Living to tell the tale: An advisor's second chance
By Paul Wilson
Click … Click … Click… That's what it sounds like as memories and images from your life cycle through your brain in the moments before death, according to John Nichols. And he should know — he experienced it firsthand.
He recounts his accident with a storyteller's attention to detail, with the precision of someone who has replayed every second of that day countless times in his mind.
It was the summer of 1993 and everything was coming together. The year before, a business partnership had helped catapult Nichols' insurance career to an unprecedented level.
Now a partner in one of the largest providers of disability insurance for their company's target segment, Nichols was reaping the rewards of his newfound success, purchasing a big house, a nice car and fancy clothes. Life was good.
In late July of that year, he joined a group of friends at a lake cabin in Northern Wisconsin for their annual summer party weekend. After a morning round of golf, they headed back to the lake. While Rich and Shelia pulled the boat out for waterskiing, another friend, Dan, headed to the cabin for the cooler.
Nichols walked down to the dock, put on a life preserver, grabbed a set of skis and sat down on the edge of the dock. He put a ski on his right foot, then his left. Shelia tossed the ski rope to him from the back of the boat, where it splashed down at his feet. He reached down, grabbed the handle and gave Rich the thumbs up signal. As the boat quickly pulled away from him, he looked down and saw the slack in the line. It was too late. Before he could react, the rope jolted him off the dock. He was ripped downward through four feet of water and slammed, head first, into the bottom of the lake.
Still conscious, he floated to the surface, desperately trying to lift his head above the water line, but his chin remained stubbornly glued to his chest. He floated helplessly, watching bubbles drift to the surface. Slowly, he was overcome by quiet and peacefulness as images from his past flickered before him. Click … click … click. Floating on the lake's surface, John Nichols eventually ran out of breath. Dan was walking back from the cabin toward the lake when he saw the accident occur. He rushed to the water's edge where he stripped down, dove in and swam 50 yards to his friend's floating body. He gave it a push, but it only bobbed lifelessly in the water. When he turned Nichols over, Dan saw blood pouring down his face. His eyes were rolled back in his head. Dan called for his friend to wake up, but there was no response.
One month earlier, Dan had learned CPR. He began to work on Nichols' body, and soon, water poured from his mouth and nose. As John regained consciousness, he heard Dan yelling, "What can you feel? What can you feel?"
Nichols was placed into an ambulance and rushed to the nearest hospital, where he was stabilized and given a shot of morphine. Soon, a second ambulance transported him to a larger hospital.
The next morning, Dr. Moran, an elderly doctor, was sitting by Nichols' bedside when he awoke. He introduced himself and said, "You've had a serious accident. I've got good news and bad news. The good news is you're going to live. You're in critical condition, but you'll make it. The bad news is, you've suffered a broken neck — C5 and C6. You're paralyzed from your chin all the way down to your toes and you've lost your bowel and your bladder function. You're going to have to learn a new way of life."
"So there I was," Nichols recalls, "32 years old. I thought I was on top of the world, making more money than I'd ever had, living that materialistic life and just in an instant, it's taken away from me."
Over the next six years, he underwent a strenuous and expensive recovery process and experienced firsthand the limits of health insurance.
"My rehabilitation center was the world's greatest, but it doesn't matter if your medical benefits cap you out. Imagine being a C5/C6 quadriplegic, no movement from your chin all the way down to your toes, and you have to rehab off of your medical benefits with a cap of $10,000. Is that enough? What position are you going to be in if you have nothing more?"
Nichols' disability insurance enabled him to continue to work on his rehabilitation long after his medical benefits ran out. Eventually, he reached a level of recovery achieved by less than 1 percent of people with spinal cord injuries. "That's pretty empowering. I didn't get it all back, but I got back more than most, because I was able to spend the money. The rehabilitation benefits from that policy allowed me to work on my body."
It also allowed him the time to come to terms with what had happened.
"Nobody talks about what goes on from the neck up. There was a mental side to it – severe bouts of depression, reliving the drowning episode. I had a near death experience. I was trying to get my head around that, trying to get to a place in my life of self-acceptance, because I have a new body. I'm no longer able to do this, but I can maybe do this. I was sleeping 12, 14, 16 hours a day. You're sitting there, thinking, 'Who am I? What am I going to be able to do? Who would ever hire me? What's my purpose in life?' Where do you get the freedom of space to process all of that?"
Nichols says he eventually came to see the accident as the beginning of a new life — his second chance.
"I became committed to the industry and to helping people understand the value of disability insurance. Before, I was selling product from the head. Now I had the ability to not only sell from the head, because I knew the product even better, but I could really sell from the heart."
Nichols now focuses on helping people understand the importance of being an advocate for their own personal health, and stresses the vital role advisors play in educating and empowering consumers about the choices and control provided by disability insurance.
One key part of consumer education is bridging the gap between people's perceptions and the truth, which Nichols achieves by getting them to speak about their current reality — to focus on their dreams and goals and on the importance of protecting them.
"What I try to do is speak from where they are in life, where they are in their reality, rather than starting with me. That allows me to start to bridge that gap, to show them that maybe their current insurance level isn't enough and that there are strategies to help round out the portfolio of benefits that they do have. To help fill those gaps, not just physically with product, but also mentally, because it gives you peace of mind. Knowing that you have choice and control is empowering." However, today's consumers have access to more information than ever before and often become overwhelmed or ambivalent. The role of the financial advisor, Nichols says, is to help funnel the appropriate information and to provide real value.
"Sometimes, in this hurry-up society, advisors are trying to get a transaction done first, before establishing the trust and the relationship and the value." If advisors focus on the relationship first, he says, "the products and strategies will come."
Nichols extols the importance of organizations like MDRT and The Life Foundation, which he says play a critical role in trust-building and consumer education by providing third-party stories, materials and videos that allow people to learn about what happens if an accident or illness occurs and the role that insurance plays.
He recommends advisors send out material from these organizations before and after meetings with clients to plant the seeds of information.
And he has another piece of advice for fellow advisors: Shift your focus.
"Rather than getting into the product benefits and features or, 'I've been in the business for 20 years and I'm great and wonderful,' let's get client-focused. Ask really good questions centered around the clients' dreams and goals and you'll see a vast difference in how they respond to you. Consumers aren't just looking for a product, they're looking for an experience. That's where the trust and relationship building comes – it's an experience. 'I care about you.' That's an experience, an emotional process, not just a logical process.”
And he stresses the importance of owning the products you sell.
"I was so fortunate to own both a group insurance policy and an individual disability policy. I experienced the value of those products. If you don't own and believe in the products you represent, what else do you have? You're just a product salesman," he says.
In the 20 years since his accident, John Nichols has worked hard to rebuild his life. He currently serves as president of Disability Resource Group, Inc., a national insurance agency he founded in the late 1990s. He also has two MDRT Court of the Table qualifications, five Top of the Table qualifications, and serves as Secretary for the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.
In 2012, he spoke on the main stage at MDRT, where he told the crowd about how, a few years before, he heard about a little girl who had suffered the same spinal injury. He decided to run in the Chicago Marathon to raise money for her. The winner of that year's marathon finished in 2:05:41. The average finish time was 4:10. Despite a nagging knee injury and a catalog of ready-made excuses, John Nichols finished in 6 hours, nine minutes and 59 seconds.
Last year, he participated in the run again and finished in 4:30.
Nichols recalls a psychiatrist who, years ago, told him that without the time and money afforded him by disability insurance, he'd probably be sitting at home all day drinking Budweiser. "Not much of a life," he says. "What we do and what we represent, what we provide families and individuals is the ability to continue to live on with their dreams and goals. Unbelievable."