In 1993, Julie was driving to have dinner with her sister when a teenager ran a red light and went through her driver side door. She was hit so hard that the majority of her brain stem severed from her head. When she arrived at the hospital she had no blood pressure or brain activity. She had urinated all of the water out of her body — an indication that she was completing the dying process.
She was put on life support. The entire left side of her body was paralyzed. The doctors told her family that 96% of people with this injury die. The other 4% will live the rest of their lives in a vegetative state. No one expected her to awake from the coma.
Six weeks later she opened her right eye. In 2007 she completed a triathlon.
Here is a bit of her story.
What is it like, being in a coma? Do you have any dreams? Do you have any recollection whatsoever, or is it as if you’re asleep?
No, nothing. I had no memory of the accident, the day at work before the accident, my coma — nothing. When I woke up, I had no idea where I was. The first memory I had was of my deceased grandmothers, in heaven.
Your first memory was actually being with your grandmothers in heaven?
And what, exactly, was that memory?
A bright light was coming from a long aisleway on my left-hand side. That’s where I really wanted to go. It was where the brightest light was coming from.
I remember the aisle way being quite narrow, and I was thinking, Hm. That’s pretty thin to get through. The rest of the area was just light, and it was all round — no corners, no edges.
I felt very peaceful there. I knew I was there, because I was dead.
You knew you were dead?
Yes. I was so happy to be there, because we have never experienced that perfect peace, here on this earth, ever. I mean there’s nothing like it.
And I was thinking, Okay, I’m dead. I just knew that. I had no idea how, but I just knew. Then all of a sudden I turned around, and there were my grandmothers. I’m thinking, There are the girls. I was so close to them, and I was so happy to see them, because I’m thinking, Well, at least I’m not alone.
I said, “Come on, girls, let’s go,” and I was pointing to the [bright] aisleway that I wanted to go towards. They told me that, no, I couldn’t go with them. They told me I had to go back.
That’s when I felt nervous, and I was thinking, I can’t go back, because I’m not physically okay. I was pointing to my left side, it was paralyzed. I couldn’t take my eyes off my grandma’s eyes, because they were like these endless tunnels of iridescent, blue light. She said, “Your body will heal. Go back and be happy.” The next memory I have is waking up from the coma.
Why do you think you were drawn to that light?
It was like going home. It’s where I wanted to be. It was good to be there. It was comfortable.
Did you feel like you were not home, when you woke up?
When I woke up, I was thinking, Whose body is this? Oh my God, what happened to my body?
What was the condition of your body, when you woke up?
I couldn’t focus. I had vertigo. Swallowing is a function of your brain stem, so I was drooling. I couldn’t move or feel the left side of my body.
Then with my right hand, I’m [trying to] feel my left hand. You want to make sure things are there, because you can’t feel anything. And then I felt this big hole in my throat, and I’m thinking, There’s air just escaping. It was my trach[ea].
Then I’d go down further. There’s was a big hole in my stomach where they place the G-Tube to feed you. And then I put my hand down further, and it was the diaper, and then I was thinking, Oh, God. I’m in a diaper.
I’m thinking, Oh my God, whose body is this? God, I can’t believe you left me in a body like this.
How old were you, in 1993?
What condition is your body in now?
My ankle, my hip, my knee — there’s just so much atrophy. I don’t have as much freedom of movement.
But you’re not paralyzed at all, any more?
No. If you met me in person, you would not think there is anything [wrong]. But I wear these thick glasses now. My vision, really, is one of my biggest disabilities.
What do you attribute to your ability to walk?
God, completely. There was nothing I did. The only reason I would have ever thought that this might be possible is because of what my grandmothers told me about my body healing.
What do you think it was that prompted you to take your first step?
Pure will. I was pissed.
How is it that you walked again?
Within six weeks of waking up from my coma, I said, “Dad, I want to walk.” He’s such a big guy, and I’m not a really big person. So he’s held me up by the back of my hospital pants, and I walked. But I wasn’t really walking. I was doing whatever I could do, but he’s holding me up.
For the next five years, I was in outpatient therapy for at least three days a week. For me to even walk ten feet took a long time. It was a very slow process.
What about the doctors and nurses? Where they preparing you, that you’d be forever paralyzed?
No, I know my parents had talked to them. And healthcare professionals don’t do that. One therapist was supposed to be helping me deal with all that had happened to me. She finally said to me, “Julie, you’re really not getting all this. I think you’re not understanding [that] you really have to start dealing with this. It’s really unlikely you’re going to ever be able to live on your own. To think that you’ll work? No. Drive? No. And living on your own, I think, is a really far cry from something that you’d be able to do.”
And I thought, What? I was so mad. I was just so mad.
Do you work, drive and live alone now?
Yes, I live alone. Yes, I drive. I hate it.
Do you hate driving because you’re afraid of it, or because of your disabilities?
Both. Both. It doesn’t make it easy, and I’m afraid.
I’d imagine you’d go through phases of depression with this.
Oh, God, yeah. I mean, I was a mess. When I was in the rehab hospital, they put me on Paxil because I was crying so badly. I did not want to live. I mean who wants to live like that? The suicide rate for my injury is like 85 percent.
What do you think has been the hardest part of this?
Oh, just not being able to really live my potential. You know, I say that, and I’m doing so much with the book and stuff. They’re already talking about a next book. I’ve been asked to talk to the National Transportation Safety Board on safe driving. I mean, to do all these great things, I’m very happy about it, but I think, Oh, gosh, the potential I could have had, and people are like, Hello?
Life is not what I expected it to be. But then, so many of us can say that, can’t we?
Tell me about the triathlon you did in 2007.
Everything was timed. You swam for ten minutes, which believe it or not, is a long time — for me it was a long time. You run for twenty, and you bike for fifteen.
When I was finishing the final laps of the triathlon, I could hear in my head, my grandmother, “Your body is healed,” and I’m thinking, Okay, my body is healed. I finished in the middle of my age group, which I was quite happy with.
What toll do you think this took on your family?
I would much rather be the person who’s injured, and so many survivors say this. It’s much harder on them because they don’t know, exactly, what it feels like to be us, and they’re hurting so bad[ly] because they can only imagine how hard or how difficult that it would be, that this sudden kind of life change would be.
Was the kid who hit you injured?
He knocked himself out. He hit his head on the windshield. He was arrested, but other than that, he was fine.
Do you have a relationship with him?
I called him about a year-and-a-half after my accident. He got just a suspended license for a very short period of time. I know it’s hard for him. He has to pay more for insurance. But he didn’t have to spend any time in jail. He just got a $75 fine, and that was it. Now the penalties are much higher for injuring somebody so badly, but they should be.
I couldn’t call him until I honestly meant that I could forgive him, and so, until I felt that, I decided I’d wait that year-and-a-half. I called him and I said, “Listen. You know what? Forgive yourself, because I forgive you. Let’s just let it go. It happened. It’s done.” And he was very sorry. He was very apologetic.
Is there anything about your life that you would say is better now, than it was before your accident?
Probably most things. Emotionally and spiritually things are better. Once you’ve had that experience, the near-death experience, you just have so much more depth to your life, and to your whole essence of living and purpose. That gives you a much deeper relationship with family and friends. You just don’t take it for granted. You truly value those things, and you don’t value them in a way that you ever would have before.
Do you have any advice for the rest of us who might perhaps take their bodies for granted?
Oh, just be happy. Really. I know that sounds so simplistic, but happiness for each person is something different. So when I say, “Be happy,” you know what that means for you. You know what that means, and so, whatever it is, be happy in it.
To learn more about Julie Papievis and her book, Go Back and Be Happy, please visit: www.GoBackandBeHappy.com
Go Back and Be Happy can also be purchased at: http://www.amazon.com/Go-Back-Be-Happy-Devastating/dp/0825462762/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1257116377&sr=8-1