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“I beat death and made it to the finish line, where my life was waiting for me.”

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By Colleen Hierath

I was thirty years old and pregnant with my first child. It was a hot Sunday afternoon and my husband Wes and I decided to go for a drive to Malibu. Just as we pulled onto Sunset Boulevard, a big black car came at us at ninety miles an hour. The next thing I remember hearing was the ambulance driver saying, “Mother dead, try to save the baby.”

They rushed me to UCLA Medical Center, and without any warning or anesthesia they cut into me and delivered my baby. During a second surgery, I saw the paddles coming down on top of me and I thought, “Why does everyone think I'm dead. I'm not dead!” A third surgery followed, then I finally came out of the coma.

In the ICU, attached to the twenty-six IVs and life support systems that were keeping me alive, I fought hard to believe that I would survive. I wanted to live, and I decided I was going to be the best at recovery anyone had ever seen. I focused on the resilience it had taken to get through dying three times. I focused on believing I would be healed. 

I created a positive shield around me and used the only things I had—faith, hope, and fortitude—to get through those bleak days.

It took me months and years to discover all my injuries. Some were visible; some, like the traumatic brain injury, were not. Back then no one knew about TBI even at UCLA and for sure no one understood recovery or that it was even possible.

My road back has not been quick or easy, but I did not let brain injury win. My brain could not remember how to read, write, walk, or talk. It took me five years to relearn how to read at a fifth-grade level and another ten years to get to a high-school level. Fifteen years to read music and play the piano again.

Every day I work on pushing the limits of my cognitive abilities. Even if it takes me four times longer, I write, I blog, I use technology, I read! I have even written a book: Breathe: How I Trained Myself Back to Life. I make mistakes but they don’t matter to me; I have no ego about this. I do get tired and I do ask for help. I am constantly borrowing other people’s brains to ask questions or check my work or understanding. But I choose to put even this into a positive context; because of my struggle, I am more prepared than my peers to age…I have memory systems in place. I am well equipped for ninety!

Running was always my gift, and it showed up when I needed it most.

My body was badly broken from the accident and the surgeries. I relearned how to walk by visualizing my toes moving, then my feet, next my legs, sitting, standing, and finally walking. I relearned how to run, which is something I love to do. Down the roads, up the hills, now the stairs, saying, “My body is strong, I can run.” Running was always my gift, and it showed up when I needed it most. It healed my body, mind, and heart. Running truly saved my life.

I learned to visualize it, say it to myself, and then do it. I applied this power of the mind to everything I had to relearn. I feel that my life was saved so I can inspire others to push through limitations and achieve the life they imagined. Sharing my story is what I am going to do for the rest of my life.

It has been twenty-nine years now, and my journey has been long and arduous. My husband Wes’s injuries were minor, but our marriage did not survive the accident. My baby Haley’s injuries were major. She is severely brain injured, and she cannot walk or talk. I have been her caregiver, therapist, teacher, and mother all the while working on my own lifetime of recovery. She taught me to be resilient because she is beyond resilient. Haley is happy. I built a family around us, adopting two more girls, Shea and Quinn, who are twenty-one years old now.

Sharing my story is what I am going to do for the rest of my life.

In my quiet moments, I do think about why I survived death and such difficult recovery, and it comes down to not giving up or giving in. I come from a resilient line of women, and my grandmother is my role model in what she endured with illness. I got her DNA. I also credit my sports “winning mindset.” Winning was the only option for me. I beat death and made it to the finish line, where my life was waiting for me to recapture it. The gifts of faith, hope, and fortitude carried me through. Every day as I dragged myself out of bed, through pain and sadness, I did the work necessary to recover. Doing that is how I built up more and more resilience.

I fought hard to get my life back. I redefined the life I wanted, and along the way I found love and happiness.

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