“I Made a Decision to Live”

Date Published: February 5, 2020

On September 11, 2001, Lauren Manning suffered burns on over 80 percent of her body and lost hundreds of colleagues at the World Trade Center. Facing near-certain death, she found a determination to live that would carry her through a long recovery and turn her into a national symbol of resilience. In this special interview, she talks about how pity and pain fueled her will to heal and offers advice on overcoming adversity. Mrs. Manning is an entrepreneur, businesswoman, and author.

Podcast Transcript

Host: 00:00
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. Today on the podcast you're going to hear from one of the toughest people I have ever interviewed. Her name is Lauren Manning, and on 9/11 she was grievously wounded in the attack on the World Trade Center. Over 80 percent of her body was burned. And yet somehow, miraculously, through medicine and grit, she managed to recover. Her story was widely covered in the press. She became something of a national symbol of resilience. She even appeared on Oprah and got a shout-out from President Obama. In this interview, she's going to talk about where that determination came from—we trace it all the way back to her childhood—and she's going to offer advice for you, or for me, or for anybody to find that strength within ourselves. The last thing I want to say before we get started is that this episode, of course, touches on 9/11. It's not all about it. Lauren does tell her story from that day. So if that's a trigger for you, just want to let you know that that's coming up. So here's Lauren Manning. I hope you enjoy it. Lauren Manning, thank you for being here.

Lauren Manning: 01:01
It's terrific to be here with you, Jon. Thanks for having me.

Host: 01:05
So I'm always interested in the seeds of a person's resilience. What from their early childhood, either people or experiences, helped prepare them to be the resilient adults that they grew into. Now I know your father was a Marine.

Lauren Manning: 01:17
He was a Marine in his early days and memories that he had from his days—and serving in Korea certainly— played us up as a family with some very basic missives that helped served certainly me during some of the most difficult times in my life.

Host: 01:39
One I recall from reading about you is, "Get over it."

Lauren Manning: 01:44
He would say, "You're not the first person things have happened to. So get over it." I felt he was being so callous, but what he was really trying to do was inculcate me with the knowledge and understanding that people will disappoint you, you will not always get what you want, do as well as you hope, and nothing is perfect. But if you can find that place to dwell in, that happy oasis of peace in knowing you've done the best you can, then that really is the win and the joy of what is life, a life well-lived.

Host: 02:23
That seems to me to be a very hard-won wisdom. And the portrait of the young person that I got from reading your book is of somebody who became very competitive. Did that stem out of the stoicism, the "no gold stars"?

Lauren Manning: 02:41
I think that for me there was a real confluence during the time that I grew up of both what had been the women's movement really coming to greater fruition, coupled with my mom who was, and is, a very bright and talented woman, but who chose—as many women increasingly are even with a lot of education—to stay at home and rear their children. She was there rearing her children and not out in the job force, and I thought, "Wow! Why aren't you doing that? This is a waste that you should be home. You should be doing something more productive." And I took it to task myself that I wanted to. And I wanted to build a company. I wanted to run a company. I wanted to—You know we are, from hereditary standpoint, either better or not at certain things. And life is about plugging and playing into hopefully the grace that you're given by good mentors, teachers, parents or others in your lives to figure out what it is you're good at, to find your passion. And I found my passion, fortunately, in Wall Street.

Host: 03:52
And that's what took you to Cantor Fitzgerald. That's how you ended up working—

Lauren Manning: 03:55
Well, I originally started out at Lehman Brothers in their training program and I came to Cantor to run business development. I moved through a number of different positions in the firm, kind of fixing things, building things. And I guess that was my bailiwick.

Host: 04:12
Can we go back to September 11, 2001?

Lauren Manning: 04:19
In 2001, after what had been this kind of glorious summer and I was a newer mom, my son was just 10 months old that morning of 9/11. I wasn't running late. I got called to do something at home that I wasn't expecting to with the property we had. And so I ran out of that house, kissing my son goodbye and I run up to Washington Street trying to get a cab and, you know, reaching out, hailing, hailing. Finally one comes along and I could not wait to get to work. "Faster, faster, please try to make the light!" I said to the cab driver. And when he finally pulled up to One World Trade Center, I kind of jogged into the building, pushing through the revolving doors and I walked to my left and immediately around the corner. And the building is 110 stories, there are 99 elevators. And that matters in a moment because as I turned that corner, there was this kind of seismic, otherworldly shift as if the building shuttered, followed instantly by this piercing loud whistle. And within seconds out from the elevator was this blast, this enormous blast of fire that enveloped everything around it. And this superheated air, I was encased in what was the flames that, unbeknownst to me, had blown out from the first jet having been crashed above in floors 91 through 95. I was enveloped in it. I could not breathe. I could not imagine what was happening. And for a moment I thought that this can't be happening. It felt surreal. The pain obviously from that second was extraordinary. And I pushed my way through the first set of doors, and back then there was a median in the middle of the highway. And it wasn't a grassy area. There was a small amount of planting. And as we all learn as kids, you got to drop and roll, drop and roll. And there was nothing but macadam and cement. So I started running across the street and I made it across with a few others—I wasn't running with them—to that bank and I dropped and I rolled, trying to put out the flames, and looking up at the building as the pain began seeping deeper and deeper, I prayed to God to release me. I wanted to die to feel the pain somehow, maybe abate. Although I realized even then that I don't think that death would have brought a release from the pain. And in that moment, in thinking about my son and seeing what was going on above me, I made a decision. I made a decision to live.

Host: 07:30
In such a chaotic moment, is there any way to break it down where that comes from, that upwelling of spirit, that, "I'm going to live"? How does that even happen?

Lauren Manning: 07:40
Well, I was in incalculable pain and I was mad as hell. And I had this little boy, who I tried so desperately to have, my small son, and I did not want to leave him. And I think it was just really a confluence of events that I did not want to die. I wanted to live. I was not ready to let go of life. And I had no idea to any degree the depth of my injury, but I knew in a very binary way that I was going to fight and that it was a fight at that moment. And so in that prayer, I guess, whether it's the truth of a God or just fated or whatever, my own internal piece is, I decided I was not going to give in. I would never give in. Not while I could remain conscious and I fought to remain conscious, but the pain became an anchoring block for me as well. And even then it was overwhelming me, but I used that pain and it fueled, in a sense, my will to try to find a way to make it go away.

Host: 09:20
I want to talk to you about pain and about how—Well first I should mention the extent of your injuries. You were burned on over 80 percent of your body.

Lauren Manning: 09:31

Host: 09:31
And that was the beginning of a long and brave and arduous recovery that was filled with lots of pain. And what was interesting to me was going from pain as an opponent to pain as an ally. Can you talk about that transition?

Lauren Manning: 09:51
Yes. How I dealt with pain as I became aware after almost two months in a coma and being brought out of it and realizing that I had been injured but not being aware to the extreme extent that—I had a feeding tube, I could not walk, I could not talk, I could perform no bodily function on my own. But it's funny how the spirit and the mind can really decide how you approach things. And that's a strong thought to keep in mind because it really is the essence of any resilience. It's how you decide to look at that picture. You know, it's really an artful exercise. Much like an art, particularly conceptual art. We all might see something different and interpret a different message. The message that I chose to receive was that I had gotten a bum deal in a way, but better than many of my friends whose pain was as extreme as it could be and which my own mirrored, I'm sure, except they obviously did not have that chance that I did. And I took that chance, and I ran with it, and I vowed that I would avenge every one of their deaths, all 658 of my lost colleagues, among which there were three very close friends. And what I decided to do was use that pain—which was my enemy—and I would take that fuel and energy from it and I would turn it on its head. I guess it became personified in a sense. And use that to help push through what were—just like in business, just like we all learn in school and in directives and making our own directives. How do I get from here to there? And so I realized my job had changed rather quickly. And what I needed to figure out was, okay, what was going on? What did I need to do to fix it? What would my potential limitations be? And in that business of being catastrophically burned, you've got about 24 months until you're on lockdown. So it was an ongoing and daily fight filled with pain and trying to push past those limitations in any way possible. And that pain actually helped me focus on pushing past them because the harder it came, the more I used that to push beyond it. And in the eyes of people, the one motivator that I can say that I truly, I guess, didn't much take to was pity. And as much as people in their eyes would say, "Oh, you're doing a great job," or, "You're going to be fine," or, "We're there for you," it was a world filled with pain, and I could see the pity in their eyes. And one thing that I learned on the sports field and in the board room and in the field of my bed was I didn't want that pity. And so I decided that I was going to totally turn a number on them and I would gain a 100 percent recovery even though that wasn't possible. That I would do something none of them thought could be done. And that that pity would be replaced with respect. I wanted that respect. I wanted the true respect, not the pity respect of, "Oh, you're so strong. You're so brave. You're a survivor." I wanted true respect in every sense of the word. And so I decided I would project a confidence and a way and being of seemingly being so unharmed that they would not see the scars. It was really the charade. It was magical thinking on my part. So I lived outside of a bell curve of improbability. There is no way that through any medical means possible and intervention, let alone the fact that I lived for so long without medical intervention or proper medical intervention, I should not have lived. But I did. And in that I took my chance. And so I took the team members I had and much like business—

Host: 14:35
And just to be clear, the chances were—describe it again.

Lauren Manning: 14:36
My chances were 17 1/2 percent. Those numbers dwindled immediately upon my arrival at Weill Cornell. It was dicey for a long time and it would remain for many months. Many months.

Host: 15:03
After six months in hospitals, Lauren was finally able to return home. She continued her recovery there with grueling occupational and physical therapy. She writes about this chapter in her recovery beautifully in her book, "Unmeasured Strength." So if you're interested, I highly recommend checking it out. As our time together was coming to a close, I asked Lauren what she learned about resilience. Here's what she had to say.

Lauren Manning: 15:27
Defeat is temporary. Defeat in all our lives is inevitable, but it's temporary. And really the true win in your life, and I don't mean the literal win on the scoreboard, but I mean that piece in your mind when you go to bed at night and you're not afraid for tomorrow, or uncertain about who you are, that manifests itself in the effort. And the effort that you take hold of in your mind, those small veins of confidence that you can push through, that you believe that your power to survive is there. Remember, your power to survive is incredibly stronger than any to fail if you choose to engage it. Because we're all faced with two pathways and the pathway to success and failure really are the same. It is our mindset that determines which we take. And there's that old maxim, you know, "success and crisis are often the same, it's how you handle it." And you can turn a crisis into a great success and a great success into a crisis. So you don't really want to overthink things in life. Whatever your challenge is, if you don't have an option to succeed, then stop, figure it out, and figure out a more efficient path to go forward because you want to retain your passion. You want to realize that the adversity that you think you can't handle and those struggles that you look back at and that I look back at, and I've thought, "Oh my, if I only had the strength that I had now!" Or just messages that right here, right now, this moment, you have that strength. You have that ability to take a hold of, what is your fear? What is your pain? And use that power to move forward. You simply have to commit to understanding that you have a choice and every day that choice exists right here, right now. And it's designed to happen through an infinitesimal number of decisions, all small in the making, but as a whole, propel you forward in your life. Have the courage of what you've done in the past through all your failure, your defeat, to realize that you've had a lot of wins. Bank them, count on them, and use them when you need it the most. That's simply what I did. Because your power to prevail is always, always more significant than any failure you will encounter if you unleash that pain to your advantage.

Host: 18:39
Thank you, Lauren.

Lauren Manning: 18:42
Thank you.

Host: 18:44
That was so wonderful.

Lauren Manning: 18:44
It was wonderful.

Host: 18:46
Lauren Manning is an entrepreneur, a business woman, and an author. She lives in New York City with her family. Road to Resilience is a production of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. It's produced by me, Jon Earle, Katie Ullman, and Nicci Hudson. Cathy Clarke and Justin Gunn shoot photos and video for us. Lucia Lee is our executive producer. Thank you so much for listening. We'll see you next time.