In August 2009, Shirley Dygert celebrated her 54th birthday by jumping out of an airplane. Her son, Joe, who turned 30 the day before her birthday, thought it was a good idea. So Shirley and Joe geared up, got into a plane, climbed to 13,000 feet and jumped, each strapped to an instructor for a tandem jump.
At first, it was exhilarating. When it was time to open the parachutes, Joe’s opened and he floated to earth. But Shirley’s instructor, Dave Hartsock, couldn’t get theirs to open. The first opened only partially and the second got tangled with the first. Spinning to the ground at 40 mph, with friends and family members watching, Dave positioned himself under her body so he could cushion her fall.
Shirley was taken to a community hospital until Joe, a senior operations analyst for Harris Health System, had her transferred to Harris Health Ben Taub Hospital. Trauma Center staff determined her neck was broken, as were several ribs, and she suffered damage to her spleen, liver and kidney. The following Tuesday, she had surgery to fuse the vertebrae in her neck.
Dave’s heroic act of protecting the grandmother of three cost him dearly: In addition to numerous internal injuries, he, too, suffered a broken neck. He is paralyzed and has only limited use of his right arm.
Shirley and Dave keep in touch, and she’s recently learned that he can now feed himself with the use of a brace, and he has wiggled the toes of both feet. He’s determined to overcome his limitations.
Shirley is back at work full time and happy to have her life back. She has put her adventures on hold for a while, but it’s hard to imagine that she’s had her last. Just a few years ago, she and her husband, with Joe leading the march, hiked 28 miles over the Rocky Mountains.
Though she’s from Teague, Texas, and knew little about Ben Taub before the accident, Shirley can’t praise it enough. “Everyone was terrific to me and treated me like a million bucks. I feel fortunate there was a hospital that good, with so many intelligent doctors and staff, to care for me.”