For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11
I believe this because my physical life was spared nearly 22 years ago. As a young person, newly committed to living my life for Jesus, this verse rang very true for me. I knew, even at the tender age of 10, that God must have a plan for me if he chose to let me beat the odds. And as if you needed a *spoiler alert*…He has been faithful to prosper me, protect me and has blessed my future days. This is the story of my near death experience almost 22 years ago…
March 5, 1989 was an ordinary Sunday at the Sabel house. Mom, Erik and I were getting ready to go to church, while dad was getting ready to make his weekly grocery shopping trip. I was 10 years old, Erik was 14. Mom was faithful to take us to church week after week and dad, while not a church goer at the time, was supportive enough of our going that it never seemed out of place in our family.
If you’re from the Midwest, or have ever been there in the winter, you know that starting in November, there is likely to be some sort of precipitation clear through March or April. Be it snow, sleet, slush, ice, rain, whatever…it’s likely to be on the ground for the long haul. This March 5, as I’m told, there was a dusting of snow on the grass and a dangerous thing we refer to as “BLACK ICE” on the hard surfaces. One of my only memories from that morning is my brother helping my mom down the slippery 2 steps outside our front door, in a gentlemen kind of way. The remainder of that day and the weeks that followed remain pictures that have been painted in my mind by those who were witnesses to them. God protected my mind by resting it as only He can.
I played in the youth bell choir at our church and we were going to play that morning. We were to arrive a bit earlier than usual to set up. As some are known to be consistently late, we were known for being perpetually on time or early, so when we didn’t arrive at church on schedule, people began to worry. And they were right to do just that. The county road that we lived on was lined with corn fields that make any hard surface in between especially hazardous during the winter. This was not news to us. My mom took great care and caution on the roads and took every chance she could to be preparing us for our driving days. My brother especially couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel. But it didn’t matter than morning. Our full size, blue and silver striped van hit black ice at the slow speed of 15-20 mph and became a machine driving itself. There was no way that the vehicle could be controlled with nothing by ice beneath the wheels. It reached it’s final destination when it collided with a wooden telephone pole on the side of the road.
The law of physics is a funny thing in that the force with which the van finally hit the telephone pole, was much greater than if we had simply hit it at 20 mph. During the mere seconds that our van acted on the whims of physics and nature, my mom’s head managed to hit the side window, shattering it. The impact left her ankle broken and body bruised. My brother suffered a sprained back and a concussion coming to in time to begin walking home on that cold March morning to call an ambulance. 911 did not exist yet, let alone cell phones.
And there I laid, on the floor behind the front seats with my head lodged under the driver’s seat. I had been thrown from my seat during the impact. It is worth noting that I am an obvious proponent of seat belts. My mom was/is too, having been head nurse of ICU for years. It is our best guess that the fabric of my bulky winter coat had prevented the buckle from latching together completely. As I laid there, I was bleeding from my mouth, my nose and my ears. This is the result of a severe head trauma. One of the other things that happens when the brain is injured, is that it induces the vomit response. So, not only was I bleeding, I was also throwing up…all while I was completely unconscious. I lost consciousness the moment my brain suffered trauma. Thank you Jesus. I am certain that the amount of physical pain that I would have endured, would have been more than my body could handle and so God protected me.
The first, most notable hero of this traumatic event is my mom. Shattered ankle and all, she ran from around the driver’s side door to the side of impact where the passenger door was jammed open. She had already seen the pooling blood and knew that she had to escape panic mode and enter the mode that she knew so well from dealing with emergencies in the hospital. This hero, my mom, called on her training and knew that to prevent my airway from obstructing completely and to prevent me from drowning in my own blood and vomit, she had to perform an action called a “jaw thrust”. If you place your thumbs on either side of your jaw bones with your fingers resting in front of your ears and apply pressure with your thumbs, you will know what a jaw thrust is and if you sense what is happening in your throat when you apply pressure, you will know why that action essentially saved my life.
As my brother was making his way back to our house, less than a mile down the road, someone we knew was passing by and picked him up to go the rest of the way. In hind sight, these details are so important in context of my life just minutes from slipping away. Being that we lived on the edge of the county probably made it feel like advanced help took an eternity to arrive. I imagine that would be the case in any emergency, no matter how close help was. When the ambulance did arrive, my mom continued to find herself caught somewhere between Head Nurse of an ICU emergency and Mama Bear modes. She began barking out orders to those who were taking over. She knew which doctors she wanted to operate on me, to care for me and demanded that they be there when we arrived. Suffice it to say, so I’m told, that they heard her!
When we arrived at the ER, a team of doctors and nurses were there to “greet” us. After a careful, but quick assessment of my plight, it was determined that I needed an emergency craniotomy (brain surgery) to remove the clot that begun to form in the tiny, delicate space between my brain and skull, called the subdural space. The metal workings from beneath the driver’s seat of the van had caused 4 individual fractures of my skull. The blood clot that was forming beneath it was only minutes from taking my life. It had to be removed.
Before I was taken to the OR, the team of heroic doctors and nurses joined hands around me and prayed over me. During the time it took to perform this life saving surgery, our faithful church family would file in one by one to stand vigil in the waiting room, figuratively and literally holding my parents and my brother up. Now, as a parent, I cannot imagine the agony that it must have been for my family.
After the surgery, I was taken to a room in the pediatric wing of the hospital that was connected to the nurses station and had glass windows instead of a privacy wall. I was too critical to not be observed at all times. The Neuro Surgeon was in close contact with my parents and as a good doctor does, gave them two perspectives. One, the text book, expected path of recovery. Two, the unexpected, unknown path that is possible at any time because the human body is so intricate and unique. The expected path was what was hoped for both because it was predicable and the outcome was positive. Thank God, my recovery generally followed that course.
The coma that I was in was both natural and induced. My body’s response to the trauma was to naturally go into preservation mode and rest. But, medically speaking, it was necessary to make sure that there was no added stress to my already traumatized brain, and so I was under a partially medically induced coma as well. As predicted, I began to “wake up” after 7 days. I was not the same. But, thankfully, this was not a surprise to my loved ones. It is a blessing that today, we can laugh about the way I acted out just after this trauma. As my dad puts it, “I was swearing like a sailor.” Interestingly, this is common in head injuries. I was completely uninhibited with my words. I know for a fact that was I rude to visitors who only came to show their love and support. Can you imagine feeling grateful to see things like this playing out because it was part of the healing course? I’m sure my parents spent some awkward moments trying to explain to people that I was doing what they said I’d do.
Although I was “awake”, I still have very little memory of the time I was in the hospital. I have a memory of the most painful events after waking up. One of them was when they removed the staples from my head incision. The incision begins at the top center of my head and runs a straight line down the side of my head and ends just in front of my left ear. I don’t know for sure how many staples were used to close the incision, but I know it hurt when they took them out. I also remember feeling emotionally traumatized that all my hair was shaved off. I was 10 years old and had long hair. I was now resigned to wearing hats. A luxury that I was granted by my amazing elementary school in spite of the “no hats” rule. Incidentally, I wound up with quite a collection of hats.
I was discharged from the hospital only a couple days after waking up. Certainly, there was no question that my care at home would be exemplary. My memories after coming home are rather scattered and vague as well. I remember sitting with my grandma who had come to stay with us from Florida and working on strengthening my facial muscles. The entire left side of my body basically needed to relearn how to act. I had trouble controlling my left leg when I walked. Imagine taking a normal step with your right leg and then having to consciously throw your left leg out in front of you to take the next step. That’s what I had to do to teach my brain to control that leg again. I had to learn simple math facts and time basically from scratch. Unfortunately math didn’t start out being my strong subject anyway. What a drag! I repeatedly squeezed a stress ball in my left hand to strengthen those muscles. My writing on a page started out appropriately sized and gradually got smaller and smaller. I had to relearn basic writing skill too. My rehab was long and at times frustrating and difficult. But when the options were weighed, we could deal with the temporary frustration.
I was in the 4th grade at the time of the accident. By 5th grade, I had regained most of the skills that had been damaged. A few residual things continued to plague me, and to this day, if I’m very tired you can see my droopy smile and if I tear up at a movie or a story, I only have tears out of my right eye. Overall, my life has been a success story. When I made the decision to become a nurse (I had long wanted to be a neuro surgeon, no doubt greatly influenced my the man that allowed his hands to be the source of my miracle), I had the opportunity to work beside Dr. Creselius, who had been my surgeon. What a full circle moment for me.
Some years ago, one of the most dramatic memories returned to me. When I was visiting home, I was listening to my mom tell the story of our accident. She recalled that in the moment she knew that she was no longer in control our van sliding on the ice, she called out to God and said, “God, just let us live!” When I heard it in her voice, for the first time, that split second in a time that I have no memory of at all, came back to me. And to this day, I am praising him that He did just that…let us LIVE!