07/04/2012 07:40 am ET

Patty Lance: Realtor Turns Tragedy Into Success

Patty Lance is a force of nature. She enters the room with whirlwind energy and immediately becomes the room's focal point. And if you didn't know better, you'd assume that being the woman-in-control-of-everything was a trait she was born with. You'd be wrong.

Her only child's tragic surfing accident 14 years ago made her the woman she is today. Geoff Lance was left a quadriplegic and Patty was left to make the best of a mother's worst nightmare. Today, at age 63, she may be one of the country's only real estate agents who is telling the truth when she says these past few recessionary years have been her best. And her son? He lives a fully mainstreamed life thanks to the dedication, determination and inspiration of his mother.

Geoff was 24 years old and Patty 49 when the injury occurred. At the time, he was just a year out of college where he played Division One tennis for Penn State University and Nebraska University. During his high school years, he boarded and trained at the famed Nick Bollieterri Tennis Academy in Bradenton Florida, where he was ranked #1 in the state. Patty at the time, ran a boutique accounting service for high-end individuals.

The surfing accident slammed on the brakes of both their lives.

Patty recalls getting the midnight phone call from the California hospital saying that her son had been in an accident and wasn't expected to live and that she needed to fly from her home on the East Coast right away. "Hurry," they said.

"I just went into survival mode. You do mechanically what needs to get done. I called all the airlines, I had missed the final flights out. I called private jets, clients I knew with private planes, pilots I knew, anyone, everyone," she recalls. "All I cared about was whether my son was still breathing."

When she arrived at the hospital, she learned some of the pieces of what had happened and the possibilities of what lie ahead. None of it was good. Her son was alive, barely, with no sensations from the nipple line down. He had cognitive brain damage and had been in full cardiac arrest when an off-duty lifeguard found him. The lifeguard had seen his surfboard floating unattended and pulled it ashore, only to find Geoff's unconscious body still attached beneath it.

And so the journey began. Geoff survived and Patty sprung into high gear. She researched where the best medical treatments and services were being offered and pushed her way into those therapy programs with the best results. Geoff was in therapy for years and his level of functionality surpassed even the doctors' expectations. While his diagnosis is a C6-C7 complete cervical injury rendering him a quadriplegic, he functions as a paraplegic. He also dedicated two years to cognitive training that taught him compensatory skills to overcome the brain injury he suffered. Bottom line: His recovery is a testament to his desire to recapture what he lost and to his mother's sheer force of determination.

At one point, their paths crossed with "Superman" Christopher and Dana Reeves and they formed a foundation to provide assistance to others. Fundraisers, intensive therapy and more therapy became their lives. Patty's marriage -- a month old at the time of Geoff's accident -- couldn't withstand the stress of the situation; it lasted about a year, which only helped Patty and Geoff grow closer. Patty's mother became unexpectedly ill and died in that year. "It was just one more thing to process and deal with," Patty said. Yet nothing can stop the unstoppable.

In 2003, Geoff suggested they move to California -- not that far from the ocean that claimed his mobility. Realizing that the East Coast's harsh winters were too hard on her son, Patty agreed to the plan. It mean closing down her business and relocating her own life as well. "So we did it," she said matter-of-factly.

At one point, Patty realized that she needed to reclaim parts of her life for herself. She switched to real estate instead of accounting, still dealing with the high-end of the market. But building a real estate practice at a time when the market was peaking and the field flooded with agents wasn't easy. And then of course, the housing market bottomed out and the tune of house-buying public changed. Without question, she entered and has thrived in the worst housing market in history.

But the thing about Patty is that she doesn't see obstacles. Her real estate business grew during these dire market years because virtually every one of her clients sends her referrals. She works so hard and so impresses them -- becoming friends actually -- that they make it their business to send more business her way. She is based at Coldwell Banker in tony Newport Beach, but sells properties all over the country -- she just closed a deal in Arizona. In the first six months of this year, she closed 10 coastal properties that each sold for more than $2 million. She's working with an international client from Beijing right now who is shopping in the $4 million to $5 million range.

Frankly, she leaves many other agents in the dust. For one recent client -- a Sacramento-area doctor and his wife -- Patty found their ideal vacation home by literally sending out 400 letters to every home owner in the neighborhood where they wanted to buy. She included their photos and laid out the facts of why it would be to their tax advantage to sell now. She had four calls in response to her letters. The clients flew down for a weekend, toured all four homes, and were in escrow by Monday morning. That doctor's wife? She's sent Patty about a half-dozen referrals already.

While Patty's success has given her the financial means to "keep my own identity" -- and hire staff to assist with Geoff's needs -- the two live together and there is no around-the-clock help. They travel together and are clearly close -- Geoff just called to say he ordered tickets for a San Francisco 49ers game he wants to take his Mom to -- and both volunteer at the same hospital that provided emergency care to Geoff when he was brought in from the beach that day. Patty works in the gift shop every Friday afternoon and Geoff runs the staff of volunteer greeters three days a week. After they get off work on Friday, they try a new restaurant each week.

"We don't talk about Geoff's accident or his health. We talk about life and everything else. My son has an active life filled with things. He plays wheelchair rugby, works out at a gym, meets friends for lunch," she said. "Last week he went to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl."

Does she ever question her faith and wonder why this challenge was presented to her family?

"I believe that everything that is supposed to happen, happens for a reason," Patty said. "We both grew from this experience. I made my peace with it and we all just move forward with gratitude for what we are able to accomplish."