At 29, Kathy Parks was strolling with her dog when she twisted her ankle, fainted, and fell 15 feet off an elevated sidewalk. The accounting student crawled back to a friend's apartment (not recommended), and they rushed to an emergency room. The news was grim: Kathy had a severe fracture in her L-1 vertebra. In simple terms, she had broken her back.
"My vertebra was a bag of gravel," says Kathy, now age 43. "If it settled wrong, I could be paralyzed." The doctor wanted to operate, but Kathy resisted. Instead, she wore a back brace for six months, which meant no twisting, no lifting, no driving, no school. It worked: The bone healed, leaving her spine and nerves intact.
During those months, Kathy had terrible fears that she would be paralyzed, fears that her husband, Bobby, helped talk her through. "I thought, 'Oh—this is what for better or worse meant.'" She also got through the experience by focusing on completing the smallest tasks, like maneuvering through her morning shower in her back brace. And she tried to keep her eye on the big picture: "I didn't die, and I wasn't paralyzed, and something good is going to come of this," she told herself, again and again.
That her back healed properly doesn't mean all is well; even today, 14 years later, she has residual pain. But the injury made her understand how fragile her body is, and that she has to take care of it. She exercises most days, riding a stationary bike, lifting weights, and stretching—all of which allow her to enjoy her favorite pastime, sailing, at a lake that's a mere 25 minutes from her office in downtown Knoxville.
Kathy now sees the fall—she won't call it an "accident"—as a pivotal event: "I wanted my life to matter. I really didn't have that before. I was a good student, a good wife. I followed the rules, but I didn't have this deep sense of contributing to the world. The fall really changed me in that way."
That perspective is one she passes to her clients, many of whom are women entering a new phase of their lives. She doesn't tell them what to do with their money. She helps them talk about dreams, ask questions, understand choices. Because, as she knows all too well, informed risks are the best we can do. "You can't know what an outcome will be—you have to make the biggest impact with the time and resources you have," she says. "If you think you know all the answers, you won't look at all the creative possibilities."