06/18/2012 02:14 EDT | Updated 08/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Living Is More Than Just Not Dying


"Do you not want to die or do you want to live?" asked Melissa Vassallo's doctor. Melissa, in her groggy state after her horrific accident, was initially thinking to herself, "that's the same question." But as she pondered more, she realized it wasn't.

"I want to live," she answered. Not to die implied a life that just ticked along, not one that was full and rich with experiences.

Melissa was 22 when she was involved in a car accident in Savanah. She did in fact stop breathing several times, but they revived her. She has spent the last eight years recovering, graduating from a wheelchair to crutches, to now walking on her own.

Now 30, she was speaking on our Courage Panel at the Journey to Success Conference. She has a maturity beyond her years -- she has lived and then some, drawing on her inner strength and determination to succeed, to live.

And while she was in her wheelchair, she became an observer of life. "People treat you so differently when you are in a wheelchair," she shared. "They act like it's your brain that is damaged, not your spine or legs."

Turning her tragedy into something positive has kept Melissa going, along with the support of her family and friends. She has gone back to school to study disabilities and become a strong advocate for the disabled, volunteering with Rick Hansen and working to establish a local sailing program for disabled people.

As Melissa poignantly shared, "I want to live, to thrive, not just survive." And she is staying true to the answer she gave the doctor all those years ago.

The women sat in admiration as they listened to her story, there was hardly a dry eye in the room. An attractive blonde, it was hard to believe as she sat there that so much could have happened to her, and yet she rose above it all.

What would you have done? I mean, life happens to all of us. Do you have the tenacity to stay the course, taking the good with the bad? Often there is some good, believe it or not.

I can say that because I am a cancer survivor -- correction, thriver -- and like Melissa, I learned some invaluable life lessons on that journey. Because I work with small business owners, I often talk about cancer in terms of features and benefits -- something we think about usually in terms of our products and services. The features are whatever treatments you have to go through -- in Melissa's case endless surgeries, hours of physiotherapy, and more. In mine, it was just surgery, chemo and radiation.

But here are some of the benefits:

1. A cocoon of love. You learn how much you are loved by family and friends. Instead of just coasting along in relationships, people show their love in many different ways. I received some letters that I will treasure forever. It was like being at my funeral, hearing the eulogies, but I didn't have to die.

2. Speaking out to people who matter to you. You, in return, have the opportunity to tell people what they mean to you, to say thank you.

3. Negative people are voted off your island. You become selective about who you want to spend your time or work with. Negative people do not qualify and when you "clean house" you find yourself surrounded by people who care and are not drained or pulled down by negativity.

4. Take charge of your health. You learn not to take your health for granted. In my case, I stopped being a couch potato and took ownership and steps to get fit.

5. Focus. A key word as you grow a business, but when you have been sick you learn to focus on what is important to you, and sometimes that may no longer be your business. Your priorities change.

6. Giving back. Melissa mentioned that she wanted to dedicate her life to making a difference, and that was my resolve too. In fact, volunteering or giving back makes you realize that there are people worse off than yourself and it helps you become less wrapped up in yourself.

Melissa's talk had a powerful impact on the women in the audience. Her touching story made us reflect on our lives and what we would do if we had been her. For some, it may have been a wake-up call.

I know for myself it served as a reminder, because even with the best of intentions, life goes on and it is all too easy to slink back into taking the essence of life for granted.

So thank you Melissa for sharing your truth and reminding us to thrive, not just survive.