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Joel “Thor” Neeb: One Life-Changing Moment in a Cancer Hospital Away from Living His Obligation

Joel “Thor” Neeb has an accomplished set of experiences that few can claim: A veteran Fighter Pilot in the United States Air Force, a best-selling author, CEO of the consulting firm Afterburner, former American Ninja Warrior contestant, a husband, and a father. He’s also a stage IV cancer survivor. Our discussion moved me so profoundly I’ve been reexamining my entire worldview ever since.

Joel “Thor” Neeb’s Life Changing Connection in an Unlikely Circumstance

In this episode, Joel “Thor” Neeb shares how he was transformed by meeting a young fellow patient named Christina in the Houston-based cancer center where he thought he would spend his final days. This deep moment of wordless connection cast a ray of hope across one of the lowest periods of his life. It was also a major step towards self-discovery.

At the time, he was facing down his own mortality and struggling to find a way to say goodbye to the people he loved the most: his family. As a sense of inevitability came over him, he recorded videos for his kids to watch in the future when they reached special milestones like graduations and birthdays. He feared he wouldn’t be there for these special moments.

On the day he described as his low point, he was walking into the cancer hospital, resigned to his fate and filled with fear:

“Now, I realize why I had so much dread. It’s because I knew I was about to walk into the room that I was going to die in. […] Where are you, God? We don’t deserve this. I’ve done everything right. Why am I dealing with this? Why is my son dealing with this? You’ve left us. You’ve abandoned us. Heal me now. This is not fair.”

At that very moment, a miraculous and meaningful moment occurred that seemed like an answer to his prayers. He locked eyes with a young girl who looked around 10 years old, and suddenly realized how rich and fulfilling of a life he had lived.

Even though it was fully justified by the circumstances, he learned to stop feeling sorry for himself and tap into more generative and empowering sentiments like empathy, gratitude, and resilience:

“I no longer felt an ounce of self-pity. Instead, I felt a sense of gratitude. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m 33 years old. I’ve got a beautiful family. I’m a fighter pilot. I’m doing what little kids dream of. This little girl won’t live to be a teenager. I’m so sorry. Help her, God, not me.”  

Top 5 Takeaways From Joel “Thor” Neeb:

1. Always look for a ray of hope, even in the darkest of times and lowest of lows. For Joel, this came in the form of prayer, empathy, and perspective.

2. As we face down our greatest fears, there is courage and strength to be found in perspective and empathy for others. Joel thought he was on death’s doorstep and couldn’t imagine anything worse until he saw a young girl lock eyes with him. She had a whole life ahead of her that she wouldn’t get to live, and was in the exact same situation he was. Channeling his fear into prayer and hope for her wellbeing gave him his own sense of hope and resilience in return.

3. Profound shared emotional experiences, even heartbreak, can establish connection and community. Even if his daughter wasn’t the girl in the hospital, Chad felt a deep resonance in hearing Joel’s story that blossomed into a meaningful connection.

4. Stop being afraid to speak up when working with clients. Ask for the things you need to create the most valuable and successful project outcomes.

5. Like PTSD, post traumatic growth can be just as integral a part of trauma. The dying often have the most to teach us about life, and the hardest parts of our life can give us clarity. If we can slow down enough to watch and listen in our most difficult moments, we often find guideposts for what we can –and should– do differently in our future as survivors.

A new Chance at Life and a Renewed Commitment

10 years later, Joel is cancer-free. The battle he fought through inspired him to write a book that could share the lessons he learned along the way. With co-author and fellow veteran Chris Stricklin, he published Survivor’s Obligation: Navigating an Intentional Life

“Everyone has their own story of survivorship. […] What if, through community, through Survivor’s Obligation, you could connect this thing you’re experiencing today to post-traumatic growth in the future?”

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Joel’s story of resilience is an incredibly powerful one. He is a leader to look up to. I can’t wait for you to hear him tell it. Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, or watch the YouTube video at the top! A full transcript is available below to help you follow along. 

Transcript

BRYAN WISH: Joel is a veteran fighter pilot, best-selling author of a newly released book called Survivor’s Obligation, CEO of Afterburner, a consulting firm that’s been in business for nearly 25 years, and former contestant on American Ninja Warrior. He’s also a stage IV cancer survivor. In our discussion, he’s going to talk about someone in his life who had a big impact on him, and a transformative moment that shaped who he is today. You’ve told me about a little girl named Christina who you met when she was dying of cancer. Talk about why she’s had such a big impact on your life and what she means to you.

JOEL “THOR” NEEB: The most important thing about me from the list you read is that I’m a stage IV cancer survivor. That was the most transformative thing in my life. Specifically, I was impacted by an encounter I had with this little girl who was battling cancer at the same time. Every day has been different for me since we met.

BRYAN WISH: You told me you met her at the lowest point in your life. Talk to us about why it was such a low point in your life, and how she completely transformed your perspective.

JOEL “THOR” NEEB: That was when I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. They gave me about 18 months to live. I was about a month into this journey, but before it started, I was the picture of good health. I was a fighter pilot, and I was being looked at to be the next Thunderbird pilot, which requires a certain caliber of skill and physical fitness. I looked the part. My family looked the part. We were doing fantastic. Then, we found out not only that I had cancer, but at the same time, that my son had a tumor and would have to have most of his lung removed. Fortunately, we determined that it was benign pretty quickly, but he’s still going through recovery from the surgery. Now, he only has a little over one full lung to breathe with. 

When I met the young girl who played such a big role in my “One Away” moment, I had just gone through massive surgery. At the time, I thought “I’m probably going to die soon.” I was having to do all these horrific things, like recording videos for my kids’ birthdays and graduations. I didn’t think I would be there for these huge milestones. It was so hard to try to do without crying and sobbing in each one. That was the lowest low period of my life. This day, in particular, was the hardest.

I was going to a hospital called MD Anderson for the first time. I had to fight hard to get there, because it’s the best cancer hospital in the world.  Since it’s in Houston, it was about a three-hour drive from where we lived in San Antonio. I should have been a little bit relieved that I had this opportunity to go to this hospital, because I was going to be treated by the specialists, the folks who knew my cancer the best. It was a rare cancer, but I was still hopeful. 

The whole drive there, I was filled with dread. It got worse and worse the closer we got. My wife dropped me off. I walk into the hospital by myself. It was this giant building. Skyscrapers go up to 30 stories high in downtown Houston. Now, I realize why I had so much dread. It’s because I knew I was about to walk into the room that I was going to die in, and that time would probably come pretty soon. In other words, I was looking at the windows and thought about how I’d be looking out one of them when I drew my last breath. I would probably be dead before Christmas. 

It all hit me, crashing down like a ton of bricks. I stop walking. I looked straight up and closed my eyes. The tears started flowing. I said, “Where are you, God? We don’t deserve this. I’ve done everything right. Why am I dealing with this? Why is my son dealing with this? You’ve left us. You’ve abandoned us. Heal me now. This is not fair.” 

This was the lowest moment of my entire life: absorbed in self-pity, probably for some pretty good reasons. I opened up my eyes, and I’ll never forget what happened next. I locked eyes with this little girl who was being wheeled into the hospital. She had a surgical mask on, and a bald head. She was looking straight at me with her beautiful blue eyes, and our eyes locked. Her dad didn’t see me. He just feverishly pushed her into the hospital. I’m sure he was filled with anxiety about what they were dealing with, but this little girl was focused only on me. 

She’s about 10 years old. I realize that she’s afraid. I can see the fear in her eyes. She’s facing down something horrific, as well. 

In that second, every ounce of my self-pity went away. Every part of me that had been feeling sorry for myself not 10 seconds ago, you could argue righteously, and telling God, no, demanding that I be healed, was now directed towards wanting him to help this little girl. 

I no longer felt an ounce of self-pity. Instead, I felt a sense of gratitude. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m 33 years old. I’ve got a beautiful family. I’m a fighter pilot. I’m doing what little kids dream of. This little girl won’t live to be a teenager. I’m so sorry. Help her, God, not me.” 

In that moment, my demand was for healing, and I like to say that I got healed. It wasn’t the type of healing I wanted. I wasn’t physically healed. I had a long way to go before I could ever consider myself physically healed. It was the type of spiritual and emotional healing that I needed to endure this battle and to continue going on. My takeaway was that I got to decide how I reacted to this trial for the rest of my life, and of course, any trial that followed afterwards.

BRYAN WISH: When you saw her, did you end up talking to her?

JOEL “THOR” NEEB: There was no interaction between us, but I’ve thought about her every day since. She disappeared as those doors closed behind her. I’m just standing there still, wiping the tears off my face, wondering what the heck just happened, but feeling transformed in the process. 

It felt like having an answer to my prayers, but certainly not the way I expected. At that point, I made the commitment that I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself, ever again. I’ve thought about that girl every day since. I wonder if she ever knew how she helped me with this transformation.

Fast forward to 2019, and I’ve now been telling people this story. I wrote a book and shared the story there. I also shared that story from the stage, interviews, and articles over the last couple years.

Then, I got a letter from this guy who lives in Houston. He wrote to me and said, “Dear Joel, in 2010 I was wheeling my daughter, Christina into MD Anderson Hospital. She was bald. She was frail. She was facing cancer. She had beautiful blue eyes.”

He said, “She was afraid at that point, but I didn’t see fear in her eyes four years later when she stared down death and went to be home with God.” 

He went on to say, “She chose her reaction, just as you talk about choosing your reaction and how Christina helped you to choose yours. I don’t know if my little girl was the same as the one you encountered, but it doesn’t matter. It’s about the ability to choose your reaction. We can’t always choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we react to them.” 

After talking to this gentleman, Chad, we determined that chances are pretty high that it was his daughter that I ran into. I never saw another little girl the entire time. It was an adult hospital and unique for her to be there. 

It showed me the power of community. Chad gained healing through this. Of course, I was devastated that my transformative moment was a part of another family’s heartbreak, but by sharing it, we established a connection and community that we would have never had otherwise. Now we’re pursuing post-traumatic growth together. 

BRYAN WISH: The father found you? Or did you actively reach out to find him?

JOEL “THOR” NEEB: I just told that same story in so many places. I’ve done graduation addresses where I’ve told that story. I’ve done interviews on TV and in print. I’ve done podcasts and told that story. It was such a powerful one for me that I wanted to share it again and again. I never dreamed that I would run into the family or the little girl that had affected me so much. I wasn’t actively searching for them by any stretch especially since I didn’t know how I’d even start to piece that together. It took this random connection to take place. You can call it coincidence or intervention. Whatever it is, it allowed us to be connected. This gentleman saw my interview and wrote me this letter.

BRYAN WISH: The power in the story is the fact that there’s a sense of shared struggle. You survived in a different way and she survived in a different way. How has this lesson carried you forward into your life and how you react to things?

JOEL “THOR” NEEB: I connected to the title of the book that my co-author and I wrote. It’s called Survivor’s Obligationand the reason it’s called that is because as I want through cancer, I got to meet these amazing people and the fight of their lives. You get to see the finest moments for these folks. It’s almost like being a witness to the allied troops at the beaches of Normandy in World War II and watching them stare down Nazis and go out and fight the battle. It’s effectively the shining moment of their lives as well. Even though they’re in this horrible battle they’re a part of, fighting cancer, they’re standing up to it, even if they probably didn’t even know they could. 

The challenge was, as we’re all optimistic in the room while we’re getting chemo and we’re connecting with each other and talking about what we’re going to do when we got better, inevitably, a few weeks later, one of them wouldn’t be there. A couple weeks after that, we’d say goodbye to another one. They wouldn’t always necessarily die, but we knew they were on the path to death. They were taken off chemo because it’s just not working any longer, and now they’re in palliative care. It was such a crushing blow to watch them in their finest moments be dealing with this. 

As I’m seeing myself eventually become a survivor, I didn’t carry what a lot of people do, which is survivor’s remorse or survivor’s guilt. This is when you feel guilty because you survived and you say, “Gosh, that other person fought just as hard as I did. I don’t deserve this.” You feel guilt and almost depression over it. 

I never felt that at all. I was elated that I got a second chance. I couldn’t believe it. This is what I’d hoped for and prayed for. I had no guilt or remorse, but I did have something that I call survivor’s obligation. That’s an obligation to commit myself to live the life that we talked about in that room and to not just let them remain empty words spoken under a trial. It’s an obligation to actually use it to transform myself. That’s the life we’re leading today. 

My co-author did not have cancer, but he survived an airplane crash. He was a U.S. Airforce Thunderbird demonstration pilot like the Navy’s Blue Angels, except a little bit better because it’s part of the Airforce. He was in a horrific crash, ejected at a quarter of a second before the airplane turned into a fireball. They have it all on recording. Half a million people watched it. He had transformative experiences because of this as well. It drew us towards the same conclusions and epiphanies. We said, “We’ve got to write about this. We’ve got to share these things with the world.” 

BRYAN WISH: Part of that obligation isn’t about you or your co-author. It’s about the other people that have an opportunity to share their own post-traumatic growth story. Would you mind going into what that means to you and the movement you’re trying to build out of your story? 

JOEL “THOR” NEEB: Here’s what it came down to. When I first met the co-author, Chris Stricklin, we were working together at the same company and we were doing this leadership retreat with some of the employees of the company at Afterburner. Each of us drew out something called a lifeline.

Our lifeline represented, in graphical format, our lives up until that point. If you can picture this as a graph, think of the axis as. As time goes on, you plot out the good things in your life above the line, and the bad things below the line. It creates a line chart. Both of our low points were the things we went through; for him, crashing the airplane, and for me, going through this cancer battle. It’s interesting how our lives trended significantly up after that. We both commented on how interesting it was that our lives have gotten much better since the event. What we realized is that’s not unique.

When it comes to PTSD and the disorders we can carry afterwards, you don’t get to choose whether or not that happens to you. If you go through a trial, you’re going to carry the scars; the emotional and the physical scars. But there’s something else – this new phenomenon that psychologists are just beginning to explore called post-traumatic growth. There’s a phrase that the dying often have the most to teach us about life. There’s a clarity that is exposed to us when we’re in the hardest parts of our life. If we can slow down enough to watch and listen in those moments that are the most difficult for us, we often find some guideposts for what we should do differently in our future. I certainly did and Chris did as well. We said we have to share this opportunity because there’s so many people suffering and allowing their lives to be defined by the scars and the pain. What if we could help to change their story through a community and help us all to explore the option to have post-traumatic growth. 

It’s not about having cancer. It’s not about crashing an airplane. It’s not even our stories. I will concede our stories are dramatic. They’re exciting. I had stage 4 cancer and told I was going to die and went through these horrific time periods. I was a fighter pilot and he was a fighter pilot as well and was a Thunderbird pilot. It’s compelling. 

It’s interesting, but that’s the only thing that makes us unique. The rest of it is exactly what the rest of the world faces. In other words, everyone has their own story of survivorship. Everyone comes from a broken home or divorce or loss of a loved one or medical trial or fill in the blank with what you’re struggling through right now. What if, through community, through The Survivor’s Obligation, you could connect this thing you’re experiencing today to post-traumatic growth in the future? And not be defined by it, afflicted by it, not even be a victim of what you’re going through but create something new.

BRYAN WISH: If you could go back to the hospital that one day and say something to Christina when you locked eyes with her, what would you have said in that moment?

JOEL “THOR” NEEB: I would grab her hand and kiss her forehead and say, “You’re not going through this alone and you’re doing amazing. You may not know it today, but you’re transforming lives with your strength, and the way you’re standing up for something that many would cower in front of. We’re so proud of you and we’re so thankful for what you’re doing. You’re not alone. Soon, there’s going to be an entire community of people like you that are standing up to their trials and their adversity.”

One Away Podcast
Catherine Kushan

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