I almost died in high school. Twice.
Let me back up.
As a freshman in high school, I was a pretty normal kid. I played a lot of sports, and worried too much about my grades and what other people thought of me. I organized my days around which sport I was playing, so by winter of my first year of high school, my schedule looked like this:
1PM-3PM: Advanced Conditioning
3PM-5PM: Volleyball Practice
5:30PM-7:30PM: Travel Basketball Practice
8PM-10PM: Volleyball Personal Training
With slight variations for games and tournaments, this is what my schedule looked like every day. It doesn’t take long to figure out what my priorities were. I wanted to play sports. Everything else was secondary. (I also wanted to get perfect grades because I have a history of debilitating perfectionism so….)
So, on February 21, 2004, I was happy to have a night off to go snowmobiling with friends. I should mention this was my first time snowmobiling. I should also mention these were very fast snowmobiles. We’re from Michigan and we don’t mess around. Other things I should mention: it was very dark, we were on the river, and the brain’s risk assessment capability isn’t fully formed until you’re 25 years old.
So that’s how I found myself flying (literally, probably 8 feet off the ground) towards the woods going about 80 miles per hour. I’d love to tell you how I managed the magnificent feat of not decapitating myself, but I blacked out. The last thing I remember is flying towards the woods thinking, “I’m going to die.”
And then I woke up, or whatever it is you do when you’ve lost your memory. My snowmobile (Boyfriend’s snowmobile? Oops?) was about 15 feet away from me, and I was on my back, and I had no idea where my helmet was. (They found it a week later, very far away. It had grass stains. I do not know how I managed that, either.)
My back hurt. I thought, “I should check if I’m paralyzed.” So I wiggled my hands and they moved and I thought, “That’s good.” So I wiggled my feet, and they moved, but one of my feet was not where it was supposed to be. I thought, “That’s definitely broken.”
That’s when my friend Cally found me. She’d been on a snowmobile ahead of me, but turned back when she realized I wasn’t there anymore. I was like, “Oh, hey Cally, I think my leg’s broken.” And she was like, “OHMYGOD I AM GOING TO GET HELP” and I was like, “OK cool I’ll stay here LOL.” I was a very funny dying person.
So I stayed there while Cally went to save my life. Time is weird when you’re in shock and dying. I should mention the break in my leg was a compound fracture, so I was rapidly losing a lot of blood.
But I remember laying there, staring up at the sky as the snow gently fell, thinking, “You know what? I have lived a really full life, and it would be OK if I died right now.”
I had just turned 15.
Cally got help, because she’s a hero. And then my youth pastor saved my life, because (how convenient!) he also happened to be EMT trained. So while my boyfriend held my hand and repeatedly said “OMG ROBYN OMG OMG OMG” and I said, “It’s OK. You need to calm down,” (again, I am so funny) my youth pastor set my leg back in the right place and held the wound. I remember being really tired, and just wanting to sleep. Which I now recognize as dying. But all these annoying people were around me keeping me awake. Like, it’s cool that you guys are saving my life and all, but do I really have to stay awake for this?
Two fire trucks and the coroner showed up. They couldn’t figure out what to do or how to get me out, but my youth pastor yelled at them to form a circle so they could lift me up, put me in a back brace, and stabilize my head in case of spinal or brain damage. They put me on the brace, put the brace on a snowmobile, and rushed me to the ambulance and then to the nearest hospital.
That’s when my parents showed up and I started crying and apologizing because I had told them I didn’t think I’d be snowmobiling that night. They basically said, “Robyn, you are currently dying, so maybe now is not the best time to worry about that.”
The local hospital couldn’t handle it. They had to rush me to Hurley Hospital in Flint, the closest hospital with a first class trauma center.
Is this where I run down my list of injuries? I had broken my left leg in five places—the hip, twice in the femur, once in the lower leg, and my ankle. My left shoulder and right arm were broken. My lung had been punctured and had collapsed, and I was bleeding into my chest. That’s why my back hurt. My spleen was also bleeding. They let my mom ride in the back of the ambulance with me to the hospital, which I now recognize was because they weren’t sure I would make it.
I can’t say enough good things about Hurley Hospital and the multitude of doctors who operated and cared for me. I was in surgery all night, and then in pediatric ICU for 10 days. The days are kind of hazy, but I remember everyone was so kind, and my friends brought me flowers and stuffed animals, and I was on a lot of drugs so I remember thinking I was PRETTY HILARIOUS the entire time.
They waited until I had been discharged to the pediatric unit to give me the bad news. I would likely be in the hospital for at least two months, and I would never play sports again. With a lot of work, I would be able to walk again, but possibly not without a limp. But I was alive, and I should be thankful for that.
To which I responded, “MY ENTIRE LIFE IS OVER BECAUSE I CAN’T WALK AND SPORTS ARE EVERYTHING TO ME,” because I was still a teenage girl, even though I had just survived the impossible, so my capacity for drama was really at its peak.
But that is how it felt. I always thought I’d go to a small school on a volleyball scholarship—that was my dream, at least. I was probably too short for that, but I figured I’d make up for it by jumping twice as high and working twice as hard.
But I had to say goodbye to that dream. And that was so hard. But it got worse.
Some people say breaking a femur is the only thing more painful than childbirth. I don’t know about that, because I don’t have kids, but I can tell you that I have lived through years of level 12 pain on a 1 to 10 scale. Every day I went to physical therapy, where my fantastic therapist would push on my leg until I screamed and cried, and I would learn how to separate myself from my pain so that I could keep existing. I did this for eight months.
But something was wrong. I got really sick, and I still couldn’t walk, and I was so tired. I was not the kid at peak physical condition who entered the hospital the first time.
I was dying.
They performed emergency surgery to control the raging infection they found inside my leg, but it was being trapped by the metal holding my bone together, and the bone hadn’t healed at all. They couldn’t figure out what the infection was, so they had to treat it with broad spectrum IV antibiotics, which meant I had to have a permanent IV inserted. They thought it might be six weeks before they could operate again. Instead, it was eight months.
Eight months that I couldn’t walk or go to school or just…be a normal kid. At a time when body image felt so important, my body could best be described as “wasting away.” At a time when friendships were cementing and everyone was changing, I felt trapped—immobile. It was a time when I was supposed to be gaining independence, but sometimes I had to wake my mom up to flip me over in the middle of the night, because I couldn’t do it myself.
They told me I had to be really careful, because the infection could burst at any moment and go into my blood stream and kill me instantly.
But I decided to live.
I decided I was going to do whatever I had to—inject my antibiotic four times a day, go to physical therapy six times a week, go to the doctor three times a week, let the people take care of me who needed to take care of me even though I just wanted to be able to do it myself. I decided I was going to do my homework and take the ACT and go to prom and go to Disney World, because hell, if I’m going to die at any moment, wouldn’t Disney be a great place to go?
And in the midst of all that living, you know what I did?
I came through the third surgery, though, and I had to really start over. I was 17, and I had to build all my muscles back up from the beginning. It took years. I didn’t walk without a limp until close to my graduation day. I didn’t run until shortly after.
But I did it. I ran.
And then I ran more. I ran a mile, and then a 5K, and then a half marathon. And 10 years later, when I was 28 years old, I ran a 30K.
And you know what? I don’t think I ever would have learned how to push myself that hard if I hadn’t almost died twice—if I hadn’t been told I couldn’t. If I didn’t know what hard work looked like. If I didn’t know what a gift it was to walk, to run, and to live.
So, you don’t have to run a 30K. You don’t even have to run at all. But you should decide today to be bold enough to dream the impossible dream. You never know—you may be stronger than you think.