Strong. Brave. Wise. These are the three words that flood my mind as I look back on the sixty minutes I spent with Mercedes Ramirez-Johnson.
I heard about Mercedes through a casting agent friend of mine. She had just been cast on ABC’s daytime talk show, The Revolution. But that wasn’t what I cared about. Her story is what I cared about. I hope it touches you, as deeply as it has touched me…
It was the evening of December 20, 1995 and Mercedes Ramirez, along with her mother and father were en route to Cali, Colombia. It was Mercedes’ 21st birthday, and the family of three was thrilled to be celebrating Christmas with their Colombian family for the first time in 30 years.
They were on the final leg of their trip and just 12 minutes out from landing when the pilots, without warning, jerked the nose of the aircraft straight up into the air. By the time the error was detected, the aircraft was in a valley on a collision course with a 9,800 foot mountain. Immediate panic filled the plane as parents embraced their crying children, grown men began screaming and, just one row in front of her, Mercedes’ mother began to pray.
As the cabin shook violently, Mercedes grabbed her father’s hand and focused on the steady voice of her mother as she prayed, until a loud BOOMING sound erupted from the back of the plane. Those would be the last moments Mercedes would share with her beloved parents.
Gonzalo Dussan Monroy, Michelle Dussan, Mauricio Reyes and Mercedes Ramirez were the sole survivors of American Airlines Flight 965. Oh, and a small brown dog who would later be appropriately named, “Miracle”.
Among the dead when the Boeing 757 crashed into the mountain in Buga, Colombia, were 160 men, women and children including all eight crew members. It would later be determined that the cause of this horrific crash was due to a slew of navigational errors by the flight crew. At the time, it was the first U.S. Boeing 757 accident and it resulted in the highest death toll of any accident in Colombia.
Hours after the crash, Mercedes remembers waking up laying in the middle of the aisle and hearing a man’s voice outside. The femur in her right leg was snapped in half, with the bottom half of her leg tucked behind her. She said she couldn’t believe what she saw–it was literally unbelievable. She had endured injuries to her spinal cord, broken ribs and severe internal injuries from the seat belt. Miraculously, she felt no pain–it all felt like a dream. After calling out for help, Mauricio Reyes, who was 19 at the time, pulled her from the wreckage. Mercedes would sit huddled next to Mauricio for 18 long, arduous hours on the side of that mountain in the Andes waiting for yet another miracle… to be found by search and rescue.
To keep from focusing on all the death and devastation around her, she spent those 18 hours thinking of her sorority sisters: “I couldn’t stop to think about my family because thinking about them would have brought me back to that mountain. The more I thought about my friends, the sadder I grew because I thought how unfair it would be to never be able to see those people again and let them know how much I cared for them. So I put my hands together and started to pray. I begged God that if he gave me a second chance at life, I’d promise to make it count. And I just kept praying and begging him over and over again.”
God heard her prayers.
When rescued, Mercedes was rushed to a Colombian hospital where she was given a mere 20-30% chance of survival. Lying in her humble, white hospital bed, she was convinced this nightmare would be the biggest challenge she would ever face. But this accident was only the first of two towering mountains she would face.
After three months in the ICU and months of physical therapy, Mercedes returned to Northwest Missouri State University to complete her degree in international business. After graduation, she spent nearly a decade in high-level sales in the pharmaceutical and medical software industries. She became a record-breaking, multimillion dollar producer and the youngest female and sole Latino account executive at Cerner Corporation.
She was going to live out her second chance.
“I knew from the first time I saw her that she was the person that I was going to spend the rest of my life with.” Those are the words of a man in love… words of a man committed to walk through hell and high water with the woman he loved. Chris Johnson had only been dating Mercedes a month when the plane crashed. She remembers vividly telling him he could take the “easy way out”, that she could handle this on her own. Little did she know that Chris was truly in it for the long-haul. The two were married three years after the accident.
After six years of marriage, the two welcomed their first set of twin boys, Ben and Alex, now 8 years old. Four years after that, she and Chris were blessed with their second set of twin boys, Dorian and Wynn, now 3 years old. It wasn’t until the final sonogram just a week before their due date, that the doctors noticed that Dorian’s and Wynn’s bones were short and appeared to be broken in utero. Although doctors and specialists knew something was wrong, it would take another six weeks after their delivery to pinpoint the diagnosis: a life-limiting lysosomal storage disorder called Mucolipidosis II (ML II).
Mercedes and Chris were given the unbearable news that their precious boys would have a life expectancy of three to seven years.
ML II is a very rare terminal disease which prohibits the body from recycling out toxins. Some physical signs can include abnormal skeletal development, coarse facial features, and restricted joint movement. Children with ML II usually have enlargement of certain organs and are often plagued by recurring respiratory tract infections including pneumonia, otitis media (middle ear infections), bronchitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. As Mercedes puts it, “They are children that are forever babies.”
This second mountain seemed like the end of her. While Mercedes admits she began to think she was cursed, it was her husband Chris, strong and steady, who told her that their boys would teach them a priceless lesson about what was truly important in life. Mercedes says she tries to always remember that Dorian and Wynn “are here on a special mission from God”.
Chris and Mercedes don’t focus on what the boys can’t do or the things they will never have a chance to do. Instead, they rejoice in each of life’s precious moments… They celebrate all the little things they can do.
Dorian, otherwise known as “a one man Broadway show” sings EVERYTHING. He is such a happy baby. I’m told he thinks life is just one big musical. Wynny (as Mercedes affectionately calls him) is the “love bug” of the family. He’s every mother’s dream: a snuggler!
When I asked Mercedes which mountain seemed the hardest to face, her thoughts returned to the the crash.”It’s about every day telling people ‘I love you’. You never know what day will be their last. If I had not gone through the plane crash I probably would not have been strong enough to go through what we’re going through today. It was a gift that made me bullet proof for what I’m going through now.”
If you haven’t figured out why she’s our inaugural ‘Spotlight Superwoman’ yet, let me tell you what this amazing woman is up to these days.
Chris, Mercedes and their four boys reside in Dallas, Texas. Mercedes soaks up the tasks and treasures of family life: taking the older boys to practice, enjoying a lunch date with her husband or snuggling with Dorian and Wynn… When she’s not at home, she puts on her hat as a professional speaker, flying from city-to-city sharing her story to train and educate companies on the importance of work place safety. She uses the example of the plane crash and the crews costly mistakes to educate employees of the importance of “doing their part”.
Wait, did you catch that? She FLIES across the country to help others save lives!
Mercedes is not a woman scorned, and she’s certainly more than a survivor. She’s not bitter, she’s BETTER. She is a force to be reckoned with. Her pursuit to help others, despite her enormous tragedies, make her a woman set-apart. She is a Wife, Mom and Superwoman in the truest sense of the words. It’s not the metal plates, rods, and screws remaining in her body that remind her of her experiences, nor is it the sleepless nights spent pouring out her prayers and tears hoping for healing for her precious babies. Rather, it’s the burning passion in her heart for a better future and that her experience gave her the gift of a second chance.
I asked Mercedes what would she would say to someone reading this who is struggling with their own tragedy. “We all have our mountains. If what you’re going through still has the power to turn your life upside down, it’s serious. We all need to realize everyone who is walking on this earth is currently going through their battles, or has survived one. We are all strong enough to pull that inner strength out of us. Allow yourself to come out of it as a conqueror.”
Mercedes overcame the terror on that cold, Andes mountainside 17 years ago. Mercedes is overcoming the bittersweet mountain of her babies’ diagnosis today. The inner strength she encourages us to find is one she knows full well.
I leave you with these final profound words from Mercedes herself: “I go after my dreams with passion not only for myself and my own family, but for all those dreams that were cut short when that plane went down. Every morning you’ve been given a brand new second chance at life. What are you going to do with your new second chance today?”
To learn more about Dorian and Wynn’s disease, please visit the National MPS Society. You can also view this precious video of the boys. For more information about Mercedes Ramierez-Johnson and/or to contact her go here.
Until next time,
P.s. – Show some love! Leave a comment below & tell us what Mercedes strength means to you, or leave an encouraging word for her family!
All photos courtesy of Mercedes Ramirez-Johnson.