The Story Of How Margaret Mckinnon Survived an Air Crash And Used Her Trauma To Treat Others

by Drishti Ranjan
The Story Of How Margaret Mckinnon Survived an Air Crash And Used Her Trauma To Treat Others

March 17, 2021

Twenty years ago, what could have been a grim air crash of Air Transat Flight 236, bound to Lisbon from Toronto, was a disaster averted. When it crash-landed on an island in the Azores off Portugal after running out of fuel over the Atlantic, everyone survived, but at the cost of having a part of their brain getting scarred by this event forever. On that plane was a young newly-wed psychologist, Margaret Mckinnon, who even though was equally traumatized, decided to channelize her trauma in ways that could contribute to the neural sciences This is her story!

PTSD researcher Margaret McKinnon, left, poses with PhD student Alina Protopopescu at the Homewood Health Centre

Who is Margaret McKinnon?

This story is about Margaret Mckinnon- The woman who survived a tragic plane crash, but later used her experience to contribute to study relating to PTSD. Not only that, but during the pandemic, she’s been asserting the importance of mental health, and is working towards helping anybody who’d end up getting affected by the manifestation arising from this.

Growing up, Mckinon was acquainted with listening about car crashes, people escaping burning buildings etc. because her father was a deputy fire marshal and her mother was a nurse. Conversations revolving around life-or-death situations were normal in Mckinnon household, but it drew Margaret’s attention towards wanting to become a writer, so that she could write about the stories of coping with trauma and becoming resilient. However, upon growing up, her interests shifted towards psychology and she ended up majoring in it.


Research and Contribution

The passengers who were air-bound in the ATF did have an extremely close call but with the potential disaster turning into a celebration, the post victory celebrations were reserved for something else. This incident of 24th August, 2001 was closely followed by another extremely tragic incident of the 9/11 attack on the Twin towers. The surviving people from both these tragedies served as guineapigs for researchers to probe into the role of memory and the effects of trauma, post dealing with such an ordeal.

In 2010, a research was conducted on the passengers. This was to be the first ever research which included a large number of people who’ve survived the same traumatic event. The study led by Baycrest’s world-renowned Rotman Research Institute in partnership with the University of Toronto and McMaster University was unique for another reason. The team of researchers also included a surviving member of the plane crash!

Margaret Mckinnon Used Her Trauma To Help Others

Describing the event as a manifestation of the worst possible nightmare, Mckinnon still went above and beyond to use her trauma to help others out. At a time, when very less was known about the link between intensely traumatic experiences getting processed in memory, this sort of research delves into serious real -life tragedies to study outcomes of neural reactions in specific regions of the brain. The subjects of the study had their brain activity monitored while a video recollection of the 9/11 air crash and a comparatively neutral event was followed up after it. The passengers displayed a robust memory enhancement effect for the Air crash incident in relation to the 9/11 and neutral events.

The traumatic memory enhancement happened due to the activation of the amygdala, anterior and posterior midline, visual cortex and medial temporal lobe in passengers. The brain captured behaviour as a response to 9/11 because of it being closely similar to their own Air Crash disaster. However, this pattern was absent in a group of non-traumatised individuals who were monitored too. Such findings contribute to reveal how traumatic memory is mediated by amygdalar activity, which likely enhances vividness via influences on ventral visual and hippocampal systems.

Airplane at 39,000 feet, Margaret McKinnon tried to turn on the faucet, but she couldn’t get any water to come out. It was just past 5:45 am, Greenwich Mean Time, on August 24, 2001, and McKinnon was somewhere high above the mid-Atlantic.

The Conclusion Of The Research

Researchers noted that when asked to narrate incidents, the passengers could recall fewer details about 9/11 than they could, about their own crisis. This was not a very notable finding as emotionally charged events or the relativity to a past event produces greater recall. Yet, out of this entire study, one significant finding was that the passengers who eventually ended up having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, and those who didn’t, exhibited no difference in the amount of detail they remembered or its accuracy.

This pattern was observed across a lot of cases and researchers subsequently concluded that it is probably not just memories of the trauma itself that are related to PTSD, but rather how a person processes memory for events in general.


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