Back from the Brink of Death
By Cat Saunders
On the afternoon of May 2, 2005, I was doing a project in my studio
when I slipped and fell backwards against a door jam, splitting the
back of my head open. I collapsed unconscious in a heap on the floor,
fracturing my spine and bleeding out through a head wound for several
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 and stabilized me for transport to the emergency
room at nearby Harborview Hospital in Seattle. Over the next several
hours, various doctors, nurses, and technicians treated my injuries
and performed many different tests and scans.
Next I spent about a week in Harborview's Orthotics Trauma Unit, where
I saw more people that week than I usually see in a year! I joked
with John that I didn't even have time to pull my socks up or chew a
piece of gum, because every moment was filled with one caregiver after
another requiring my attention.
I didn't get any sleep that week, either, because my roommate (bless
her heart) was psychotic in ways her doctors were unable to treat pharmaceutically,
due to her concomitant physical injuries. As a result, she was
unable to control her loud verbalizations of every thought, feeling,
fear, and anxiety--24 hours a day, nonstop, the entire week. She
also insisted that the TV be on constantly, day and night, so it was
quite a wild experience for methe silence-loving "monk"to
room with her.
I tried valiantly to change the situation by asking for what I needed
and suggesting compromises, but alas, change was not in the cards.
As a result, I did a lot of interesting work on myself that week, trying
to stay sane without sleepwith a severe head injury and a fractured
spinewhile rooming with a psychotic woman.
John said he didn't know how I did it, because he was pushed to his
limits being in the room with her for an hour at a time when he came
to see me each day. The hospital staff commiserated and tried
to transfer her to a single room, but unfortunately, no single rooms
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 headsanywhere
but in my room! Of course, they couldn't allow that, so I was
left to my own devices.
The whole situation was so surreal that 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, because I trusted that for her, everything she was doing
and saying made sense.
In this context, I experimented with changing my own consciousness to
see if it helped to reduce my roommate's anxiety levels. I can't
say this was fun work, but it was good work, and I learned a lot.
The truth is, I realized during the course of the week that it was hard
for my roommate to have me there, just as it was hard for me to have
her there. This wasn't so much about me personally, but rather,
I think my roommate suffered from my presence because she was so "permeable"
at an emotional level. I contributed an additional energetic impact
on her, even in my silence, and this increased her suffering.
I empathized with her emotional sensitivity, because I, too, was adversely
impacted by the constant overload of energies in the Trauma Unit.
It was like Grand Central Station in our room that week, with literally
dozens of caregivers coming and going at all hours of the day and night.
Also, we were both in such critical condition that we had to have a
"sitter" watching us 24/7 for the first half of the week.
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" for my benefit by the powers-that-be,
because just as I was finally making peace with the situation, she was
transferred to a single room minutes before I was discharged from the
hospital. Such timing!
As they wheeled her out of the room, I pulled myself out of my bed and
hobbled over to her in my spinal brace, extending 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
We completed this sweet exchange in just a few words. As a longtime
counselor and as a human being, I was deeply moved by the way love can
penetrate even the thickest veils of psychosis and pain.
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 lifeboth physically and emotionallyand 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. I wouldn't wish my accident or that week
in Harborview on my worst enemy, but I also wouldn't trade the learning
Since then, I'm happy to say that I have 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.
They asked me what I did to make this happen, because 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" (have you ever seen one of
those medieval torture devices with the spikes turned inward?). Even
so, that brace 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 told them the things I knew they'd understand
from the standpoint of conventional Western medicine, and I left the
Allopathic medicine has saved my life more than once over the years.
However, as most of you know, 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
Speaking of which, I want to mention one invaluable form of healing
work, without which 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
in a million ways since then. Many times I have said that neurodevelopmental
repatterning work is the single most important work I have done on myself
in more than 30 years. I still feel the same way.
Other than my partner, John, very few people knew how much physical
and mental functioning I lost after that near-fatal accidentor
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, or 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, not only because it took so long
to get dressed while wearing a full-torso spinal brace, but also because
I'd get distracted by one thing after another until it was 3 in the
This was rather amusing, but it wasn't something I wanted to go on
forever. There were other things I wanted to do in life, and most of
them depended on my remembering to get fully dressed before leaving
The ramifications of my head injury, on top of the spinal fracture,
meant that I had to relearn how to stand, sit, walk, move, and navigate
the world in general. The first time I tried to take 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 that 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, and it 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 positionthis was an invaluable lesson
Being physically dependent on John and others forced me to walk
my talk about the beauty and importance of being willing to receive,
so others can have the opportunity to give, too.
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 and dying,
I must admit that it was still quite intense to come a hair's breadth
away from 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, especially 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 had 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.
Apparently, fire stations in Seattle can choose a mascot, and Station
#9's mascot is the famous Eveready Cat, with its nine lives. How's that
for a playful cosmic touch?
In addition to Seattle's awesome emergency response teams, I also salute
Harborview Medical Center, its awesome ER staff and Orthotics Trauma Unit,
and the University of Washington Physicians en masse. In addition, I am
forever indebted to my longtime personal physician and holistic medical
consultant, Dr. Steve
Hall, for his soul-level support and his compassionate medical expertise.
Although it may seem mundane, I must also express my gratitude to Washington
State's Basic Health Plan, and to Molina Healthcare in particular, for
covering 80% of my astronomical medical bills. It cost more than $9,000
just for my emergency room care on May 2nd, before I was hospitalized
for the week. I deeply appreciate the privilege of good health insurance
and skillful medical care, and 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,
who 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 that even though we've been together since 1987,
I was still scared he might leave me if I did not recover.
To my amazement then and now, John held me close and said that he considered
the situation to be a "bonding experience" and he wasn't going
anywhere. I honestly believe that John's love and his belief in
me was one of the most important factorsif not the most
important factorin the grace that brought me back from the brink
This article was originally published in
For more information about neurodevelopmental
repatterning work, please contact Canelle Demange, who is available for consultation support in person or by phone, e-mail, or Skype.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a personal and professional consultant,
shamanic practitioner, and nonsectarian
minister. She is the author of Dr.
Cat's Helping Handbook (available at bookstores or Amazon.com).
Click here to contact Cat or learn more about
her work by returning to the home page. To schedule
in-person or telephone consultations,
please call Cat's 24-hour confidential voice mail at (206) 329-0125.