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COMMENTARY: Positive mindset can help injured workers rebound


If we could transfer Aron Ralston's outlook to everyone recovering from a workplace injury, we could eliminate several billion dollars from the nation's workers compensation bill.

Mr. Ralston is the outdoorsman who amputated his right arm with a dull blade to free himself from a boulder that trapped him for more than five days in an isolated Utah canyon in 2003.

Actor James Franco portrayed Mr. Ralston in the critically acclaimed 2010 film “127 Hours.” You would think a movie about a lone guy over five days might be dull. But the film is captivating.

Even more captivating is Mr. Ralston telling his story about how it finally came to him that the boulder about to end his life would help free him from nights spent shivering in the cold and long days with little food or water.

Normally, when I attend insurance conferences, my workload causes me to skip the entertaining keynote speeches. But during NCCI Holdings Inc.'s Annual Issues Symposium last month, I had time to listen to Mr. Ralston's story about his canyoneering accident.

Wow! What a story.

Mr. Ralston, an engineer, tried several strategies to free himself from the rock causing him excruciating pain. He chiseled away at it with his dull blade. He used climbing ropes to create a system he thought capable of lifting the rock off his arm. He also failed in a first attempt to amputate his arm. When he struggled to slice through flesh he realized cutting through bone would be impossible.

But after accepting death, he finally realized he could break his arm bones using the boulder trapping him for leverage before cutting through his flesh.

After that, he still had to repel down a canyon wall, with his severed arm in a tourniquet and he had to hike seven miles beyond that for help.

He almost didn't survive.

But today he talks about how the boulders encountered in life, the ones that trap you where you don't want to be, can also be the tools that free you.

His lost arm, he said, is just something that kept him pinned down and helped him understand the real importance of his loved ones. He is now raising a family and still enjoying outdoor adventures including mountaineering and serving on a search-and-rescue team.

In the workers comp world, the toughest claims to resolve involve humans struggling with depression, motivational issues and an array of psycho-social problems atop physical disabilities.

Helping them adopt an outlook like Mr. Ralston's could go a long way.