Profiles In Courage

They faced illness, public humiliation, and even death. Their stories are lessons on how to triumph in the face of crisis.

Hampshire courtroom in February if the civil suit against Southwest Airlines goes to trial. At press time, no settlement had been reached despite an October meeting between the parties. Thompson’s Boston-based lawyer, Neil Osborne, said he is fully expecting a trial.

Southwest declined to state their version of events for this article, but Thompson is crystal clear on hers. She was led out of the airport’s departure lounge that day, flanked by two armed sheriffs who were waiting at the gate when she exited the plane. “Hundreds of people were circling, staring,” Thompson recalls. “I kept my eyes glued to the ground and just kept walking. It was the most humiliating experience of my life.”

While Thompson has let her attorney deal with the airline, she has confronted deep personal demons and withstood very public scrutiny. The New Hampshire Union Leader and The New York Times reported on the incident. In response to the publicity, she’s received reams of mail, some supportive, some hateful and cruel.

After initial bouts of anger, self-doubt, and self-blame, Thompson’s doctor prescribed antidepressants, which helped, but only moderately. “My friends would say, ‘Look what you’ve accomplished! You’re beautiful, you’re great, you’ll be fine.’ But nobody knew what I was going through. Nobody understood the pain I was in.”

Convinced that only a drastic change in her physical self would relieve her anguish, Thompson decided to have gastric bypass surgery. She cancelled when her insurance carrier refused coverage.

In the meantime, psychotherapy had proved a revelation. “It made me start asking myself questions about who I really want to be and what matters most to me?” she says. “I started this company from nothing, and I am highly confident being out there, speaking to thousands of women about how to empower and take care of themselves, and yet here I was not doing a good job of taking care of myself.”

Thompson has since hired a personal trainer and is more careful about reserving time for herself. She has prioritized some
long-deferred health issues and gained a heightened appreciation for how fortunate she is.

Says Thompson: “I was able to pay for a lawyer. I was able to call well-educated, well-connected friends for support and advice. I have a wonderful family. I am so privileged. But what if I wasn’t? I have to speak up for those who aren’t.” That’s where the trial comes in, but Thompson knows that the odds are not in her favor. In class action suits challenging the airline’s policy regarding obese passengers, Southwest has consistently prevailed, according to Osborne. But, he adds, Southwest has not encountered a suit of this kind.

“Southwest’s policy applies to someone who cannot sit in a seat with the armrest down,” Osborne explains. “Clearly, that didn’t apply to Nadine. So our presumption is that her race or gender must have played a role. The way their policy is carried out, it’s always a subjective call. The risk of discriminatory behavior in enforcing it is therefore very high.”

Thompson wants the policy changed. She is resolved

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