In a Flash is the true story of an event that changed—and nearly took—my life in 1988. It took me nearly ten years to be able to write and tell my story, I was so traumatized. But now, it is part of who I am, my identity. It is why I am the writer I am to this day. Here is my story:
There was nothing extraordinary about the day I died. The sky was overcast and smelled like rain, signaling an approaching summer storm. Just our luck, I thought gloomily, as my then-husband Bob and I shepherded my four-year-old son Steven out the door of our suburban Chicago apartment. We were heading to the store to buy supplies for a noontime picnic, but a storm would kill that idea.
The rain began to fall lightly as Bob and I walked from the apartment to our car. Opening our umbrellas, we picked up the pace and dashed toward the far end of the parking lot. Steven was unfazed by the drizzle, and ambled lazily behind us, kicking a rock.
We almost made it. As Bob reached for his keys, a streak of lightning ripped through the thick, humid air. Instead of striking the highest point in its path (which is what we are taught lightning will do), it snaked past two tall light posts and two-story apartment buildings to the best electrical conductor it could find: the metal-spoked umbrella in my hand.
Forty thousand amps of raw electrical power tore through my body and into Bob, who was still holding my hand. The force of the lightning was so great that we were literally catapulted out of our shoes and tossed twenty feet through the air like rag dolls. Hit by the wall of intense heat created by the blast, Steven tumbled over backward. Bob’s plastic key ring melted into his hand. I ended up face-down in a pool of blood, my pierced earrings blasted out of my earlobes like miniature missiles, my gold and opal necklace vaporized into my chest skin. To all outward appearances, we were dead.
At least, I am told this is what happened. Lightning wipes out your short term memory, so I have no recollection of any of this. It happened on a Tuesday, at 10:21 at a.m. My last conscious memory is of the previous Friday, when I was putting up a wallpaper border in my kitchen.
The paramedics, summoned by quick-thinking witnesses, arrived within minutes and resuscitated both me and my husband. We were then airlifted to a nearby medical center, where the emergency room team stabilized Bob and confirmed that Steven wasn’t seriously hurt.
My condition, however, was “extremely critical,” to use the term the news media reported. Severe burns covered my chest, arms, hands, and feet. My right femoral artery collapsed, cutting off the blood supply to my leg. But my heart was the biggest concern. Swollen to nearly three times its normal size, it was pumping blood at only 10 percent of its normal rate.
As a steady drip of morphine flowed into my veins, blanketing me in a pain-free fog, I drifted in and out of consciousness. When I fully regained my senses on Friday morning—a full three days after the lightning—I had no recollection of what had happened. All I could think was that I had fallen off the ladder in my kitchen when I was putting up that wallpaper border.
“You were struck by lightning,” the doctors said. “Your heart was severely damaged. We’re evaluating you for a heart transplant.”
Lightning? A heart transplant? I was shocked, confused … but I wasn’t afraid. Roger Rabbit told me there was no need to be scared.
Roger Rabbit? Yes. Roger Rabbit. The cartoon character Roger Rabbit. The one with the funny lisp and the gorgeous human wife, Jessica.
Let me explain! Remember that morphine drip I was on? Morphine is a powerful narcotic, and narcotic pain relievers are notorious for causing hallucinations, especially in high doses. So it really isn’t too surprising that, upon awakening, I saw a cartoon rabbit hopping around my room, telling me not to listen to the doctors. “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “You’re going to be just fine.”
The rabbit was right about my not needing a heart transplant, thank heavens. But I was to require more surgery a few days later. It was ten days after being injured, and I had been removed from the ventilator and was being weaned from the morphine drip. I was brought the first solid (albeit soft) food I’d had since being injured.
I couldn’t chew it. My jaw hurt too much. “It’s just from being on the ventilator,” the nurse said. “Keep trying.”
But the pain was excruciating. I could not eat; it hurt to talk. Finally, I convinced the nurse something truly was wrong. An x-ray machine was quickly rolled into my room, and several x-rays were taken.
When the lighting hit me, I was thrown approximately twenty feet through the air, landing on my chin. The force of that landing had shattered my jaw into little pieces—an injury they had not discovered up until then because they were so busy trying to keep my heart going. I, in turn, had not felt any pain from the break because of the river of morphine running through my body. Someone could have dropped a house on me and I wouldn’t have felt it, I was so drugged. But I was being weaned from the morphine at this point, and was beginning to feel, and what I felt was pain.
Fractures have to be set quickly or they don’t heal right. My jaw had been fractured very badly, and the doctors felt they could not wait another minute to try to repair the damage. At ten o’clock that evening, I was rolled back into the operating room for more surgery.
Ten days had given the fractured bones plenty of time to start healing themselves, but because they were out of place, they were healing willy-nilly. I never would have been able to open and close my mouth normally with the bones like that. The surgeons were forced to break them once again, then piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle. It wasn’t an easy repair.
I also learned I was going to have to have yet another surgery. Several days after my jaw surgery, I attempted to use the telephone in my intensive care room for the first time. I quickly decided the phone was broken, because when I picked up the receiver and held it to my ear, there was no dial tone. Then for some reason, I picked up the phone and held it to my left ear instead of my right, which was the ear I usually listen with. Surprise! A dial tone in the left ear! I moved the phone to my right ear. Silence. I called the nurse.
The on-call doctor was called, and he quickly determined that my right eardrum was gone. Not simply broken or torn, but gone completely. I was totally deaf on the right side. I would have to undergo surgery to have a new eardrum implanted. That surgery would wait, however, until I was stronger.
Two weeks after being struck by lightning, I was discharged from the hospital. I was still terribly sick, but my sister is a doctor, and my mother a registered nurse, and they were both going to be staying with me, caring for me. With my own private medical team in place, the doctors agreed home might be a better place for me to continue healing.
I was so weak I could barely walk three steps without collapsing. I couldn’t eat solid food because my shattered jaw was wired shut. I couldn’t bathe myself, feed myself, or care for my child.
And I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. Horrible burn scars covered my chest and arms. My hands were one solid scab. My head had been shaved in one place where a shunt had drained fluid that had built up on my brain. A twelve-inch scar that was nearly half an inch wide snaked down my right calf; the surgeons had sliced me down to the bone to relieve the incredible muscle spasm the lightning had induced in the leg. Had they not done so, the muscle could have exploded. Another angry red scar went from breast bone to pubic bone; I’d been cut open to stop internal bleeding. Yet a third scar in my groin was evidence of the femoral arterial graft I’d had to restore blood flow to my leg. Weeks earlier a normal 33-year-old woman smiled back at me from the mirror. Now, a wizened, withered old woman with glassy eyes stared back. I did not recognize this woman.
There were some light moments, despite the pain. My husband and I had a pair of cockatiels, and the hen had gone to nest shortly before we were struck by lightning. When we came home, we had two tiny cockatiel chicks to care for and nurture. We promptly named them Thunderbolt and Lightning. Cradling the helpless little chicks made me realize anew how fragile life is, but how even the most fragile of creatures is born with a ferocious will to live. I saw myself, my own will to live, in those chicks.
Then there was the moose milkshake, a culinary creation I am probably the only person on the planet to have experienced. Here’s the story:
When my sister Bonnie flew out to care for me before my hospital release, she packed a moose roast in her backpack as a treat for us. (Bonnie’s husband was an avid hunter; her freezer, apparently, was full of moose roasts.) This, of course, was pre-9/11; I can only imagine what airport security would think nowadays if someone tried to carry a frozen moose roast through a security checkpoint!
Bonnie hadn’t thought the moose roast idea through, though. My jaw was wired shut; I couldn’t eat anything that wasn’t liquid, and fairly thin liquid at that. But she was undeterred. The moose went into my crockpot, along with some carrots, potatoes, and onions, and was roasted until it was so tender if fell apart. She then scooped up a healthy portion of the moose and vegetables, threw them in a blender, and whirled them for a few minutes with a little cream to smooth it all out. Presto! Moose milkshake! It was surprisingly good.
Less than a week after my homecoming, my sister and I were playing a game of Scrabble when I suddenly doubled over in pain. A crushing pain gripped my chest, squeezing the life out of me. Nausea ripped my body. Bonnie grabbed the wire cutter that the hospital had sent home with me and quickly cut the wires clamping my shattered jaw shut. I vomited seconds later; had she not realized what was happening and cut the wires, I would have drowned on my own sickness.
The paramedics arrived within minutes and rushed me back to the hospital. While I had not had a heart attack, I did have a “cardiac event.” My heart was still swollen and not beating properly. I spent another week in the hospital, having my jaw rewired and my medications adjusted, before being allowed to once again try going home.
My sister had to return to her home in the Pacific Northwest, but two months after my accident, she flew me out to spend some time with her. My jaw was finally healed, but I was still very weak; I could walk only a few hundred feet by myself. Bonnie greeted me at the gate with a wheelchair. I was exhausted after my long flight from Chicago.
We spent a few days at her home in Pullman, Washington, before deciding to take a road trip to a lovely little alpine tourist town in the Cascade mountains. We ate sauerbraten at a German café and shopped for troll dolls, which we both collected, a holdover passion from our childhoods. But something wasn’t right. My chest felt like it was on fire.
We headed back to her home in Pullman, four or five hours away, but I got sicker and sicker. Worried about my heart, Bonnie made the decision to stop in the city of Wenatchee, where there was a little hospital, to get me checked out.
Good thing, too. I was suffering from pericarditis, an inflammation of the protective sac (the pericardium) that surrounds the heart. I was in agony, gasping for air that did not satisfy my craving for oxygen, feeling like a giant, slimy hand was squeezing my heart, preventing it from beating. The doctors put a chest tube in to drain the fluid and flooded my body with large doses of steroids to control the inflammation. Five days later, Bonnie was finally able to take me back to her home. It was another ten days before I was well enough to fly home.
That was the first of more than twenty bouts of pericarditis I suffered. As long as I stayed on a high dose of prednisone, I did fine. But prednisone is a steroid; you can’t take this drug on a daily basis for extended periods of time. It can lead to serious long-term side effects, such as osteoporosis (which I have, indeed, developed). Every time they lowered my dose below 10 milligrams per day, I immediately was gripped by the pericarditis and landed back in the hospital.
Sometimes, the pericarditis hit even when I was on the higher dose of steroids. We quickly learned that stress would trigger attacks. It didn’t matter if it was good stress or bad stress. Stress is stress as far as the human body is concerned. My mother-in-law died (bad stress); I got pericarditis. The holidays came (good stress), I got pericarditis. Even something as minor as getting excited about tickets to the opera could land me in the hospital. The paramedics and I were on a first-name basis. They never asked questions anymore when called to my house. They knew what my problem was, and what they had to do: get me to the hospital as quickly as possible, before enough fluid built up in my pericardium to stop my heart. Time was always a life-or-death matter.
My heart wasn’t the only thing giving me trouble. Lightning travels through the moist passageways of the body—the circulatory and neurological systems. The heat is so intense it can literally melt soft body parts. My eardrum had melted, and now I was learning so, too, had most of the cartilage in my knees. The pain was excruciating, and kept me from being able to walk any distance at all.
Six months after the lightning, the longest period of time I had gone without being hospitalized was three weeks. Yet despite the pain and frequent hospitalizations, I remained philosophical. The hundreds of letters of support and get well cards I received from total strangers (our story was heavily covered by the Chicago media) was a help. I didn’t even let the creeps get me down. One person actually sent me a letter saying I must have done something very, very evil for God to have struck me down like he did, and that I better repent immediately or it would happen again! But I didn’t let it get to me. I never felt like God was out to get me. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a freak accident, not judgment from on high.
I remained convinced there was a reason I had survived. Steven was a very little boy, of course, and he needed his mother, but deep inside I felt there was something else in store for me. I didn’t have to wait long to discover what it was. As I was sipping my morning coffee one morning in late January, six months after the lightning, I suddenly became terribly nauseated. My first fear was the pericarditis was flaring up again, but then I realized my chest didn’t hurt. This was different, It was the coffee that was making me sick. Why is my coffee making me sick? I wondered.
For someone who was spending nearly one full week of every month in the hospital with a life-threatening condition, small pleasures suddenly didn’t seem so small. Coffee was my small pleasure. I loved the taste, the smell, the way its silky warmth coated my throat as I took my first morning sip. To have that first sip make my stomach churn did not make me happy.
That is, until I remembered the last time I reacted to coffee in this manner was when I was pregnant with my son.
I paced the floor of my apartment. How could I be pregnant? My husband and I had been married only eleven months when the lightning struck, but I hadn’t been able to conceive a child in that time. My insides were so burned, so torn up, by the lightning my doctors told me my chances of conceiving now were slim to none.
Then there was the matter of when I could have conceived. Needless to say, as sick as I was, my sex life was not exactly conducive to baby making.
But it was possible. Remotely so, but possible. I grabbed my purse and headed for the drugstore for a home pregnancy test.
The stick turned blue. I stared at it for ten minutes, then went back to the store for another test.
The stick turned blue.
I was still unconvinced. I picked up the phone and called the pharmacist and explained who I was. He knew me not only from the dozens of prescriptions he’d filled for me, but also from the news stories, which continued to air every few weeks on the Chicago news. “The stick says you’re pregnant, you’re pregnant,” he said. “You’re more likely to get a false negative than a false positive.”
Still, I wanted to be sure. I took the pregnancy test kit box out of the trash, found an 800 number on the box, and called the company. “You’re pregnant,” the drug company customer service rep said.
It finally hit me. I was pregnant.
Happy as I was, I was also terrified. How was I going to carry a child to term in my battered, broken, sick body? My heart was still not functioning properly, beating erratically and irregularly. The pericarditis continued to plague me any time my prednisone level went below 10 mg daily or stress entered my life. Pregnancy was nothing if not stressful, and a high-risk pregnancy like mine? Stressful didn’t begin to describe it.
I called my cardiologist, and twenty-four hours later was sitting in his exam room. To his credit, he never suggested I end my pregnancy. Rather, he was calm and reassuring. “We’ll get you and your baby through this,” he said. “But the first thing we have to do is get you off these steroids.”
Over the next few weeks, the doctor tried weaning me off the drugs. But my body was not having any of it: every time I went below 10 mg, I ended up back in the hospital. They would have to flood me with huge doses of the steroids and shoot me full of Demerol and morphine to control the pain. I was terrified, not just for me, but for my child. These drugs weren’t vitamin pills. What were they doing to my child’s tiny body?
I was assigned a new, high-risk obstetrician. This young doctor saved my life and my sanity. “Prednisone doesn’t cross the placenta,” he assured me. “And the pain killers won’t harm your baby, either.” He went to have a talk with my cardiologist.
My cardiologist, however, was unmoved by the obstetrician’s arguments. He continued to try to get me off the steroids, When I was four-and-a-half months pregnant and in the hospital with pericarditis for the sixth time since discovering I was pregnant, I fired him. Being so sick had to be worse for my child than being on the drugs. My obstetrician agreed, and offered to help me find a cardiologist who was more sympathetic to my situation.
I awakened in my hospital room the next morning to the cheerful and booming voice of my new cardiologist, who introduced himself with a cheery, “You can just call me Mark.” He’d talked with my obstetrician and agreed that the prednisone was much less harmful to my growing baby than the constant pericarditis. He put me back on the 10 mg of prednisone.
That wasn’t the end of the problem. I still had stress-induced flare-ups for the remainder of my pregnancy, but they weren’t quite as frequent as when I was being weaned off the drugs—at least, not until my seventh month. By then, the baby had gotten so big she was putting pressure on my damaged heart, and this was not only making the pericarditis flare up, but also making my heart beat even more erratically than it already was.
The decision was made to induce labor at my eight-month date, as soon as the baby was big enough to thrive in the outside world. We set an induction date: my father’s birthday.
My daughter was born three weeks later, a full week before the date we’d set to induce labor. She was small—only five pounds—but beautiful, with a lusty cry and ferocious appetite. Best of all, she was healthy. The drugs had not harmed her at all. If I could have seen into the future, I would have known she would come into the world on her own terms, on her own time schedule, not that set by the doctor.
I had survived 40,000 volts directly to my neck. I had survived a high-risk pregnancy and delivered a beautiful baby girl.
But now what? The pericarditis continued to hospitalize me on at least a monthly basis. My knees grew worse without their protective cartilage layer keeping the bones from grinding against one another. And another problem had begun to rear its ugly head: I was having seizures.
Lightning: the gift that keeps on giving, I thought wearily. Was there going to be no end to the pain, the hospitalizations, the doctors? Would I even be alive to see my daughter’s first birthday? Her tenth?
Mother’s Day week-end, when Robin was just nine months old, my health reached a crisis point. The higher doses of intravenous prednisone I got in the hospital usually had the pericarditis under control in three or four days. A few more days in the hospital on oral prednisone would get me healthy enough to go home. But this time, two weeks into the hospitalization, my sed rate—the blood test they ran to determine inflammation levels in my body—was still sky-high. The prednisone was no longer working.
Doctor You-Can-Call-Me-Mark came into my room. “It’s time we took some more drastic measures,” he said. “You need heart surgery, and you need it soon.”
But having your pericardium removed isn’t exactly like having your appendix or your gall bladder taken out. It’s delicate surgery, and Doctor Mark thought it best I have it done at a hospital where it was done on a somewhat regular basis, not in my suburban Chicago hospital where none of the cardiac surgeons had ever performed the procedure. We decided I should go to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for the operation. I would go in September, the earliest date they could accommodate me.
I spent nearly the entire summer of 1991 in the hospital, waiting to go to Minnesota for my surgery. I was in a constant morphine-fog, because whenever the painkillers wore off, I felt that slimy hand gripping my heart, trying to squeeze the life out of me.
The worst part of being hospitalized so long was not being able to spend time with my children. Steven was still only a little boy, and Robin was just a baby. They came to see me in the evenings, but I ached for my children.
I got to go home briefly around the time of my baby girl’s first birthday. We spent one day taking a picnic on a lake near my parents’ Central Illinois home. I watched as Robin gripped her granddaddy’s hands and took tiny tippy-toe steps through the grass, giggling and looking very proud of herself. I wondered if she would remember me when she was older, for I was sure my days on this green earth were rapidly running out.
A week later, my parents drove me to Rochester, Minnesota, and the Mayo Clinic. My husband stayed home with the kids. Saying goodbye to them was almost enough to kill me right then and there, because I didn’t think I’d be coming home again. I kissed my son and told him to be a good boy, and hugged my precious baby girl and whispered, “Remember me,” in her little ear before climbing into the car and heading north.
Mayo Clinic may have a stellar reputation as a medical center, but they are a patient factory. Take a number, get in line. Next! Take another number, follow the red line to the lab, follow the purple line to X-ray, follow the blue line to ECG … the patients looked like robots shuffling through the halls, IV poles and wheelchairs and walkers clattering like the metallic beat of a marching band drum. After a week of outpatient testing, the doctors confirmed what my cardiologist had told them all along: my pericardium needed to be removed. Well, no kidding, I thought.
The pericardium is a thin membrane that surrounds the heart. Think of your heart as being a sandwich, and the pericardium is the sandwich bag that protects it from the other stuff in your lunch bag. The pericardium protects the heart from viruses and bacteria that may infect other internal organs. That makes it a pretty important little piece of anatomy.
Important, but not essential. It is possible to live without a pericardium. The problem is, it is tricky to remove, and because it leaves the heart vulnerable to infection, doctors are reticent to remove it. In 1991, only the Cleveland Clinic and May Clinic had surgeons who did this tricky, delicate surgery on anything resembling a normal basis.
But I had a good surgeon who had done hundreds of pericardiectomies, or pericardial strippings. I was in good hands. They admitted me as an inpatient, and twelve hours later, I was under the knife, having my pericardium stripped.
Recovery was lonely. My parents had returned to Illinois before I was admitted; my husband had to stay home to work and care for the kids. But recover I did, and ten days after my surgery, I was back in Illinois. My daughter looked at me blankly. Has she already forgotten me? Then, her eyes turned to green moons and the sweetest little smile covered her face. She reached out her little arms for me. I couldn’t hold her like that—I wasn’t able to lift anything more than five pounds—so I hastily sat on the couch, and my husband set my baby in my lap. She leaned her head against my shoulder and let out a little mewling sigh. I burst into tears.
My heart was now able to mend. Oh, I got pericarditis a few more times—when they strip the pericardium, one small part cannot be removed, the part that is attached to the bottom of the heart and the diaphragm, and it got inflamed two or three times over the next few years. But I was only in the hospital a few days each time.
But of course, that wasn’t the end of my woes. I was still having mild seizures. Not the fall-on-the-floor type of seizure; rather, I would suddenly just blank out for a few minutes. I always smelled burning marshmallows before that happened, so I learned to put the baby down in her playpen or crib and sit down myself before I’d lose touch with reality. The seizures lasted another two years.
In hindsight, I almost wish they hadn’t gone away. The seizures, while annoying, weren’t painful, and didn’t seem to do me any harm. But when they went away, I was left with a disabling condition called atypical peripheral neuropathy in my arms. To over simplify it, my arms, particularly my left arm, almost always feel like lightning is still coursing through them. It is incredibly painful, always feeling like I’m being shocked. Some days I can barely function. Other days, particularly if it is a bright, sunny, warm day, the pain is manageable.
When Robin was three, I spent the summer in a pain clinic at the Marianjoy Rehabilitation Center in suburban Chicago. A pain clinic doesn’t cure your pain. Rather, they find the best combination of medications to keep the pain at a bearable level and, most important, teach you to live with the pain. The basic philosophy at Marianjoy is, you are going to hurt if you stay in bed and moan and groan all day, and you are going to hurt if you get out of bed and go about living as normal a life as possible. It was difficult to do, but I opted for the latter option.
I dreamed I was hiking up a mountain. Near the top, I stumbled across the cave home of a beautiful black she-bear. The bear spoke to me words of incredible beauty and wisdom.
Alas, upon awakening the words she spoke were lost to me. I remembered every detail about the dream except what the bear was trying to tell me.
As the years unfolded, I had that dream again and again. Recurring dreams are not that uncommon a phenomenon, but for me, any dream at all was uncommon. As often happens to people who have been struck by lightning, I experience terrible insomnia, rarely falling into the REM sleep necessary for dreaming. But still the bear came to me in my sleep, patiently repeating her message to me. And still I awakened unable to remember that message.
Then one summer, I spent a week at a women’s artist retreat, where I met a remarkable energy healer. Deaf since she was a child, the woman’s inability to hear had keened her psychic abilities, and she had a remarkable ability to read human energy fields. When we first met, she immediately saw my intense physical pain and offered to do energy work to help me heal.
She came to my cabin that afternoon, and soon I was relaxed and centered under her capable hands. She worked in silence at first. Then, she told me to take the excess energy that was causing my pain and push it down to my feet.
I could feel the energy, and tried to do as I was told, but try as I might, it kept getting stuck at heart level. Finally, I managed to push the energy to my feet.
“Good!” the healer said. (How did she know I’d done it? I wondered.) “Now, take that energy and take it outside somewhere. Put it in a hole in the ground, in a tree, or throw it in a pond. But give it back to Mother Earth.”
Immediately, I felt myself thrown through this enormous void, lightning flashing all around me, and found myself standing in the cave of my dreams! Emerging from the darkness at the back of the cave was the bear.
“You can shape it, but not lose it, for it is your power,” she said.
I stood there, numb. What was happening to me?
Even though I hadn’t spoken the words aloud, the bear heard. “You can shape it, but not lose it, for it is your power,” she said patiently.
“Shape what?” This time, I found my voice.
She repeated the mantra. “You can shape it, but not lose it, for it is your power.” With that, she turned and disappeared into the bowels of the cave. I found myself lying on my cot in my cabin once again.
The healer was gone. Two-and-a-half hours had passed.
Quickly, I grabbed my journal and scribbled the words the bear had spoken. At last, I had them! I didn’t know yet what they meant, but I knew what they were.
Writing the words wasn’t enough. I had to make a visual image of the bear. I grabbed some handmade paper I’d brought on the retreat, some oil pastels, and quickly drew not only the bear, but the yellow-orange lightning bolts I had passed through when I was “thrown” from my cot into the cave.
That symbol has become my personal shield. I have painted it, sculpted it from clay, molded it into a papier mache bowl; I had it tattooed on my left forearm. It gives me power.
For years, I believed my pain was holding me back, preventing me from having a full life. Now I know the pain will never go away, but that I have the power to use it rather than let it control me. I can shape it, but I can’t lose it. It is my power. My gift of artistic inspiration from the bear.
It was now eight years since the lightning strike. My heart had pretty much healed; it now beat normally, and the pericarditis was a thing of the past. I still got chest pain from adhesions (scar tissue) tugging at my lungs, heart, and diaphragm, but it was manageable. The seizures were gone. The neuropathy ran from manageable on beautiful, sunny days with high atmospheric pressure to so painful I wanted to amputate my arm on chilly, raw, rainy days. Somehow, I coped.
But the knees were a problem, especially the left one. Five arthroscopic surgeries to scrape away bone spurs and charred bits of cartilage kept me moving as well as possible, but the damage was so great a left knee replacement was ultimately my only option.
Doctors don’t like to do knee replacements on young people. For one thing, they aren’t a permanent fix: even the best of knee replacements will give out in twenty years or so. Replace a knee on a sixty-something, no problem. The patient will probably wear out before the knee replacement. But do it on a woman who is only forty-one years old and chances are, you’ll need to do it again.
But by the time I reached that age, we couldn’t wait any longer to have the left knee replaced. I was fortunate to have a top-notch orthopedic surgeon—the doctor to the University of Illinois football team, as a matter of fact, so the man was no stranger to knee injuries. He assured me he’d have me up and walking, if not exactly running, in no time flat.
The surgery ended up being worse than having my pericardium stripped. I had what the doctor referred to as a “bad outcome.” Even after months of excruciating physical therapy, the knee was stiff; I couldn’t bend it half the distance it should have bent. I resigned myself to living a stiff leg and walking with a cane and a limp. My doctor told me to return to normal activity as far as I was able.
Within a few years, despite the stiffness, I was hiking again, albeit not at my old pace. It was hard work, climbing my beloved Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, but the exhilaration I would feel when I finally reached the top was always worth the pain of getting there. My hiking partner was almost always my sister Bonnie—the doctor sister who had spent so much time caring for me right after the lightning. Bonnie is a speed hiker, but she always slowed down to my pace and monitored my progress, making me stop and rest when I got too tired, making sure I drank plenty of water and ate peanut butter sandwiches to maintain my strength on the trails.
And, I found the more I hiked, the less stiff my knee became. My doctor had told me that, one year out from the surgery, that was as good as it was going to be. He was wrong—or else, he underestimated my determination to heal.
“Return to normal activity” means different things to different people. When my doctor gave me that direction, he apparently didn’t understand that for me, hiking in the mountains was, at one time, normal activity. He didn’t warn me that it was okay to hike up the mountain—but hiking down was another story.
Seven years after the knee replacement, Bonnie and I were hiking down from our favorite spot in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a magnificent ninety-foot waterfall called Ramsay Cascades. It’s a steep four miles up, four miles down. We were halfway down when I heard a sickening ping. My knee had gone out.
Bonnie helped me down the trail. I was in agony, but after so many years of dealing with pain, I was able to remain stoic. Back at camp she iced the knee, gave me some pain killers and a stiff shot of whiskey, and I crawled into the tent to sleep off the pain. The next day, we headed for home.
The news wasn’t good when I saw my doctor. I had, indeed, loosened the knee replacement. I would have to undergo another surgery, having my second knee replacement on the same knee in seven years.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, If the first knee replacement had a “bad outcome,” the second one worked beautifully. After months of intense physical therapy, my new knee works almost as well as a healthy knee. I could kneel down, I could squat, albeit gingerly. Best of all, I could hike again.
Which is a good thing, because in 2008, my daughter and I packed up and moved to Southern California. Her father and I had divorced a few years earlier, and now we were headed for a new life in a sunnier, warmer climate. I hoped this would help me cope better with my neuropathy, which was exacerbated by the cold, wet Midwestern winters.
Once in California, I started dating for the first time since my divorce. It wasn’t long before I met Scott, who turned out to be the true love of my life. One of the things I loved best about him: his sense of adventure and love of the outdoors. Soon we were hiking, camping, and exploring the mountains and deserts of Southern California together, researching stories for my book, Observations of an Earth Mage. Each trip a new adventure—and a new challenge for my right knee.
I still wasn’t supposed to hike down the mountain, of course. But you can’t hike up and simply stay there. You have to come back down. I continued to walk both ways. And true to form, I destroyed what was left of the cartilage in my knee. In December 2010, I had my right knee replaced. It’s been a long, painful recovery, but as I write this, my strength is coming back.
The years of taking steroids for my heart problem didn’t leave me unaffected. It weakened my immune system, so I catch viruses much more easily than most people, and am more prone to secondary bacterial infections. I’m one of those people who gets her flu shots every year because flu could kill me. The steroids also sucked a lot of calcium from my bones, and I have some pretty bad osteoporosis in my back and hips. Hairline cracks in my lower vertebra make my back hurt constantly, but the same techniques I learned at the pain clinic for managing the neuropathy help with the back pain, too.
So—there you have it. What happened to one woman when 40,000 volts of electricity tore through her body, leaving her for dead. It’s been more than twenty years, and despite having undergone more than a dozen surgeries and living with chronic pain from the neuropathy, I still don’t feel like I was dealt a bum deal in life. In fact, some wonderful things have happened as a result of being hurt.
If I hadn’t been struck by lightning, I would not be a writer, despite this being my lifelong dream. I was in graduate school studying clinical social work when I was injured, and I would have continued on that path. I would have been miserable as a social worker.
If I hadn’t been struck by lightning, I might not have had my daughter. I might have gotten pregnant sooner, or later, and it would have been a different child, not my fiery, temperamental, creative daughter.
If I hadn’t been struck by lightning, I might not look at the world as I do. Coming so close to losing my life not just on that fateful day, but on so many days when I was so sick, truly has made me appreciate the small things more and not sweat the big stuff so much. It is hard to get worked up about an unexpected bill or an insensitive comment from an acquaintance when you’ve battled demons as large as those that sat on my back for so many years.
Stress is still an enemy. I got terribly ill shortly after moving to California and spent eight days in the hospital, undergoing two more surgeries, on my liver and on my gallbladder. In 2010 I had my right knee replaced; in 2014, my right shoulder underwent reconstruction. And my neuropathy is still much worse than it should be considering the weather is usually so pleasant in Southern California. But that’s just how things are.
I view not only my life as a miracle, but every living creature as a miracle, too. I know how easily life can be snuffed out, and that it doesn’t matter if you are a human or a grasshopper or a sea anemone. Life is precious. Life is sacred.
And life is always, always, to be lived to the fullest.