Back from the Brink of Death

Drawing by Cat Saunders to accompany article about escaping death
“Wordrawing” by Cat Saunders

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you, that would suffice.”   —Meister Eckhart   

By Cat Saunders

On May 2, 2005, I was doing a project in my studio when I slipped and fell backwards against a door jam.  The back of my head split open and I collapsed unconscious in a heap on the floor.  My spine was fractured and I bled out through my head wound for several minutes.

My longtime partner, John Giovine, saved my life that day by calling 911 when he came home and found me.  A half-dozen emergency personnel arrived within two minutes.  They stabilized me for transport to the emergency room at nearby Harborview Hospital in Seattle. Over the next several hours, many doctors, nurses, and technicians treated my injuries and performed numerous tests and scans.

Next I spent about a week in Harborview’s Orthotics Trauma Unit.  While I was there, I saw more people that week than I usually see in a year!  I joked with John that I didn’t have time to pull my socks up or chew a piece of gum. Every moment was filled with one caregiver after another requiring my attention.

A Psychotic Roommate

I didn’t get any sleep that week, either, because my roommate (bless her heart) was psychotic.  What’s worse, she was psychotic in ways her doctors could not treat pharmaceutically, due to her physical injuries.  As a result, she couldn’t control her loud expressions of every thought and feeling that passed through her brain. Twenty-four hours a day, nonstop.  She also insisted that the TV be on constantly, day and night.  

Needless to say, this was quite a wild experience for someone like me, who loves quiet. I tried valiantly to ask for what I needed and suggest compromises, but alas, change was not in the cards.  As a result, I did a lot of interesting work on myself that week.

Basically, my job was to stay sane without sleep, with a severe head injury and a fractured spine, while rooming with a psychotic woman. John said he didn’t know how I did it.  He was pushed to his limits being in the room with her for just an hour when he came to visit me. 

The hospital staff commiserated and tried to transfer her to a single room. Unfortunately, no single rooms were available. By the end of the week, I was begging the staff to let me sleep in the waiting room. Or in the hallway. Or on top of their heads!  Of course, they couldn’t allow that, so I was left to my own devices.

The situation was so surreal I knew I had to work with it in a very creative way.  Therefore, I decided to treat my roommate as my teacher and my ally.  This saved me, because it helped me keep my “witness” engaged during her nonstop outbursts.  In addition, this approach helped me find meaning in her incoherent ramblings.  

I decided to trust that for her, everything she was doing and saying made sense. Ironically, I realized it was hard for my roommate to be in the room with me, too.  It wasn’t just a one-way street.  This wasn’t so much about me personally.  Instead, I think my roommate suffered from my presence because she was so permeable at an emotional level.  

Even though I was quiet, I contributed an additional energetic impact on her, which increased her suffering. I empathized with her emotional sensitivity.  I, too, was adversely impacted by the constant overload of “energetic input” in the Trauma Unit.  It was like Grand Central Station in our room that week.  

Literally dozens of caregivers came and went at all hours of the day and night.  Also, we were both in such critical condition that we needed a “sitter” watching us 24/7.

Thanks to my roommate, I did a ton of forgiveness work that week. When it came time for her to leave, I saw even more how her presence had been “choreographed” by the trickster spirits.  Just as I was finally making peace with the situation, she was transferred to a single room only minutes before I was discharged from the hospital.  What timing!

As the staff wheeled her out, I pulled myself out of bed and hobbled over to her in my spinal brace.  I extended my hands to her with a big smile on my face.  She took my hands warmly and looked at me with the innocence of a child.  We both apologized and asked forgiveness for contributing to each other’s hardship that week, however unintentionally. We completed this sweet exchange in just a few words.  I was deeply moved by the way love can penetrate even the thickest veils of psychosis and pain.

A Full-Torso, High-Tech Back Brace

This experience was only one of countless experiences that changed me that week in Harborview.  It was definitely one of the worst weeks of my life—both physically and emotionally. It tested me down to the core of my being.  Even so, that week brought extraordinary gifts of growth unlike any I’ve ever known before.

Since then, I’ve recovered completely from my brain injury as well as the spinal fracture.  The doctors at Harborview said my spine is actually stronger, in terms of bone density.  Woo hoo! They asked me what I did to make this happen. They said most people’s spines become more porous when they have to wear a body brace for an extended period.

In my case, I wore a full-torso, high-tech aluminum Jewett brace 24/7 for three months. Living with an “exoskeleton” was an intense experience, and I nicknamed it the “Iron Maiden.”  Do you know what that is?  It’s a medieval torture device that looks like an upright coffin, with inward-pointing spikes that pierce its unlucky inhabitant.

Despite how difficult it was to wear that brace, it saved me from paralysis.  So I gradually made peace with it and even figured out how to dance in it! In regard to the spine doctors’ question about what I did to strengthen the bones in my back, I was careful about answering.  

I told them what they’d understand from the standpoint of conventional Western medicine, and left the rest out.  Allopathic medicine has saved my life multiple times over the years. However, I’m not exactly what you’d call “conventional.”  So I save the full story of my recovery for those who are open to holistic healing practices.

Brain Work Saved Me

Speaking of which, I want to mention one invaluable form of healing work. Without it, I would not have recovered full brain and motor function following my head injury. It’s called neurodevelopmental repatterning work—or “brain work,” as I affectionately call it.  I first learned about this work in 1989, and it has changed my life profoundly.  

Neurodevelopmental repatterning work is the single most important work I have done for myself in more than 30 years. Other than my partner, John, few people know how much physical and mental functioning I lost after that near-fatal accident on May 2.  Likewise, few people know how far I came back in recovery during the weeks and months following.  

The head injury affected my memory and speech.  It affected my ability to think and write clearly.  It affected my sleep and hormonal balance.  And it affected my motor skills. The brain injury was especially scary because I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to work again as a counselor, consultant, and writer.

After the accident, it was difficult for me to follow a simple conversation.  I could barely type a simple e-mail message, and it was hard for me to stay focused on even the simplest of tasks. For weeks after I got home from the hospital, I’d find myself walking around the house without any pants until mid-afternoon.  For one thing, it took a long time to get dressed while wearing a full-torso spinal brace.  

Besides that, I’d get distracted by one thing after another until it was three in the afternoon.  This was rather amusing, but it wasn’t something I wanted to go on forever.  I wanted to do other things in life, and most of them required that I remember to put on my pants before leaving the house! My head injury, on top of the spinal fracture, required that I relearn how to stand, sit, walk, move, and navigate the world in general.

The first time I took a bath after coming home from Harborview, it took three hours! I hope I will never again take for granted the ability to walk and talk.  Or the gift of being able to feed and dress myself.  Or the simple joy of being able to jump in and out of the shower in five minutes.  

I hope I’ll always treasure the hard-won blessing of a recovered brain that can remember what someone told me ten seconds before—or what I myself said ten seconds before! And I hope I’ll always appreciate what an incredible privilege it is to be able to do meaningful work and support myself financially.

The accident and its aftermath taught me a lot about being physically dependent on other people.  It also taught me a lot about being in the “receiving” position.  For someone who has spent much of my life in the “giving position”—which of course is the control position—the accident brought invaluable lessons in humility and surrender.

Being physically dependent on John and others forced me to walk my talk about the importance of being willing to receive.  After all, others deserve the opportunity to give!

Gratitude for the Best People During the Worst Time

As a result of these experiences, my already bountiful gratitude for life has increased exponentially.  Even with all the work I’ve done around death, it was still quite intense to come so close to a one-way trip to the other side. On the subject of gratitude, I want to express my appreciation for Seattle’s awesome 911 emergency response teams.  

I specifically want to thank the guys at Fire Station #9 who saved my life the day of the accident. After I’d recovered enough to be able to walk with the help of my back brace, John and I went to Station #9 to say thanks and give them a cake John baked for them.

When we drove up, we laughed when we saw the metal sign over the door of their station. It was a beautiful reproduction of their station’s mascot. Fire stations in Seattle can choose a mascot, and Station #9’s mascot is the Eveready Cat, with its nine lives. How’s that for a playful cosmic touch?

In addition to Seattle’s 911 teams, I also salute Harborview Medical Center, its amazing ER staff, and the Orthotics Trauma Unit.  I also salute the University of Washington Physicians en masseI think I saw most of you that week!  In addition, I am forever indebted to my longtime personal physician and holistic medicine consultant, Dr. Steve Hall.

Although it may seem mundane, I must also express my gratitude to Washington State’s Basic Health Plan for covering 80% of my astronomical medical bills. It cost more than $9,000 just for my emergency room care the day of the accident, not including the week’s hospitalization.

I deeply appreciate the privilege of good health insurance and skillful medical care.  I wish everyone had affordable access to both.  May that day come soon!

Most of all, I am overcome with gratitude for my partner, John Giovine.  John nursed me back to health and stood by me steadfastly even when I was afraid I would not recover. In the depths of despair one night in the hospital, I told John I was afraid he might leave me if I did not recover.

To my amazement then and now, he held me close and said he considered the situation to be a “bonding experience.”  In other words, he wasn’t going anywhere.  I honestly believe John’s love and belief in me was one of the most important factors—if not the most important factor—in the grace that brought me back from the brink of death.

This article was originally published in January 2006 and updated in May 2017. 

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).