing someone reborn,” says wife Julie Wiatt, 57, a newspaper editor. Today Weinstein is coaching again and playing designated hitter on four softball teams—blind spots in both eyes make fielding difficult and hardball out of the question. But he has no complaints. “In life things aren’t perfect,” he says. “So I make adjustments.”

Rebecca Olch: Went to bed and Woke up two liver transplants later

Campus doctors were alarmed when Rebecca Olch, then a freshman at UC-Santa Barbara, suffered prolonged bouts of vomiting. Advised to see her family physician, she went home on March 10, 2000, to Van Nuys, Calif. “I thought it was some itsy-bitsy thing I could take some pills for,” she recalls. That night her parents, Ron, 51, an engineer, and Cindy, 49, a nurse, found her collapsed on the bathroom floor and walked her to bed. Says Rebecca, now 21: “That’s the last thing I remember.”

The next day she lay dying in UCLA Medical Center. Later tests showed that her parents were carriers of Wilson’s disease, an inability of the liver to metabolize copper, which strikes one person in 30,000. Over time the copper buildup had shut down Rebecca’s liver. Surgeons performed a transplant, but complications caused the liver to fail; her lungs hemorrhaged, and her heart nearly gave out. “She was minutes, maybe seconds away from being dead,” says attending surgeon Dr. Susan Lerner. “Her parents were in tears. I was sobbing and hugging them.”

Then, against all odds, the surgeons stopped the bleeding, and Rebecca’s vital signs improved. A second transplant took, and on March 30 she awoke. As her breathing tube was being removed, her mother nervously tried to comfort her. Rebecca’s first, raspy words? “Oh, Mom, be quiet.”

Today, though she must still take antirejection drugs, Rebecca has fully recovered. She enjoys wearing a bikini to flaunt her dramatic surgical scar. “The nightmare is over,” she says. “This is all I’ve got to remind me what happened.”

Lauren Laframboise: Hung upside down in a flaming SUV

For a 2½-year-old who never walks when she can run, Lauren Laframboise possesses the perfect nickname: Go-Go. These days the moniker applies not only to Lauren’s speed but also to her spirit. “She’s such a little fighter,” says her maternal grandmother, Pam Merys, 55.

On the morning of Aug. 17, 2001, Lauren’s mother, Tina, 29, was driving her and sister Cailin, 3, home to Elizabeth, Colo., from a shopping trip when a driver who had been drinking hit their 1999 Suburban head-on. It rolled over and skidded 19 feet before landing on an embankment. Lauren was left hanging upside down in her car seat as flames engulfed the SUV. She was freed from the wreckage by a motorist with a fire extinguisher and airlifted to Denver’s Children’s Hospital in critical condition: Her brain was swollen and bleeding, and she was having seizures. But after surgery and months of relearning how to eat, talk and walk, doctors are hopeful Lauren will recover fully. Says her father, Steve, 29: “It’s a miracle she survived.”

Sadly, Tina and Cailin did not; they and the other driver died at the scene. Steve is grateful that Lauren seems to have no memory of the accident. He and his grieving in-laws find solace in the ebullient toddler. “Lauren,” Steve says, “is the glue that holds us together.”

Cameron Spence: A high-voltage encounter stopped his heart

After he posted an insurance ad over Georgia State Highway 49 on Nov. 10, 2000, Cameron Spence planned to see a high school football game. The billboard hanger from Warner Robins, Ga., never made it. A metal pole he was threading through the top of the vinyl sign touched a power line, sending at least 12,000 volts through his body. “When I hit the ground,” says Spence, 33, “I said to myself, ‘Now I’ve done it. Really got myself in trouble now.’ ”

At Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon, his heart stopped for 15 minutes, then again for 30 minutes as doctors tried to revive him. “At first I thought he’d never survive,” says surgeon Macram Ayoub. “Then I thought he’d never recover his brain function.” After 20 days in a coma with lung and liver damage, he couldn’t walk, feed himself or, at times, recognize wife Cindy, 31, a secretary. But in rehab he was tenacious. “They kept telling me I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t do that,” he says. “The heck with that.”

Spence still has memory problems, but he’s back coaching Little League baseball for sons Joey, 8, and Charlie, 6. Divine intervention? Nah, says his mother Judy, 56, “Cameron’s just so stubborn.”

Paul Wilk: Followed his wallet off a bridge

Had the breeze been blowing differently, the night of April 11 might have been Paul Wilk’s last. After his shift at the electrical capacitor plant near his Winooski, Vt., home, Wilk downed a few beers with coworkers in neighboring Burlington, then headed home on foot across the Blue Bridge—a railroad trestle that towers 80 feet above the Winooski River. Suddenly Wilk, 37, realized his wallet was gone. Searching the track with his lighter and, he admits, a little tipsy, he stumbled and went flying. “I thought, ‘God, don’t let me hit the water,’ because I knew I’d drown,” he recalls. “There was a big white flash. Then nothing.”

Wilk got lucky: A tree limb broke his fall, and he landed in mud. Despite five broken ribs and a collapsed lung, he crawled 600 yards to a sewage plant, where he took shelter in a truck and got help the next morning. A week later his wallet, found under the bridge, was turned in to police. A lapsed Catholic, Wilk vowed to start going to church. “It hasn’t happened,” he says. “But I know God was listening to me.”

Lindsay Thomas: Trapped in a car wreck for five days

Lindsay Thomas awoke with a start. “I was confused,” she remembers, “like in a dream when you are not sure where you are.” On the night of April 25, 2001, Thomas, then 18, had dozed off while driving from her bartending job in West Des Moines to a second job in Waverly, Iowa. Her 1989 Ford Escort slammed into a concrete culvert beneath Interstate 35. She was calf-deep in water, her legs pinned beneath the crushed dashboard. Her jaw, right wrist and several ribs were shattered.

Thomas remained trapped for five days, praying, napping and sipping water from a bottle cap she found in the car. “I wasn’t in much pain,” she says. “But the fifth day it began to rain, and I felt cold and weak. I didn’t know if I would make it. I gave up yelling because nobody could see or hear me.”

Then two road workers saw tire tracks and decided to investigate. “One stepped onto my hood and yelled, ‘Is somebody there?’ ” Thomas recalls. “He about fell off when I answered.” She was airlifted to University hospital in Iowa City, where her parents, Dean and jean, both 55, and sister Laura, 16, rushed to her side. Doctors told them that gangrene had set in and to save her life they would have to amputate Lindsay’s lower legs. A cross-country runner and cyclist, she answered stoically, “I know.” Her father, she adds, “just started crying.”

Tears have given way to pride. “She has showed me what real strength is,” says Dean. Today, at 19, Lindsay, who lives in Tracy, Calif., says she hopes to attend college and eventually design prosthetics. “I survived one goal at a time—first to heal, then to help others.”