Markus had everything going for him. He was a star athlete, had been captain of the high school hockey team, he was young, healthy, strong and smart and was now the best salesman in the company. He could write his own ticket for the future, anything that he wanted. At 25, a world of possibilities awaited him.
But all that was before the accident. It occurred one unforgettable day in Colorado in the Fall of 1995. It was a perfect day for a motorcycle ride, and that's what Markus was doing. Riding along the Continental Divide on a windy mountain road; he cranked up his bike to over 80 miles an hour. "I was going fast, faster than I should have been going but I always loved playing the edge and it was almost winter. This would be my last ride of the season."
On this particular day, however, the edge that Markus was playing was a literal edge that separated him and his bike from a sixty foot drop off the side of a mountain. "When I hit that gravel patch, I skidded, lost control of the bike, and went off of the road. The next thing I knew I went over the edge and was launched up in the air, literally flying. I got separated from my bike in mid-air and looked down and saw the tops of trees and the ground way below me. I knew then that it was over. My thought as I was in flight on my way to the ground which was over sixty feet below was "This is the end of my life. I'm a dead man."
Markus fell through the trees, ripping off branches and limbs on the way down and tearing up his body and breaking his bones as well. The impact of hitting the ground knocked him out. He awoke after a few moments to find himself face down in a stream of icy water. Unable to move his arms or legs, Markus was somehow able to lift his head out of the water long enough to gulp enough air into his lungs to keep from drowning, then dropping his face back into the water when he lost the strength to hold his head up.
"It took me a while to recognize that I was still alive but then I realized just how impossible my situation was. I thought, 'I can't move my body, I'm in excruciating pain, nobody even knows I'm here, I can barely get my face out of the water, and I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to do this. Maybe the crash didn't kill me, but I'm a goner now. I felt my body getting numb from the ice water and I knew that I was going into hypothermic shock. I hated feeling so out of control so I decided to take control of the one thing that I could. I decided to end my life. I wanted to at least leave life on my own terms. I wanted to make a clean passage to the other side, and not exit my body in anger or panic.
I willed myself to stay alive long enough to leave with positive, loving, and grateful thoughts in my mind. I took a few moments to feel gratitude for my 11 brothers and sisters, then thought about my parents and my friends. I remembered the good times that we had together. Then I became aware of feeling that I was getting very close to death and I decided that it was time to make my final act, to drop my head in the water, take one final breath, and drown. But my life force overrode my decision and I involuntarily pulled my head out of the water every time I tried to drown. That was when I really felt hopeless: I couldn't even die.
"Then in what seemed like the next moment, I heard the sound of something moving and saw out of the corner of my eye a man walking towards me. He was shocked to see me alive and he couldn't stop exclaiming about it. But I was still wanting to die and I asked him to be quiet so that I could finish preparing myself for death. Then a few minutes later, a team of rescue workers that someone must have called showed up. I could tell that they had expected to pick up a dead body, but when they saw that I was alive they sprang into action, picked me up, put me on a stretcher and carried me up the hill. The pain I felt when going up the hill was indescribable.
In the hospital they found that my back was broken in seven places, two of the breaks were complete fractures. Also I had a fractured hip and pelvis and my tailbone had broken off. I was in surgery for sixteen hours during which time they took a bone harvest from my left rear hip, rebuilt my fractured vertebrae, and put three titanium rods in my back and leg. After the surgery they told me that I was paraplegic and would never walk again.
I spent the next seven weeks in the hospital and six months in rehabilitation. I was unable to move either of my legs at all. I was told to be prepared to spend the rest of my life in a wheel chair. Before the crash I had had a job I loved, a girlfriend that I was engaged to, money and a strong healthy pain-free body. While I was in rehab I lost my job, my girlfriend left me, I was living in constant pain, and I had practically no contact with my friends. My entire sense of who I was just crumbled away and I fell into a pit of hopeless despair. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was dealing with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was feeling pretty bad before I lost Nancy, but when she left me, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. All of the losses hit just hit me like a ton of bricks. I was inconsolable. My life force just kind of disintegrated.
One day in the rehab center I found myself consumed by uncontrollable sobbing, when I felt the presence of someone close to me. I opened my eyes and saw a man in a wheelchair next to me. He was a quadriplegic, paralyzed for the neck down. He wheeled a little closer to me and softly asked what was going on. After I told him all of the details of my misery, he paused then said that he was sorry about my losses. Then he said to me: 'You're a paraplegic. You might even be able to walk one day. Can I tell you about my life? I had it all. Valedictorian of my class, I went to an Ivy League college, got a law degree, married a beautiful woman, and have three children. I did everything right. Six weeks ago I was riding my mountain bike and flipped over the handle bars and broke my neck. That's it. I'm never going to be able to take care of myself. I'll never practice law, never hug my kids, I'll never make love to my wife again, and I'll probably die within the next few years. Why don't you look at what you have rather than what you don't have?'
"His words hit me almost as hard as the ground that I landed on when I went over the edge of the cliff. In what seemed like an instant, my despair and self-pity dissolved and I felt the truth in what he spoke. That man's words saved my life as much as the men who came down to the bottom of the ravine did. I had hit bottom. Again. And the thing about hitting bottom is that there's only one direction from there that you can go. I slowly began to pull myself up. It wasn't...hasn't been an easy journey, but I made the transition from seeing myself as a pitiful victim to seeing myself as fortunate, incredibly lucky in fact, despite the fact that I still have to deal with a lot of pain and a body that will never function the way it used to.
I don't just believe in angels now, I know that they exist. That man was one of them, and I've met others since him as well. I still get low at times and feel defeated, especially when the pain gets overwhelming. But it seems that just as things seem to get really bad, another angel shows up; sometimes in a wheel chair, sometimes not, but always with a reminder of what I'm blessed to have in my life, and a reminder that things can and do change, and sometimes that change is for the good. I was told that I'd never walk and now I walk without crutches. I work out three or four hours a day and though the pain is still there, I have a body that I'm really proud of.
I've learned that with the proper mental focus and determination there's nothing that you can't do. I used to have a lot of limitations but after going through what I've been through, I know that there's nothing that I can't do. "
One of the things that Markus has discovered that he can do is to be an angel for others who are struggles with ordeal in their own lives. He's found that he has a passion and a gift for helping and inspiring others, and he has spoken to many groups of people particularly young people who have been confronted with difficult circumstances and situations that challenge them. His tendency to be at the right place at the right time, just when he is needed, is something that has earned Markus the nickname, "Captain America." When he risked his life to rescue several college students who had fallen through the ice, he was honored with a Congressional Certificate of Appreciation for heroism for "unselfish and courageous endeavors".
At the end of our talk, Markus told us that "I give every day my best shot. Some days I have more to give than others, but I give what I can, in whatever way I can, to whoever it is that needs something, even if it's just a kind or encouraging word. I believe in paying it forward." He also believes in Karma. "What goes around comes around", he told us. "I believe it's not just good fortune that has enabled me to survive the ordeals of my life, but I think that the good that we do for others always, in some way, in some form, at some time, comes back to us through the goodness and kindness of others. It just seems to be the way the world works. It's a pretty good system, don't you think?"