How Skydiving Changed My Life - Tom Underwood


by Tom Underwood | USPA #277811 | Anchorage, Alaska

On May 31, 1998, I died. There were no lights and I didn’t flat line. But one life ended and another began that day. I was sitting in my easy chair watching some innocuous television program when it felt like I had been shot in the gut with a load of molten lead. There were no thoughts, only pain, as I fell from the chair vomiting. The last thing I remember was the emergency room doors closing on my feet. I was put in a coma. My illness was acute necrotizing pancreatitis. At the time it was 95 percent fatal, and my survival was a gift from God.

On June 25, I awoke. There was the sound of a respirator and the sensation of air being forced into my lungs. I tried to move. Nothing happened because my muscles had atrophied. I tried to shout and started choking. A wave of panic overwhelmed me. I was dying. But that couldn’t be true. I had to get control of something. Nothing I physically tried worked. I could, however, control my thoughts and memories.

I remembered my wife and daughters. The dogs, the house, the business. I began to focus on the most intense memories. The ones that defined me: getting married, being at the birth of my children. I relived them, savoring each minute aspect.

Over the following days, I was kept on the respirator and left to my memories. Some of the most intense were of skydiving in El Paso, Texas, in 1979. I salvaged every detail: playing hacky sack while waiting for the Cessna 182 and the somber ride to altitude, the rush of air as the door opened, stepping out onto the wheel plate as I grasped the wing strut, letting go and the violence of the air as I accelerated, the feeling of control as I moved my hands and arms and legs, the thrill of getting pinned and practicing relative work, glancing at the altimeter on my belly reserve and pulling my ripcord, the relief when my chute opened and the fun piloting my black and red “Maltese cross” PC toward the target.

After three years of relapses and a heart attack, I asked the doctor if I could go skydiving again. He almost fell out of his chair laughing and said, “There is no way you will ever jump from a plane again.” What I heard was, “You are dying and will never live again.” For years I have worked on my health and have annually asked the doctors the same questions. Last September, I prefaced my question with an inventory of health issues conquered and to my utter thrill, the response was finally “yes.” After a delay of five months due to a broken ankle, I was finally cleared to jump.

On October 19, 2014, I completed a tandem jump at Alaska Skydive Center in Anchorage. It was the last jump of the day and most likely the season. The next morning, there was snow on the ground. It was only the tandem instructor Josh and I in the plane with the pilot. When the pilot opened the door, I bridged 35 years of living and dying to reach living again. We exited and I felt my arms and legs shoot by memory toward their four points. I was screaming inside as we fell through the frigid air. I pulled the handle as one who was punching death in the gut. Way too soon, I released the toggles to Josh and we lined up to land.

Walking from the drop zone I dropped to one knee and thanked God for his gift. With tears in my eyes I realized that I am no longer amongst the dying. I am again amongst the living. I am with those who refuse to say “no” and seize the experiences that define life itself. And I will keep working to stay there.

I will see you living souls on the DZ in the spring.


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