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Silver Lining: Reflections on a Life-Changing Event

This month marks the 6-year anniversary of an event that changed my life forever. I am sharing my story as a statement of gratitude and hope. May the words remind you of the power of faith, of finding the silver lining, and of healing. And may you experience joy and peace in the New Year.

December 17th, 2009, started out as an ordinary day. I had said “yes” to a babysitting offer and had driven to Covington, Washington, to spend three hours with my grandchildren, Lauren, Mark and Lydia. I arrived at their home in the late afternoon and joined the children who were playing underneath the Christmas tree. I said goodbye to my son and his wife as they left with their two year old, Lydia, for a holiday gathering in the neighborhood. The plan was to meet later at the local Red Robin for a casual dinner.

At last we were ready for departure! The children, ages 6 (Lauren) and 4 (Mark), were safely belted in their car seats, eagerly awaiting cheeseburgers and fries. The natives were restless, the engine was running, and I was attempting to release the emergency brake in my son’s SUV. After several failed attempts, I removed my seat belt, bent down to take a closer look at how to release the break instead of the hood, and finally called my son to get instructions. My daughter-in-law, Missy, answered my call and as we were talking, the emergency brake suddenly released with me half in and half out of the car. The vehicle shot backwards forcefully, rolling over me, crushing my left leg, pelvis, ribs, facial bones, mandible, and causing multiple abrasions. Missy was still on the line, able to hear all that was happening. The car continued rolling backwards down the sloping driveway, leaving me on the pavement as it fishtailed around and entered the street. I could hear the children’s voices screaming for me.

I felt the cold, wet pavement on my face as I lay there in the darkness. I had been hit hard and I knew it was serious. The force of this huge, heavy automobile was unimaginable ~ I heard my bones breaking as the car ran over me. I was afraid I would die right there on the sidewalk. It is difficult to describe a trauma as serious as this. Even though I knew I was close to death, the children’s safety was all I thought about. I continued to hear their voices crying for me: “Mimi! Mimi!” I knew I had to save them.

I tried to get up and discovered I was unable to move any part of my body except my right arm. My legs felt heavy and lifeless. I pushed myself up using this one arm, and I could see the porches and doorways of the neighbors. There was only one porch light on in this quiet neighborhood and I knew it was my only hope. I began screaming for help.

Finally a door opened. I can still feel the relief I felt when I saw a woman run out of the door and across the street to where I was. The vehicle carrying the children had rolled onto the grass and was stopped by a ‘for rent’ sign in a neighbor’s yard. As soon as she ran up to me I told her to help the children first. I knew, then, I had done all I could.

Pain and numbness were quickly overtaking me. I forced myself to stay awake and alert until I heard the sound of the sirens. I recall hearing the children’s voices close by now, concerned, and asking if I was hurt. I told them I would be okay and that the ambulance was on its way. I remember hearing my son’s voice as well. He and his wife had rushed home and were by my side. I knew I was badly hurt and I prayed I would live until help arrived. I was afraid the children would see their Mimi lose her life in front of them and I couldn’t bear the thought. Soon help arrived and I was being carried onto a stretcher.

I remember my son’s tenderness when I apologized to him for the accident. I felt so guilty and responsible – if only I had managed to handle the car more skillfully. He kissed me and told me to stop worrying. Once in the ambulance, the attendant slipped my wedding ring off and cut me out of my winter coat. I was determined not to die yet I knew my injuries were life threatening. This was the first time in my life I had felt the force of something as devastating and as threatening as this vehicle rolling over me. I wasn’t sure I had my left leg until it was lifted onto the stretcher. I was given pain medication and we began to move out of the quiet street and onto I-5, heading north to Seattle. I recall the road being rough and knowing it was my injuries that were hurting with every bump and turn.

Thankfully, Harborview Medical Center was only an hour’s drive and one of the best trauma centers in the United States, although I remember very little of the ride to Seattle. The pain medication I was given dulled the pain of motion and of bumps in the road. I recall someone saying, “ We’re here” when we had arrived at Harborview. The last thing I remember is praying, “Please God, save my life.”

Now it is December of 2015, six years later. It has taken me this long to be able to share my story of the accident without feeling re-traumatized. As I reflect on my healing journey, I have come to realize how critical mindfulness has been, not only in accepting my new reality, but also in dealing with each stage of recovery.

Acceptance didn’t come easily. It was difficult to welcome a body full of metal, covered in scars, and severely limited in mobility. Yet this was my reality. From the moment I regained consciousness, though I remained intubated and unable to communicate, it was explained to me that I had already been through 5 lifesaving surgeries in 6 days and was possibly facing several more.

Because I couldn’t speak, all I could do was listen. I heard my three children’s voices encouraging me to stay strong and to know that I would survive. In this moment I was struck by the realization: I was a wealthy woman, deeply loved by my family. Nothing else mattered: not what I owned, how much money I made, or what model car I drove. I had my family and they were all beside me as I lay motionless.

Nothing would ever be the same again: my life, as I knew it, had been shattered. I faced more surgeries, eventually being transferred to a nursing care facility for further healing. While there I had to relearn how to sit up, eat on my own, stand, and eventually pivot myself into a wheelchair. It would be a full year before I was walking with a cane.

One day I found myself lying in bed at the nursing home. It required three attendants to help me sit up. I had never felt so helpless and discouraged in my life. I allowed myself to feel the deep impact of my state. I knew the only way to move forward was to draw on my many years of mindfulness training.

As I reflected, I knew I had two choices: I could succumb to the deepest despair I had ever known or I could, with love and compassion, find the silver lining. It took me no time to realize I had my life and the promise of walking again. I had my beloved husband, Bob, and my children, their spouses and partners, and my grandchildren. I had caring friends and relatives who supported me and visited continually. And: I could, in time, give back. I could encourage others to find their silver lining, no matter how difficult the challenge.

I began my mindfulness practice right there in my hospital bed. I recalled a meditation called “COAL” created by Dr. Daniel Siegel, a researcher whose work I had been following. The “C” stands for Curiosity: I became curious about my fate: What was I feeling? What was I thinking? Was I in judgment about what had happened to me? How did my body feel? What was I noticing? This was a rich step as I became aware and mindful.

The “O” stands for openness. Could I be open to my experience? I found that being open brought me richness and deep awareness, which felt healing in and of itself. Being open allowed me to feel expansive and spacious, present and aware of myself and my surroundings.

“A” stands for acceptance: Could I truly accept what had happened? As I realized the only other option would be to deny what had occurred on that cold December evening, I chose acceptance. I felt a deep peace as I allowed myself to accept everything – all that was my life at this point. I let it in and in doing so, felt present, whole, and alive.

The “L” stands for love. Could I love myself: my broken and bruised body, my tender spirit, my concerns and my hopes? Gently, and with compassion and caring, I allowed myself to be loved. I found that loving myself made it easier to love others: to be appreciative, grateful, and kind to each person involved in my care. I realized how very blessed I was and I extended my gratitude to every caregiver and staff member at Mother Joseph Care Center. I made good friends and, when able, visited the other patients who were unable to leave their beds. I found great joy in each moment, grateful for everything.

One year later, on the same date of the accident, I visited Mother Joseph for the first time after being discharged. There were tears in the eyes of the people who had cared for me – and there were tears in my eyes as well. We all knew the end could have been different and each of us, in our own way, felt deep gratitude. Currently I volunteer at this care center, accompanying the residents on field trips and other outings. This is a privilege I honor.

There are many types of trauma a person might suffer – physical, mental, and spiritual – but it’s how we meet and embrace those challenges that make us who we are today. It is my professional work and personal joy to assist individuals on their own healing journeys.

What is your story? I invite you to email it to me and I will share it here, along with a personal introduction by me, as a significant step in creating healing and community – a safe haven in which to share our stories, our victories, our disappointments, our hopes and wishes – so that we might heal our world and ourselves.

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