With A New Foundation Air Force Pilot Christy Wise Is Standing Strong
Filled with a propensity for adventure, Christy Wise was always on the go. After all, she grew up in an athletic family with her twin sister, Jessica, both competitive athletes, and her brother David, who went on to become an Olympic gold medalist in the skiing half-pipe at the Sochi 2014 games. So it seemed natural when Wise, who was enjoying an evening with friends on a lake in Florida, went into a cove to paddleboard. A cove she had been in a hundred times before. Laying on the board and gazing at the clear, star-studded sky with her boyfriend on a board nearby, seemed so tranquil to her. Suddenly, a bright light flashed before her and within seconds she was pushing herself underwater to escape the boat charging straight at her. What happened those next several minutes changed her life. Quick action from her boyfriend Tim Wiser, saved her life, but the result of that tragic event left her as an amputee. That’s just the beginning of an incredible story that led this Air Force pilot on a journey that not only tested her faith and strength, but motivated her to start a foundation helping kids with prostheses.
Risen talked with both Christy and Jessica, who played a key role in her recovery, about their family, faith and their foundation, One Leg Up on Life.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Thank you for your willingness to share your story. In 2015, you experienced a life-changing injury. Take us back to the evening of April 11th and how it all happened.
Christy Wise: I was with a group of who had been working on certification for diving. We had done two dives and were then wakeboarding, and having a crab dinner. A little after dark, Tim [a fellow rescue pilot in the Air Force who she had recently started dating] and I decided to go for a paddleboard in a nearby cove. It’s something I had done about 100 times before. It’s a protected area; never any boat traffic. Several of us were going to paddleboard, but my best friend pulled others back and basically told them to let us [Tim and me] go and have some time together. So we grabbed our headlamps and long sleeved shirts and headed out.
We were just laying on our boards looking at the stars in the sky. As I looked up, I saw a boat coming toward me with red and green lights. The first thing I did was take my head lamp off and I waved it at the boat, thoroughly expecting the boat to go around me. I was just waiting to see which way [left or right] it would go after I shined the light at them. It only took me a second longer to realize it was still coming right at me. That’s when I dove into the water. I remember the sensation of my sweatshirt getting wet and then felt something hit my shoulder. Suddenly, and I believe this was God because I know I didn’t have time to think this, after I was hit in the shoulder I oriented myself to push off the bottom of the boat and slammed downward [in the water] otherwise my entire body was going through the propeller. But because I was able to do that and push down, the propeller just went through my right leg.
I remember the sound of it, but don’t remember anything [else], it didn’t hurt so I surfaced in the water and the boat that hit me did not stop, it kept going. Tim who was about 20 feet away swam over to me really fast and he asked, “Are you okay, are you okay?” I was like, “Yeah, I think I’m okay.” I was really calm, and then, I don’t remember saying this, but after, Tim told me that I said, “Jesus help me.” And then I was just so calm the entire time, like it was happening to somebody else not me, because I didn’t have any pain.
But Tim could see that I was losing blood pretty fast. He used his shirt to tie around my leg. I remembered that outside the cove I had seen a fishing boat by the bridge and thinking we need to signal that fishing boat, so I reached down and I still had the flashlight in my hand and it was on, so that was like miracle number four or five during all of this, and I ended up signaling the fishing boat to come pick us up. They had actually seen the entire thing. They came and got me in the boat quickly. Tim had put on that tourniquet and got the blood to stop, it all happened really fast from the time I got hit to tourniquet — about three minutes. I had lost 60-70 percent of my blood, so another 30 seconds or so I would probably not be here today.
RM: That is amazing that you survived and the fact that you remained so calm. Is it because you were in shock?
CW: I don’t know, I can’t answer that, but even when the paramedics came, I was still calm as they asked questions, I answered. I had about a 45-minute ride in the ambulance to the trauma center in Pensacola, and the pain didn’t hit until about half-way during the drive.
I asked him, “Do you think I should get on a flight right now?” and he said yes, so the minute he said that, I knew something was really wrong. -Jessica Wise
RM: Did you realize that your leg had been severed?
CW: Well, it was still attached at my hamstring, but I knew it was bad because I couldn’t feel it, and I tried to look at it [when still in the water] but Tim was amazing, he said, “No, no, don’t look.” At the time when he said that, I just looked up at the stars and honestly I just relaxed and and I’m like, “Ok,” and I took a deep breath and relaxed completely, which freaked him out though because he was checking for any other injuries and thought I had passed out. He was yelling, “Christy! Christy!”
RM: Let me ask you now Jessica, when did you find out about the accident? We hear stories about twins experiencing each other’s pain. Did you have any such feelings at the time of Christy’s trauma?
JW: At the time she was injured I was living in Las Vegas. I was the first in our family to get a call and it was from Tim, who I had not met yet because they had only officially been dating for a short time. I was at a dinner party and kept getting a call from Tim, but I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t answer it. He called back two or three times so I finally ended up excusing myself from dinner to answer it. He was calling from a paramedics’ phone and told me what was going on. I think he was right in front of her [Christy] because he didn’t say very much and basically told me that she was in a very bad accident and was stable. He kept emphasizing that she was stable, but things were not looking good.
I think he didn’t want to be saying too much right in front of her; she’s stable, but you need to get here. I asked him, “Do you think I should get on a flight right now?” and he said yes, so the minute he said that, I knew something was really wrong. It was actually a very short conversation and I ended up heading to the airport right away. I got out quickly, but it was a flight across the country. I arrived right after Christy was getting out of surgery.
In regards to any type of premonition, I didn’t have a sixth sense of what was going on, but it was interesting. Actually, pretty funny because I always give Christy a hard time because she does all these crazy adventurous things, and I had just given her a hard time the day before the accident. She and Tim were doing a scuba dive and had not told me whether they got to the place or if they were okay. I asked her to just let me know [about her adventures] because my parents don’t check up on her. We just had this conversation the day before so I knew she was going to do this paddle boarding and had left her a message saying to let me know when she made it. She sent a [text] message, but there was a typo which made it read, “we’re here?” so I wasn’t sure because of the question mark. And that was the last text that I got from her.
It was a weird day, I definitely didn’t have a sense that she would be injured, but then after the accident, I felt like I was just going through it with her emotionally. I felt a lot of the emotional pain. I wouldn’t say the physical pain, but I do feel that there was a definite connection.
There was definitely a lot of questioning, but also at the same time, we saw so many miracles that it was very evident God was with us the whole time.
RM: Christy, turning back to the accident, how did you deal with the possibility of losing your leg and then finding out after the surgery that indeed is what happened?
CW: As I said earlier, I was pretty calm. When I was in the ambulance I remembered a friend who had graduated from the academy and had lost his leg below the knee in a boating accident. He had returned to flying and that was actually pretty cool because in the ambulance I was already thinking to myself, “So, I can’t feel my leg – this is probably not good,” and I said to myself, “Okay, worst-case scenario Ryan did it [returned to flying] I can.” I always tell people that because for me it was kind of awesome because I never really had a huge despair. Also, when I was in the hospital after surgery, everybody kept talking about how lucky I was to be alive which was definitely true. All the surgeons; everybody, the policemen, everyone who had been around the water said, “We’ve been here years and nobody survives this type of accident; we can’t believe you’re alive.” So I was never really sad that I lost my leg, at least at the beginning. It was always more a process because I was still alive.
RM: Wow, you had a healthy perspective right away.
CW: Yes. And once I was transferred to the military hospital for rehabilitation, I was in a hospital filled with people who were amputees. For me to be thinking, “Oh I’m struggling with my leg amputation,” and there were people all around me who were multiple amputees — if I was wanting to complain, I became motivated by them. I would see another person who had been in active duty and lost both legs and was blind. And somehow within a day or two, all the other pilots [who were amputees] knew and they were calling me in the hospital. They were so supportive. One told me he returned to active duty ten years ago and to call him when I was ready.
RM: We are getting a glimpse of your tenacity and attitude, but let’s go back a bit to your childhood. What kind of home or family did you grow up in?
CW: Me, my sister Jessica and younger brother David were very close growing up. We always played sports and because we went to a private Christian school in another part of the city, instead of a neighborhood school, I think that we knew we always had each other. My parents took us to church, they loved us, but they did not have a very good relationship with each other; it was somewhat unstable at times. I always had faith. I had a Christian school, I always had God and my brother and sister. My parents obviously loved us, but I didn’t realize how much their conflicts were affecting us. A lot of friends didn’t realize what we were like, and when you’re a kid you think that it’s just your family that’s crazy and you just don’t want to be different, so you pretend your family is perfect. But then when you grow up and become adult, you realize every family has its issues and quirks and you probably weren’t as unusual as you thought you were.
RM: You mentioned that you went to church and Christian school, so how did those play into your faith and learning and instill a relationship of knowing the Lord?
CW: It’s kind of interesting. My parents both did love the Lord, and they kind of lived out their faith with us, but ironically, they did not live out their faith with how they were treating each other. We felt like, “You’re going to church, but you are not treating each other like Christ-followers would,” but we realized that they were treating every single other person, us, friends, colleagues, as Christ-like. So for me, and I think my brother and sister would agree, growing up [like that] left a very powerful image of, “Okay, if that is what dysfunction is like, I don’t want that at all,” and it also really motivated the three of us kids to just be stable and functional on our own. We were going to have to work hard for things.
JW: As Christy mentioned, we had faith from a pretty young age – Christian school and we were always involved in church and then youth group. That’s how we got our morals and things like that. Because things were a bit of a rough with my parents, we always just kind of leaned on each other and God to get through other rough times.
RM: It sounds you and Jessica and David were quite the trio. In addition to your close bond, each of you excelled in sports growing up and David made a career of it going on the become an Olympic gold-medalist in the Men’s Freestyle skiing halfpipe in the 2014 Sochi Games and recently set his first world record. But Christy, you were actually the family’s first state champion in skiing, winning the slalom and overall titles in 2005. While both you and Jessica were competitive skiers, she eventually chose a medical career path and you went military. Tell us about that decision.
CW: I wanted to play sports in college and wanted to go away. My sister and I had a reality check during our junior and senior years knowing that we were good athletes, but not good enough to be Division 1 college players. I realized that the Air Force Academy had teams and I wouldn’t have to be as good as D-1 and if I got accepted, it would be free college. I could go away and afford it all.
RM: You were accepted and played sports at the academy, then you decided you wanted to fly and eventually ended up becoming a captain. You were deployed one tour to Afghanistan and Italy for a little over four months, with another shorter trip to Africa.
CW: I thought flying would be pretty fun and a good adventure. I graduated from the Academy in 2009 and went to pilot training for two years. I was a lieutenant flying F–130s and a few different models. I was getting ready to move to Arizona when my accident happened.
RM: You worked during your rehab and accomplished the amazing feat of flying again in just a little more than a year after the accident. Congratulations on becoming the first female Air Force leg amputee pilot to return to flight. Getting back in the cock-pit required much physical training including running, not walking the 1.5 mile run test, in addition to having to re-qualify for all training procedures and processes. You have mentioned that your journey through all of this has included a list of miracles – one unexplainable occurrence after another – and one of those was that your sister was able to be alongside you during your rehab. How did that come about?
CW: It was amazing! My sister is not military and was doing her medical rotations in Las Vegas at the time of my accident and she was able to move to San Antonio and work in the hospital I was in. We were able to live together and she spent the year with me.
JW: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. From Florida, Christy was transferred to a hospital in San Antonio. I had missed about four weeks of medical school and needed to go back to Las Vegas. That was just the hardest thing ever; it was just the most miserable time. I was still trying to take my medical board exams, but the entire time I was thinking about Christy and worrying about her because she had a few medical problems that happened after her surgery and maybe wouldn’t have been caught without me being there to ask questions every day. Being able to go back to the hospital [with her] was truly a miracle. It is so hard to explain how much of a miracle this was. I had gone to medical school in Guatemala, Mexico, and it is difficult for a foreign medical school graduate to get into any U.S. hospital. But, during the time I was with Christy, we had this idea that it would be great if I could do my rotations here [San Antonio] and be with her. We really made it as more of a suggestion, because so many things would have had to happen to do that. I was a foreign medical student and not in the military which made it pretty impossible and such a big hurdle.
RM: Then through contacts you had made throughout your stay with Christy, and the help of some high-ranking officers at the hospital, you eventually were offered a position and transferred to do your rotations at that military hospital. What an incredible happening! During rehabilitation and as a result of the accident, how has your faith been affected?
JW: When this all happened, it was definitely the most we had been stressed and had to rely on God. There was definitely a lot of questioning, but also at the same time, we saw so many miracles that it was very evident God was with us the whole time. Miracles that would encourage you, but then the very next day that you’d be back to seeing your sister in pain and then back to questioning. I don’t know how we would’ve made it through this without God. I don’t think Christy would have recovered nearly as well if she hadn’t had faith in God, and that He provided for her all along the way.
CW: Well, there’s been a lot of really crazy things and moments for sure, and this is kind of, not in a good way, but I actually feel my whole life has prepared me for this. While I didn’t have a super easy childhood, I always had my faith. I went to the Air Force Academy and I was surrounded by really smart people, and I almost failed out academically. Times were really hard and then pilot training was really hard and I almost failed out. Nothing was ever really easy for us three kids. Nothing was really easy for us in our three different paths that we have taken, but we have always had each other and God.
When this came, it was like, “Oh, I’m really good at doing hard things.” That first night as I was laying in the hospital bed with Jessica by my side, I honestly felt like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane in that I knew that I could handle it and I knew even then that God was going to do amazing things with our story, but I didn’t want to do it. So I prayed, “God, take this cup from me, take it back.” That was kind of a really cool experience because I was with my sister.
That first night as I was laying in the hospital bed with Jessica by my side, I honestly felt like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane in that I knew that I could handle it and I knew even then that God was going to do amazing things with our story, but I didn’t want to do it.
RM: Christy, during the time that Jessica and you spent in San Antonio, the daily tasks of rehab and working to get you so mobile again, as if you didn’t have enough to do, you decided to start a foundation. Tell us about that.
CW: It was actually Tim who suggested it — and it was so cool because my sister and I were too close to everything that was happening and just surviving it – and Tim said, “Hey we’ve gotten so much support, we need to do something positive with this,” and he said he wanted to start a non-profit and do a fundraiser at the end of summer at the place where the accident happened. I said I wanted it to be a paddleboard event.
RM: So from that event the non-profit, One Leg Up on Life, was formed?
CW: Yes. We [Christy, Jessica, Tim] said we’re going to start a non-profit and let’s do our first event at the very spot that I got hit. It was like saying, “This accident is not going to affect me. I’m not going to be afraid of the water, I’m not going to be afraid of this.” I also wanted to do it [in the same location] because it had become a pretty sensational story around that area. They never found the boat driver and the investigation actually went on for months – people had heard the story so it [the event] wouldn’t be about just some girl on a paddleboard [raising funds] it was [the girl] the one who survived it. The event was awesome! We had 80 paddleboarders and raised $5,000.
RM: What was your goal to put the money toward?
CW: We thought about different causes and I wanted to do something with kids. Jessica had already done medical work in Haiti and I had even gone with her one time to the Dominican right after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. She had worked with several families and was still connected and knew of five kids we could help.
JW: Yes. I said, if you [Christy] want to do a project for something similar to what you have gone through and where there is a lot of need, I know one. I have been working in missions in the Dominican for an organization called Children of the Nation since I was 19 years old. Every summer in college I would work with them and after college I continued working with them, but did it more year-round. That [experience] is what is made me want to go to medical school, to return and work there as a doctor. The work I had done as a result of the earthquake was specifically with kids who were amputees.
So it is with my connections through that organization we were able to start with those five kids. The conditions in Haiti are pretty rough so maybe every three to six months, repairs are needed, and for growing kids, they need the limb to be readjusted for proper height at least once a year. I knew that for these kids, it has been at least four years without any adjustments.
RM: That is really a such an amazing story of how God is in so many of the details for you during this journey.
CW: Yes. We did our first trip with the foundation in April  on the one-year anniversary of my accident, helping those five kids and another trip in August. We have been able to spend about ten thousand dollars and do six complete new prostheses and repair 20 or more others. We have a little girl 18 months old who will be getting her first prosthesis and we will basically follow her, giving her updates as she grows.
We have been able to spend about ten thousand dollars and do six complete new prostheses and repair 20 or more others.
RM: You can be so motivational to so many people. What would you say to someone who has recently lost a limb… or faced something tragic…how do you tell them they can get through it?
CW: This has been a crazy experience that I don’t wish on anyone. I think it’s easy in things like this, especially in my case, for people to focus on all of the positive things because they see me doing things like skydiving and flying and other things now. But I still struggle with this every day. The big things are easy for me, well not easy, I know they are going to be hard — I know flying is going to be hard, I know running is going to be hard, but stuff that will get me down, like really depresses me, are things like tripping or getting little blisters on my sockets or my foot will squeak. Little things like that and I’ll be, “Ahhh, I can’t do it.”
I would just say that we are so much more capable then we think we are we, and we can do so much more, and especially with God you are capable of anything. Something that one of my amputee friends said to me very early on in my rehab, and I never forgot it, he said, “Don’t for one second long for what you were, but recklessly pursue what you can become.” So spiritually, any time I have any struggles, the first thing I do is think about that phrase – don’t long for something you know that’s not coming back – your life is different now. And, I like to say recklessly pursue, so through this you can be stronger and have a new story and it’s a God story. Yes, that’s very powerful – but don’t worry if it’s hard, I have to remind myself of that… all the time.
For more information about the foundation, visit: oneleguponlife.org