Serendipity Stories — Episode 1: The Intersection of Life & Death

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Listen to the Serendipity Stories Podcast on your mobile phone (Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, TuneIn) or on your browser (RSS Feed, Website). Here’s the transcript for Episode 1 with our host YeSeul Kim and guest Joanna Kalafatis.

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Jo: My dad was in tears. I remember the ambulance door opens and I see them standing right outside. And I just remember my dad taking one look at me and going, oh, Joanna, like, oh, no Joanna.

Welcome to the Serendipity Stories. I’m your host YeSeul Kim, here to share the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments.

In this episode, Joanna Kalafatis and her serendipity story begins 11 years ago, when she was just a 19 year old college junior. Her serendipity came in the form of an unexpected brush with death while she was studying abroad in South Africa. It was just an ordinary day….

Jo: It was like a beautiful summer Cape Town morning. I got out of bed and my host mother’s house. I was anxious about getting my homework in because I don’t think I’ve done a very good job. I remember that. I was wearing blue jeans, sneakers and this red soccer jersey we’d gotten in Sao Paolo, Sao Paolo, Football Club, Jersey. And I just remember walk out of the house like we had done every day for a few days up until that point. Approaching one of the intersections on the way to class, because I was going to the last day of class before leaving on safari the next day with my cousins and parents. And I remember complaining to Elana because I was frustrated that my parents and cousins didn’t seem to take the crime issue in Cape Town seriously, and I didn’t. I felt responsible for them being there because they had come to visit me. So I was venting to her because if anything happens, I feel so guilty and they’re not taken seriously at all.

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Jo in Cape Town South Africa. Photo courtesy of Joanna Kalafatis

Jo vented about her family to her roommate Elana as she crossed the intersection.

Jo: You know, I can’t tell you 100 percent what happened that split second. I can tell you that out of the corner of my eye, I saw something coming towards me. I went to speed up a bit. I heard my name screamed out like Joanna. I froze. And then, well. And then everything goes black.

As fate would have it, Jo would become the victim of an unpredictable freak accident. And now it was her parents’ turn to be worried about her.

Jo’s parents are Greek immigrants who settled down in New York City with Jo in the late 90s. Like many other first generation parents, Mama and Papa Kalafatis were very loving but also strict while she was growing up.

YeSeul: My only reference point and I’m so sorry about this, about Greek parents is what I watched in, of course, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Horrible. And I need to be more cultured. But what were your parents like and what were their parenting styles?

Jo: Well, see, that’s what’s interesting. I love that movie, by the way. Love it…. I was an only child and a girl. So my parents were a bit overprotective, as you might imagine. And it’s interesting because, I mean, I love them to death, but we had a lot of fights growing up about their over protectiveness.

Jo’s parents had high expectations of their only daughter. They wanted her to excel at everything — get good grades, do well in extracurriculars. Even though Jo always loved the arts, she settled on a more practical career path.

YeSeul: You mentioned that you liked theater. but you decided to major in economics. So why did you decide to major in economics? And did your parents directly influence this choice?

Jo: I did always do theater and a lot of creative things, but having the mindset I did when I went to college, I was like, well, I can’t possibly major in theater. I have to major in something practical. I have to major in something I can work in later. My parents actually, strangely enough, I think would have been OK with a theater major. It was me. I didn’t have confidence in myself more at that point.

Jo put her love for theatre aside and decided to study economics at Columbia University.

Jo: Econ I started as more of a — well I should practically know something about economics but then I ended up liking the analytical reasoning that went into it. So I decided to go with it. And don’t get me wrong — I like econ. But the whole time I was studying it, it did feel like that entire creative part of me, that storyteller part of me was just dead.

It wasn’t that Jo was feeling miserable. It’s just that she didn’t feel a spark with her econ major. Then, she found out about a semester-long study abroad program.

Yeseul: So tell me about this study abroad trip.

Jo: It sounded so much like something I wanted to do, because I think it’s so important, you know, to combine academic studies of what you’re doing with actually immersing yourself in the communities you’re supposedly working in. . . .

The program sounded adventurous and hands-on — exactly what Jo was missing in college. She applied right away. A few months later, she was accepted. And now all she had to do was break the news to her parents.

Jo: I called my parents immediately, I’m like having a fit in the mail room at that point. I’m so happy. and I hear my dad be like ugh Brazil, South Africa. OK. We’ll talk about it. No, no, no, no, no, no. I’m going.. I mean, yeah. Definitely not their favourite. His 19 year old daughter is going to Brazil and South Africa. But they understood how much it was important to me and for what I was trying to do in my life.

After the break, we find out what happened to Jo, and how every parents’ worst nightmare came true.

Jo had never been so far away from her family, but she was having a great time. For the first time in her life, she felt free. She felt alive. That is, until she almost died.

YeSeul: Jo, do you want to listen to Elana’s version of the.

Jo: Oh, my God. I would love to. I’ve actually never heard it.

Remember, Elana was Jo’s roommate in Langaa, South Africa. They lived together in a plain, one-story home with their home stay family. They walked to school together every single day. Here’s Elana’s account of that fateful morning.

Elana: Jo and I headed out for school and we had only probably gotten a few blocks and we were at an intersection…But she was force set five steps ahead of me at that time and had entered the street …And I look to my left and I saw like a Combi Taxi, which is one of those big white vans that’s used as like local transportation in Cape Town. Speeding by. And I actually saw that it was going to hit Jo. And I called out her name and she turned around to look at me. But it was at that point too late.

Elana: I don’t think ever in my life I’ve let out like a scream where I’ve been, like, scared or worried or anything like that. And I do remember screaming and her being like, lifted up. Probably like 30 or 40 feet in the air.

Elana: At the time. the driver had pulled over. You know like the whole entire windshield was broken and there was actually dents in the front of the car from her as well. And I clearly remember that some of her teeth had fallen out and were on her shirt. She was like moaning. …. All of her stuff had been kind of strewn across the street and her shoes were at the point of impact. That was how I really could tell how far she had gone.

Jo was just walking to class and completely out of nowhere…she got hit by a 12-passenger van. The driver was drunk.

YeSeul: How does it make you feel, Jo? To hear more details from someone who was there and who’s witnessed the whole thing.

Jo: I mean.Kind of crazy. I feel like in a strange sense it might have been more traumatizing to see this accident rather than to be in it, because you don’t realize as much when you’re in it. I didn’t see myself like 30 feet through the air. I know it did but I didn’t see it.

When Jo looked down at her leg, she saw the sole of her foot pointing upwards and her knee pointing downwards to the ground. She was in a massive state of shock.

Jo: Yeah, I just I remember also the ambulance that people were very concerned, and I think that was making me concerned too, because I was seeing the concern, the medical professionals. And I was kept trying explain like a crazy person that I fine. But of course I felt fine because I was in shock with an adrenalin rush. I wasn’t fine. It was just a very weird. I mean. I mean, just to have everything shift in that one second from your walking down the street, you’re going to class. You’re gonna have a trip tomorrow. You’re talking to your friend to. You need major medical intervention. Otherwise you’re going to die. It’s a very rapid, strange shift.

But Jo was lucky to be alive. She managed to escape death with a broken femur, a punctured lung, several broken teeth, and a massive loss of blood.

Jo: The ambulance finally came and they were calling my parents. My parents are understandably freaking out on the other line. I wanted to talk to them, but they wouldn’t let me talk to them, I remember that. I think I didn’t get to talk to them because I want to tell them I felt better than I’m sure I looked at that point and even told the nurse I’m like because I had marks all over my face and blood and bruises. And I’m like, can you clean me up? Because I feel like my parents are gonna be waiting at the hospital, are going to see me and freak out. She looked at me like I was crazy, of course, as she was trying to take care of more important things than making my face look pretty. [Laughs]

By the time she got to the hospital, wheeled in on a stretcher, Jo’s parents were already there waiting for her.

Jo: My dad was in tears. And I just remember my dad taking one look at me and going, oh, Jo-, like, oh, no. Joanne speaking Greek at that point, obviously, because he’s emotional and just looking away and crying. And my mom, my mom being emotional, but my mom also trying to hold it together for me and my dad and herself.

Jo began the arduous journey of recovery. The process was very isolating and the limited visiting hours in the ICU didn’t help. This gave her a lot of time to think.

Jo: You know, when you’re 19, most people, myself included, think we’re untouchable. Nothing can really happen to us. And the fact that. If the taxi had been going a little faster, if he’d hit me in a different place. If I’d been facing it, for example, instead of sideways…anything, the fact that it could have gone so horribly differently wrong. I mean, that was definitely popping up my mind again and again, and I started having this thought of it really could have all ended in one day. Everything could have ended in one day. . . .

And up until that point, I think I had in my mind that, like, you know, I’ll do these cool travels I want to do later in life when I’m older and can do them, maybe at some point I’ll do like something artistic with acting when I’m again older. Just for fun, doin community theater.

I think it became more intense when I was put back in a normal hospital bed and I was seeing, you know, these movies and TV shows…And I’m just admiring these performances of these actors. And I’m like, you know what? Yes. This is really like I feel called to this. This is really what my heart is telling me to do to go down in this creative path that I spent my whole life up to that point. Acting and writing and dancing and singing and. It just felt like pure joy to me when I was doing those things … and yeah in the hospital, by the time I got out, I think I’d made that decision.

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Jo back in New York with a cane, rehabilitating her body. Photo courtesy of Joanna Kalafatis

Jo stayed in the hospital in South Africa for over a month to recuperate, with her family by her side. She returned to New York after her doctors cleared her to travel. It took her another 3 months to learn how to walk again. Luckily, Jo finished her senior year and crossed the graduation stage without a wheelchair or cane, a miracle in and of itself. She did end up finishing her econ degree, but she kept the promise she had made to herself in that hospital bed in South Africa.

Jo: Staying in New York, I knew it would have been so…it was my comfort zone. You know, my parents live 40 minutes away in the suburbs. All my friends I knew live there. And I thought, you know, if I’m really doing this, I have to take the plunge. I have to go out on my own. Go far away.

YeSeul: So why did getting hit by a bus make you want to go out of your comfort zone?

Jo: I would say. I mean, just because I realized that my comfort zone was killing me, honestly.

YeSeul: So not the bus, but your — -

Jo: So not the bus! [laughs] But I mean, the bus could have — very easily. But. This is something I stand firm by to this day that I think spending too much time in a comfort zone is the kind of death for your soul. It’s a kind of creative death. And I don’t mean like you don’t need to. You don’t need to be drawn to creative endeavors to do that. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that when people are too long in a state, in a comfort zone, you’re in a suspended state, you’re not growing, you’re not learning, you’re not challenging yourself. And. I just realized in almost dying that day, I realized that the life I was living in a point was a bit of a half life. And if that was going to happen in the future, if another bus was going to run me over because they like me apparently,I didn’t want to feel that. I was being taken out without having lived in the way I truly wanted to live.

YeSeul: And what were your parent’s reaction when you said, mom, dad, I’m gonna go out to Hollywood and I’m going to try to make it as an actress? It’s not what first generation parents usually want to hear their child say.

Jo: Yeah they were what you would assume parents’ reactions would be to that statement.There was definitely some pushback. But, we talked it out and. If they do see that, I’m serious about something and I thought it through and it is really where my heart lies and what I want to do, they do even, maybe begrudgingly, but they do support me. And…I will say, they’re extremely supportive.

YeSeul: Fast forward 11 years later. Jo is now thriving in Hollywood as an all-star creative and entertainer. She was cast as the lead of a play in L.A., she was in several indie movies, and she’s also helped produce a major feature film. She also launched a popular travel blog on the side. She’s literally living her best life.

Jo: it’s been hard sometimes to explain because, you know, especially with something like acting, most people outside the industry believe that if you’re not a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, you haven’t succeeded.But explaining to my parents that just because I’m not a movie with Brad Pitt, it doesn’t mean it’s not going well. Like I’m booking jobs, I’m making money.

It turns out there was another person affected on the streets of Langaa that day. Witnessing Jo’s accident changed Elana’s life, too.

YeSeul: Did you know that your accident changed the trajectory of Elana’s life because it it made her realize that she wanted to change her job?

Jo: I didn’t realize that.

YeSeul: She was slowly realizing maybe like social work might make sense for me. Being there for you, being there for someone in a time of crisis; it made her realize her strengths, and so that’s what she does today. And that’s what she talked about.

Jo: I did not know that. That warms my heart.

Elana is now happily working as a social worker with a tight knit immigrant community in Minnesota. As for Jo, I had to ask her the big what if question.

YeSeul: And here’s a million dollar question for you. Where would you be in life now if you hadn’t been hit by a bus in the middle of Langa, South Africa.

Jo: You know, that’s such an interesting question because. I mean, because we a we can never really know. I want to work in originally in development economics and realized then two, three years of that wasn’t for me. It’s possible I would have stayed in it and been kind of okay with it but definitely not the place I am now.. Making this choice doesn’t mean I never, ever experience like any doubts or any man, and I do the right thing like that’s I don’t know a single person in life, even the most successful people in life, who don’t experience doubts about where they are.

But to go back to maybe that quote about getting up every day and seeing what you have to do today. I get up most days and I like what I have to do that day. And I don’t think I would have been able to say that if I’d continued on the path I was on.

That was Joanna Kalafatis from her home in Los Angeles, recounting how a tragic accident gave her the courage to pursue her Hollywood dreams. You can follow Jo’s travel blog at www.losethemap.com. Special thanks to Elana Dahlberg.

Thanks for listening. I’m your host YeSeul Kim. Ben Severance is our co-producer. Editing and producing by Nora Connidis Boydell. Don’t forget to subscribe to Serendipity Stories and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @serendipitystories.podcast.

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The Serendipity Stories shares the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments. We might call it luck, fate, a freak accident, or a coincidence. But over time and with a bit of reflection, when we find meaning in those special events, we call it serendipity. Expect stories that are full of irony and whimsy, love and tragedy, and despair and hope.

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Business exec with consumer research background. PowerPoint storytelling ninja. Currently writing a booking about business + relationships.

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