Grateful Journey -- The Story of Jackie Pflug
by Al Siebert, PhD
THRIVEnet Story of the Month - November 1997
Jackie Pflug survived being shot in the back of the head in 1985 by hijackers. She calls her twelve year struggle with brain injury, learning disability, PTSD, depression, divorce, epilepsy, and visual impairment a "grateful journey."
On Thanksgiving weekend in 1985 Jackie Pflug was flying from Athens to Cairo on EgyptAir Flight 648. Shortly after take off, the plane was hijacked by three men who ordered the pilot to fly to Libya. The plane didn't have enough fuel to fly that distance, however. It had to make an emergency landing on the island of Malta.
The Maltese authorities refused to refuel the plane. The hijackers threatened to execute one passenger every 15 minutes until they got fuel. When the deadline passed, an Israeli woman was led to an open door by a hijacker. He shot her in the back of the head with a 38-calibre pistol. She tumbled down the stairs to the runway, but didn't die. When she tried to crawl away, the hijacker shot her again and again.
Jackie was the fifth passenger to be shot. She says she remained calm and centered when they led her to the door to be executed. She'd privately said her good-byes and had time to pray. She says that after she decided to turn all of her worry and anxiety over to God she felt a warm feeling flooding through her body. She felt safe. She remembers thinking to herself "nobody can hurt me. The hijackers can do whatever they want to my body, but I'm going to still feel safe. If I live I'll be OK and if I die, I'll be OK."
Jackie stood at the top of the stairs and waited. She felt the explosion of the pistol hit the back of her head and felt an awful pressure in her ears. She says it felt as if a massive charge of electricity surged though her skull. Feeling no pain, she tumbled and floated down the stairs in a slow motion haze.
When she stopped tumbling she was amazed to find that she was still conscious. She was face down on the runway at the bottom of the stairs. She opened her eyes. Her face was hidden under her arm. "I'm not dead! How can this be?" She told herself "Stay calm, just stay calm. Whatever you do, don't move. Remember what happened to the Israeli woman. Don't look up. Play dead. Keep calm. Keep perfectly still."
Jackie made herself lay without moving for five hours to avoid being shot again. Everyone thought she was dead, even the ambulance crew that came to remove the bodies.
Two men dragged her body about thirty feet and threw her onto a metal bench in the ambulance. Jackie didn't know who they were. She wondered if they might be more hijackers. She decided to take a risk. They were astonished when a woman they thought was dead suddenly asked "Are you the good guys or the bad guys?"
The ambulance raced Jackie to the only hospital on Malta equipped for brain surgery. Jackie learned later that the hijackers made their own bullets. The one shot at her had a low charge of powder. The bullet shattered the back of her skull and lodged in her brain on the right side. The neurosurgeons removed the bullet and bone splinters from her brain.
In her book, Miles to Go Before I Sleep, Jackie describes her long slow recovery from her head injury. Like many survivors, she felt very frustrated dealing with neurologists and other experts who wouldn't answer all her questions.
When her medical coverage ran out, she got angry. She was shot for being an American, but was getting no help fro the US government. She wrote angry letters to President Ronald Reagan. To her amazement she got a call from the White House. She was eventually invited to meet the president and he arrange for help with her medical expenses.
Her recovery progress was very slow. She felt depressed about what happened her, had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder flashbacks, and felt guilty about being alive while the woman shot before her was killed. And she had to learn to survive being a survivor. Some people, when hearing her hijacking story would say "What I would have done is...." A very invalidating experience--one that makes it harder to speak to the next person who asks.
Jackie's husband, Scott, worked hard to protect her, but didn't understand her slow progress. They'd been married only three months before the incident, so they didn't have a long history together. Their relationship became increasingly strained and ended in divorce.
Jackie feels fortunate that she was a special education teacher and worked with children with learning disabilities. After her head injury she had an extreme learning disability. She would get lost in the basement of Scott's parents' home. She would stare at objects, not knowing what they were for. She couldn't read words or sentences. She had the verbal comprehension of a young child.
Her struggle with her own learning disability gave her a better, deeper understanding and empathy for the children she used to work with. Now she understands from the inside what it is like to have a learning disability and how frustrating it is when you brain won't work the way you want.
Jackie has a sense of humor about her experiences. Her visual impairment prevents her from seeing the left side of whatever she looks at. During her first few months home she hit so many objects on her left side she joked about all the bruises. She sees only the right side of words. She says she went into a restroom in a hotel to wash her hands and wondered why there were urinals in the women's restroom. Outside she realized she was so used to only seeing the last part of the word "WOMEN" she hadn't realized the word on the door was "MEN."
Jackie's first effort at returning to work fatigued her and subjected her to high levels of sensory stimulation. She had an epileptic seizure. She has had to adapt to the fact that her brain still has some tiny bone splinters in it and she can't work as much as she used to.
Jackie calls her recovery a "joyous journey." She says she used to be a caretaker, always helping others, but paying little attention to her own needs. To cope with her condition she learned to be more open, relax, listen to her Inner Voice, and develop a quiet inner peacefulness. She says as she listened more and more to her Inner Voice "It was an exhilarating and exciting period of growth and healing. The blinders over my eyes were being lifted, revealing a world more beautiful than I imagined."
Jackie started speaking to groups about using trauma as a springboard for personal growth and development. She tells people "we are really powerless over many of the forces that shape our lives. Yet we do have power over how we respond to those situations and events."
Jackie is a wonderfully warm, relaxed, friendly woman. I feel fortunate that we had a chance to meet and talk several times in Hartford before we taped the Gayle King show about "Courageous Women." Jackie has remarried and even though she is now over 40, she just gave birth to her first baby. She is very happy and a truly joyous person. All the time we were together I felt awed by how much the human spirit can overcome.
I highly recommend her book, Miles To Go Before I Sleep. It covers a wider range of survivor challenges than any other personal story I've read. You can also get more information about Jackie online at her website, www.jackiepflug.com.