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About Utah: Finding grace through gratitude

Published: Friday, March 26 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Meg Johnson gazes at her right hand with absolute delight — like it's the first time she has seen it — as she begins to list the many reasons why she's thankful for her little finger.

Let's see, she says: She's thankful for skin, and she's thankful for fingernail clippers and nail polish and manicures and massages and eating peanut butter out of the jar and holding hands with her husband.

And she's thankful for skin tone and wrinkles and lotion and platelets and Band-Aids and rings and buttons to push and blood and circulatory systems.

She could go on. She has gone on. One day, she sat down at her laptop and started typing the reasons she's grateful for her little finger. She got to 275. In five minutes.

This is all the more remarkable because of the condition of Meg's right little finger.

She can't move it.

Six years ago, when she was 22, Meg fell off a 35-foot cliff while boulder jumping near St. George. She broke both legs, both wrists and four bones in her neck. She's been paralyzed from the neck down ever since, with only very limited movement in her arms and hands, and no movement at all in her right little finger.

The experience has turned her into an expert on gratitude.

Her personal, self-guided tutorial on being grateful dates back to the early days of what could euphemistically be termed her "recovery."

After interminable rounds of surgeries doctors had performed to rescue her from dying, she woke up one morning in her hospital bed.

She had a tube in her nose for feeding, a tube in her arm for hydration, a tube in her chest to drain her lungs, still more tubes bringing in medication and a halo brace holding her head still. She also had a tube in her throat so she could inhale and exhale. She couldn't even breathe on her own.

After that split second it takes your brain to remind you where things stand — and they're not good — despair washed over her. She started to cry, then she started to sob.

Then something, from somewhere, clicked inside that warned her she was doomed if this mood persisted. Instead of focusing on what she wasn't thankful for, she needed to concentrate on what she was thankful for.

"I opened my eyes, and the first thing I saw was the ceiling," Meg remembers. "I said to myself, I love that ceiling. I looked out the window, and I said, I love that window and I love that car and I love the sky and I love the clouds …"

"It was so liberating," she says of the gratitude tour her mind took her on that day. "By the time I got back to me, I was happy for me."

Several months later, when she was finally out of the hospital and learning to type by sticking pens between her fingers and stabbing away at the keyboard (don't laugh, she's up to 60 words a minute), it was a piece of cake to bat out those 275 reasons why she's grateful for an immovable little finger.

It all comes down to perspective, to being thankful for life.

In the years since her accident, Meg has gotten married — "My husband's a rock," she says, and don't even get her started on all the reasons she's thankful for him — and she's equipped a car so she can drive and live a life of relative independence.

She's also become a sought-after inspirational speaker and a sympathetic ear for anyone and everyone with a disability. "We all have disabilities," she says, "and please, please believe me when I say that my disabilities, as hard as they are, are not any worse than yours!" She has a Web site, www.MegJohnsonSpeaks.com, where she posts monthly messages of motivation.

Sometimes she gets paid for her speeches. But much of the time, she talks for free to church and school groups, where more often than not, she tells about gratitude and her little finger.

I asked her what the typical audience response is to her little finger story.

"People are very quiet after I say that," she says.

Thinking up their own lists, no doubt.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.

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