63. Jeffrey Morse: An astounding recovery journey

Aviator Jeffrey Morse was living an action-filled life, travelling the world with his career in the military and in commercial aviation. Then in 2012, he suffered a brain aneurism, a dissected artery and a paralysis-causing spinal cord stroke. At the age of forty-nine, Jeffrey was told he would likely never walk again. He made a vow that he would walk out of the hospital anyway. Six weeks later, he did just that.

Host Sue Stockdale discovers how Jeffrey Morse was able to accelerate his recovery by utilising skills he had learned during his career and how Jeffrey now inspires others to reframe their own challenges or obstacles by focusing on positivity, gratitude and self-responsibility.

Find out more about Jeffrey Morse and his book Finding Forward by connecting with him at Instagram Twitter and Facebook.


Key Quotes 

‘I’m just grateful every day.’ 

‘You’ve got less than a 25% chance of surviving the surgery.’ 

‘Suddenly I’m realising I’m sending commands from my brain to my body and my body isn’t responding.’

‘I had no idea what the future was going to hold at that point, but I wasn’t going to let his prognosis of what he thought be the last word.’ 

‘My life wasn’t over. If I could provide some sort of hope and inspiration to this man in the bed next to me.’ 

‘Sometimes I would sit and think that those things that I did in my past, sort of prepared me for this thing.’ 

‘I’m focusing on this life and making this life happy.’ 

‘I was looking at life from the perspective of what I was doing was 80% physical and 20% psychological. And I found the more I got into things that it was absolutely the opposite of that.’

‘Perfect comes with practice. In other words, give yourself the latitude. Trying and failing and trying again.’ 

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Jeffrey Morse Transcription

Sue: Hi. It’s Sue Stockdale and welcome to the Access to Inspiration podcast. Today my guest is Jeffrey Morse someone who embodies positivity and persistence. After having had a successful career in military and commercial aviation At age 49, he suffered a brain aneurysm and was told by the doctors he would likely never walk again. He made a vow that he would walk out to the hospital anyway and six weeks later he did just that. His story is a powerful lesson that no matter how bad things get that is always a way to look at your situation in a positive manner. Welcome to the podcast. Jeffrey, it’s great to speak to you today.

Jeffrey: Sue it’s a pleasure to be here with you on your show. Thank you so much for having me today.

Sue: Now. I know we’re going to be touching on persistence, positivity, and perseverance in our conversation today. I think it’d be quite good to set the scene for the listener first, though, in terms of perhaps giving us the context of when you were a young boy growing up, what life was like for you then?

Jeffrey: Well as a young boy, I remember when I was five years old and my father used to take my brother, Greg and I to the airport. My father had a friend that was a pilot and aircraft mechanic, and we would go over and visit with him. And on occasion he would take us up in his aircraft.

And that was when the aviation bug hit me, so I knew right away what I wanted to do in life. This was in New Haven, Connecticut. And as the years went on, we moved to south Florida. I would find myself at the beach from time to time sitting at an inlet and staring out at the horizon and thinking to myself someday, I want to travel the world. And it would be really interesting if someday later in life, if I could be sitting on the other side of the ocean, looking back towards this place where I’m sitting right now and wave back and say, Hey, I made it. And luckily enough, I was actually able to do that.

Sue: And when you say Jeffrey, that you were able to do that, tell us a little bit more about, in what way you were able to do it?

Jeffrey: Well, I joined the US Air Force and my first assignment in the air force was with a combat rescue squadron. When we weren’t practicing drills of that nature, we were out doing live rescues for shrimp, boats, fishing boats, downed aircraft in the water, or on land. And that capacity equally took us on missions across the Atlantic ocean over to Europe. So I got to spend a lot of time in Europe in that capacity. And then later my next assignment was with a larger aircraft, a jet aircraft at that point and that was taking me worldwide. Anything that was going on in the world, whatever the pulse was of what was going on we were pretty much at the pointy end of the spear there. So whatever was going on, be it something of a natural catastrophe and bringing in aid. That’s where I was. So all of a sudden this is taking on a broader picture and that later translated itself into my commercial aviation career. And I was flying cargo worldwide at that point. So I was going to pretty much every corner of the world with that job. And at that point I could really say to myself, wow, I really did do this. And I was, I was very happy for the accomplishments.

Sue: So you got to see a lot of the world, and having, I imagine perhaps a different perspective on life, having gone out of your own country and been to so many other places.

Jeffrey: That was actually very special. And I think about that often I’ve got so many friends around the world and I’m very grateful for that. But the traveling itself to answer your question that made me a better person meeting different people, different cultures, experiencing history in those countries. And just getting to sit and talk with people that was making me a much better person in that I was seeing a life in a larger scope and it really made me appreciate everything that I had every time I went home. Looking at how people are living in different parts of the world. It’s allowed me to think about things more broadly, more patiently, and I I’m just grateful every day for those experiences.

Sue: So the world was becoming a smaller place for you because you traveled around so much about, I imagine. And you’d even gone under the sea from what I understand.

Jeffrey: Yeah. So when I wasn’t flying I was scuba diving. That’s something that I picked up on my own when I was 15 years old and I carried that through my lifetime. And one of the things I always enjoyed about that was no matter what was going on in my life. Some sort of stress or whatever it may be the great equaliser to that was put on your scuba gear, go underwater and just stop, take a look at what’s going on. Get a close look at a reef or maybe you swim up to a fish. And it’s staring at you just on the other side of your mask. And that was enough just listening to myself breathe, enjoying every inhale and every exhale and just enjoying what was in front of my eyes at the moment. And as soon as my head would dip down under water, that’s when all that began. And I carried that for decades and I still enjoy it to this day when I get the opportunity.

Sue: We’re really getting a sense of you being quite active and you’re flying around, scuba diving and so on. And then, life made quite a change in June, 2012. I understand. Tell me what happened.

Jeffrey: Well a month earlier, I was scuba diving and I had an incident underwater. I had to cut a dive short. I had something called Barrow Trauma. It caused tears in my eardrums and I was seeing an ear nose and throat doctor for it, and I noticed around the beginning of June, June 9th I got a headache and the headache wasn’t going away. And 10 days into the headache, all of a sudden the headache has evolved into a migraine and I’ve had migraines in my past. Be it from dehydration in the middle east it’s hot out. But this migraine. Was getting a little more intense and I was starting to notice there was a little bit of a difference here with this one.

So I had a appointment with my ear, nose and throat doctor on June 29th. And from the 19th to the 29th, things were really getting bad with the migraine and I was also noticing that I was becoming photophobic. I couldn’t handle light anymore. So. I went to see the ear nose and throat doctor. And he said, Hey, I don’t have anything to do with migraines. Our appointment is over, go see your family doctor. So I set that up for the following morning and oh my God. When I got in there, the family doctor took my vitals, looked at my eyes and realized whatever was going on was extremely serious. And that was enough to call for an ambulance to take me to the hospital. And the next thing I know I’ve got an emergency room doctor telling me I’ve got an aneurysm on an artery just below my brain. So this turned very unexpectedly just like that. And. Now you’re trying to figure it out. My God. What’s next. So yeah, it was an interesting morning that morning.

Sue: Definitely not the way you expected the day to end and then what happened next then?

Jeffrey: Well they put me in an ambulance and drove me down to the city of Charlotte, about 25 miles south of where I live. And the next thing I know. I’m in neurosurgical ICU and talking to the head of the neurosurgery department and they wanted to try to use medication to hopefully make the aneurysm decrease in size and possibly go away.

But over the next 10 days that wasn’t working, the migraine continued to be extremely painful. And he finally came in one day and said, There’s nothing else we can do here. The only thing left to offer is surgery, but you need to know going into it that you’ve got less than a 25% chance of surviving that surgery and better than a 75% chance of being a vegetable for the rest of your life, his words, and I said, well, the 25% is better than nothing. So let’s do the surgery. I’ll take those odds. And I went in on Monday morning, July 9th, seven 30 in the morning for the surgery, came to in recovery a few hours later. And suddenly I’m realizing. I’m sending commands from my brain to my body and my body isn’t responding.

And I quickly realized I’m paralyzed from the neck down. And all of a sudden the claustrophobia is creeping in and I’m trying to get ahold of myself, if you will not to panic. And at that point I started realizing everything I learned in survival school in the air force was starting to kick in and I was pushing the panic as best I could away from me to start thinking positive. Okay. My body doesn’t work. What does work? My eyes work. I can breathe. I can talk. I can think I can hear, focus on that. The doctor came in eventually to speak with me and said, Hey, the surgery was a success, but it it looks like you’ve had a stroke on your spinal cord. And you’re more than likely, never going to walk again. And I told him. That’s your prognosis. You’re not in my body. I’ll walk out of this hospital and I was bound and determined. I had no idea what the future was going to hold at that point, but I wasn’t going to let his prognosis of what he thought be the last word. So that’s where my fight began.

Sue: It’s really interesting that you immediately went to those survival skills training that you’d learned in the military. You had the, the tools within you already the strategies to cope with completely unexpected situation. And I’m already hearing that upbeat positivity that you were bringing to that moment, Jeffrey. I’m also curious to discover how those that were your loved ones, those that were supporting you in that time. How did you help them to come to terms and adapt to that reality? Because it’s all very well for you to be positive. It’s often others that are not perhaps always as well equipped.

Jeffrey: that’s a spectacular question, Sue really is a spectacular question. And oh my God. That’s where I was beginning, interestingly enough. So over the next few days, while I was grappling with this new me, because the old me doesn’t exist anymore, they eventually moved me into a rehab facility, a building next door to the hospital and the room they moved me into. There was already a gentleman in the room. He had diabetes, he had an incident driving his pickup truck one day. Loses consciousness has an accident, loses a leg below the knee, needed to have the leg amputated as a result of the accident. So he comes to, he sees what’s going on and he was giving up.

He was done talking to the doctors, the nurses, the physical therapists, and I was listening to all this. Laying in my bed, paralyzed. I can’t move. I can’t get up and go walk away from it. So I found myself starting to talk to him every evening and telling him, listen, okay, you’ve lost a leg below the knee.

You can get a prosthetic leg and get on with your life. Your life. Isn’t over. You can go do all sorts of amazing things. And I was telling him stories and giving examples of things he could do things from my own past that I thought, Hey, you could go do things like this. And one of the things I was realizing as I was having these conversations with him was that I still had something to offer. My life wasn’t over. If I could provide some sort of hope and inspiration to this man in the bed next to me. Why couldn’t I do that for others? So that was me in my survival instinct, I suppose gravitating towards positivity again and not saying, Hey, you’re down and out. And there’s nothing left. I did have something to offer and that was important to me.

So. To answer the other part of your question with family and friends, every time I would see them come into the room, I would notice the obvious look of shock on their faces and, you know, first things first, I’m so happy that they’re coming to see me. And I thought to myself, you know, if I can take the gravity of what’s going on here and what they’re looking at when they’re looking at me and the uncomfortableness of that. If I can erase that in some way, then they’re going to want to come back. And if I can get them smiling and laughing, in other words, then that’s something positive also. So I would lean into a story, something they might’ve been involved with. Maybe it was something from my days of flying, just telling a story.

And I could do that. I, my brain still worked. I could talk. Okay. My body’s paralyzed, but little by little, you could start to see them not looking at paralyzed Jeff, they’re just looking at Jeff. So I was very happy that I could offer that. And I was equally happy being able to talk to the man in the bed next to me.

And they eventually moved me out of the room because the inevitable was coming with him and they didn’t want me in the room. And I still wanted to go see him despite the fact that they moved me. And later on, he did pass and the nurses came to me weeks later and they said, we wanted to tell you that that gentleman passed away, but. The nurses’ station, as you know, is right outside your door and we used to listen to you, talking to him and inspiring him every night. And you would make us cry because we couldn’t get over the devastating trauma that you were in. And you refused to look at the negativity of it at any point you could have at any point, but you didn’t, and it just amazed us that you, you wanted to continue on providing hope and inspiration to others, despite your situation. And that meant a lot to me. I felt very bad that the gentleman passed away. And that was one of many reasons why I wrote my book was to say, you know, I still remember you. And I haven’t forgotten about you. And even on my worst day, I think about what you went through and I’m not going to let myself go to that place. But I, I understand and I feel for what you were going through. So it was all really important. And I think that question you just asked was a really awesome question.

Sue: Well, thank you, Jeffrey. There’s a couple of things just to, I want to pick up on from what you’ve said there. One is, I noticed really that when, one has did I even say like a bigger purpose or another focus you were offering your support and inspiration to somebody else that helped you and secondly, something I think sometimes is overlooked is the use of humor or bringing lightness to what can seem very often to be a difficult conversation or a difficult situation. I’m wondering whether from your military background and perhaps some of the tough situations you faced there, whether you’d learned that humor was a useful lubricant for aiding in those difficult times.

Jeffrey: Yes. One of the things that I learned from an early age was how important giving was how important giving was to me, giving back to others, helping others, anytime I could. And if you could listen, number one to whatever was going on in somebody else’s life. But then if you could take things down another avenue while you’re talking and you’re listening to the seriousness of whatever’s going on with them, be it a trauma or whatever it might be, but could you put a little levity in there too to tell them. Things aren’t that bad and you’re going to be okay. If I could do those things to help another person and just take their mind off of whatever that stressor was, even for a brief few moments, then I felt good that I could help, or that I, I made a bad situation. Not so bad, even if it was for a brief period of time. And then equally to say, look, I’ll be there. And if I can help, I’ll be there to help. So those types of things were important and they became more important to me once this trauma, this devastation of paralysis happened with me.

Then over all the years that I had of doing what I was doing, I was ready to move forward into this new journey with that thing that I learned from my past. So I was very grateful for that. Sometimes I would sit and think that those things that I did in my past, sort of prepared me for this thing that just all of a sudden happened.

Sue: Yeah. I want to fast forward us know to, to 2022, this is 10 years on tell us about, what you’re doing now, how you are your health wise. Cause I think, you are in quite a different place there aren’t you.

Jeffrey: Yeah. I I’m certainly in a better place. I still deal with the effects of where the stroke occurred on my spinal cord. So a little bit of a delay down into my body, mostly on the right side. I still have issues with lack of feeling on the left and a little muscle weakness on my right side, but, but I still address that all these years later, I’m still doing physical therapy. I’ve gotten on with my life. I’m at another airline now teaching in the classroom and it feels great to give back in that capacity with all my years in aviation, it feels good to bestow that knowledge onto people coming into the industry for the very first time. I still travel when the opportunity presents itself, I enjoy driving up into the mountains on weekends when I get the opportunity. Sometimes, either sit and maybe write or read a little bit go on a hike, meet other people. Everything is good. I’ve moved on with my life and I don’t miss what was in my past with the other life, I’m focusing on this life and making this life happy. So that those things are very important to me. If I have to do something a little bit differently because of the limitations that’s okay. At least I’m doing something and I’m continuing to move forward with my life. I suppose, another way I would say this is, I was given a second chance at life and I’m not going to squander that.

Sue: It’s amazing to hear what your now doing and the value that you’re placing on, on the opportunities that you have at life and how you’re utilizing them. For any of our listeners who may find themselves in unexpectedly difficult situations whether it’s health-wise or in any facet of their life where they’re facing something that’s potentially life-threatening or devastating. I’m wondering whether there’s any insights that you are able to offer to them from your experience of having gone from that reality to recreating your life in a slightly different way.

Jeffrey: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. One of the things I found in the beginning was I thought what I was going through, even with all the wonderful alternative therapies I was doing, I was looking at life from the perspective of what I was doing was 80% physical and 20% psychological. And I found the more I got into things that it was absolutely the opposite of that things were 80% psychological and 20% physical. And what I mean by that is while you’re going through a trauma, doesn’t matter what the trauma is. Trauma is trauma. There’s no use labeling it or calling one more than another trauma is trauma. End of story. So let’s say set that on the shelf for a second. While we’re going through it. One of the things that happens is it’s easy to find yourself pulled back from being social being introverted. In other words feeling like you don’t fit in with everybody else and talking about those who are normal and putting yourself in a position where you’re not that. That’s not for you. It’s, it’s not for you to compare yourself to others. If you want to get into the comparison game, compare yourself to yourself. That’s where the game is. So don’t compare yourself to normal people.

I spoke to a lady recently who had a stroke and she was disabled and she was telling me how she got out recently onto a tennis court. And she was telling me how awful it looked with her trying to move and reach the ball and connect the ball with the racket. And I said, if you don’t mind, can I, can I stop you for a second and interrupt? I said, first of all, I want you to know that you’re my hero that you got out there and you actually did that. I said, second, don’t compare yourself to other people and don’t compare yourself to people that don’t have limitations. I said, when you were a child and you were first learning how to walk, was that perfect the first time? It wasn’t for me and I would suspect it wasn’t for you either. So how many times did it take you to perfect. And then maybe perfected in other means walking on ice, walking on snow, walking on boulders. So that takes time to learn those things. The fact that you got out on the tennis court was the greatest thing ever, because you said, I want to do this instead of I can’t do this, you put, I can’t off to the side. And you tried to do something, so reaching out to people, that would be one of the first things I would say is figure out how to get yourself into something that you can do. And it’s okay that it’s not perfect. Perfect comes with practice. In other words, so give yourself the latitude. Trying and failing and trying again. That’s all. Okay. Just give it the effort. So that, that would probably be where I would start talking to people about these things.

And then, when it comes to things like family, family wants to go do something and maybe that thing you can’t do because physically. It’s taking you beyond what you’re capable of while, instead of saying no, communicate, let your family know how you feel about doing that and what your concerns are with it and how they can help you go do that thing to be social again, those are the little building blocks that help you get through and help you find. look, I was able to do this thing. Maybe I couldn’t do it the same, but at least I tried and I feel better at the end of the day.

I find it interesting in this day. We’re in right now with the pandemic. When I look at the paralysis I have. Now I look at the parallels of paralysis with the rest of the world and what they’re dealing with with a pandemic and how people are withdrawn. And it’s so easy to find yourself, having difficulties getting back into what it means to be social again. So I find the world going through trauma and I find some of that trauma equal to what I was going through with my paralysis.

Sue: You’re giving me such a sense of your hopefulness. You’re choice to look at the world in the way that you do with a sense of hope, with a sense of optimism and you’ve really role modeled those three words that I expressed at the outset, Jeffrey persistence, positivity and perseverance in all that you’ve said today, if there was one parting desire that you would want to share with the listener, what would you want them to take away from it?

Jeffrey: Oh, well the first thing I would say is take a moment every day to thank your caregivers and thank your therapists. It’s not an easy job for them at times because they’re seeing a part of you that you’re trying to move beyond and it takes a lot of energy and practice and a consciousness to put that smile on your face. It’s not always easy. And they’re seeing the other side of it when it doesn’t work well. So go out of your way to say thank you to them for all that they do for you because they care and they want to see you succeed. And if you can look at them eye to eye with a smile and tell them with sincerity, how you feel and how appreciative of them you are. That goes an awful long way. And that’s just one more component to help you improve to help you heal. So those things are important. Anytime you get a chance to maybe do something for them. Go out of your way to do something small for them, whatever it may be. You’ve got time to think about those things. Take a few moments and put your mind there and think about them and, and think about maybe something you can do. So those things are important. Those are the things that help you move forward and evolve into a better place.

Sue: As you know Jeffrey the theme for this podcast series is having an impact. You’ve certainly done that in our conversation today. And I know that the book that you’ve published facing forward will no doubt have an impact on those people that can read it and be inspired by your word there as well. How might people find out more about that book that you’ve written

Jeffrey: sure. Well, I’ve got a copy of it here. There’s the book, but you can find me on my website, which is Jeffrey, J E F F R E Y. A, my middle initial Morse, M O R S E.com. You can find me on Facebook JeffreyAMorse or Finding underscore Forward. So that’s either Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and I’m always happy to meet folks anytime you want to stop by say hello if you’ve got things you’d like to talk about, I’m always there to listen. And if I can throw a little more hope and inspiration out there, I’m always happy to do that. That’s important to me that giving back. It is what helps me. And if I can do that with helping somebody else, that means the world to me.

Sue: well, it’s wonderful to hear you say that. Jeffrey, of course, we’ll put all the links on the show notes from today’s conversation. It’s been fantastic to talk to you. I found it very inspiring myself and I wish you well in what 2022 brings for you and as you can keep continuing finding your own forward.

Jeffrey: Thank you so much, Sue. I’m wishing you. And your listeners a wonderful 20 22 as well. I hope everybody can find something positive and get back into a, a bright, happy life again. That just means everything so wishing you the very best and thank you once again. So very much for having me on your show. I’m very, very appreciative.

Sue: Wow. I hope you enjoyed listening to Jeffrey’s story as much as I did. And it’s perhaps made you think differently about your day-to-day challenges. Remember, you can find a transcription for this and all our other episodes on our website, access to inspiration.org. Next time I’ll be talking to Lisa Marie Platske will be joining me to talk about courageous leadership. I hope you can join me then.