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3 Lessons From My Near Death Experience

Six years ago today, I was a buckled passenger in a severe car accident on the way to my grandmother’s funeral, resulting in many broken bones and a terrible brain injury. My recovery has been exhausting—using every ounce of my very determined being.

Decades ago, I chose Philippians 3:14 as my “life verse”: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize, for which Christ has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” without any inkling of how important this verse would be to me years later. In the challenging six years of recovery thus far, God has nurtured that same determination in me, while instilling a new purpose in my life.

Through my own rehabilitation, I discovered a calling to the Brain Injury community, where I have a unique perspective as both a Survivor of a Moderate-Severe brain injury and that of a healthcare professional.

Since April this year, I have studied for and passed two licensing exams which provide gateways into the fields of Speech-Language Pathology and a certification as a Brain Injury specialist. Though not a result of the hours I spent studying at coffee shops, I am now able to empathize with clients’ challenges after head injuries, then offer them my own tried-and-true compensatory strategies.

Recognizing the unique perspective I can offer other clinicians, I have also shared my observations in over a dozen presentations at universities and research facilities. I never would have dreamed of having anything worthwhile to offer these educated audiences, but in spite of myself, God opened the doors.

The visible, physical differences from the injury, such as the scar on my forehead and slight limp in my gait, have also provided many valuable opportunities to connect with inquisitive strangers. Through these interactions I am given chances to share my story, which includes miracles, to be sure, but also the truth of there being hope beyond the challenges I now face—that we all experience on this side of heaven.

As I reflect on the ups and downs of the last six years, here are three lessons that have stood out for me—and which I hope will encourage you:

 

1. Challenges don’t always suggest “closed doors”

There was plenty of sweat and some tears shed, but I’ve since learned that even seemingly impossible obstacles have the potential to build my character, faith and skills.

The accident prevented me from completing my clinical requirements within the allowed time frame, so my licensing exam scores expired. When it was first confirmed that I would need to retake the big certification test in Speech Pathology, I agonized if this was God allowing a door to shut. I prayed that a different path may become obvious, but as none came up, I doggedly pressed forward.

This experience has reminded me how important it is to keep persevering in the ventures I find myself involved in, even in the face of hard work.

 

2. Remain open to opportunities and change

I can be so goal-oriented that I am resistant to modifying a plan until it is reached. I thank God for how this determination has been used in my rehabilitation, but in other instances, I have had to embrace change and the new ways God seemed to be directing me in.

For instance, previously, I was an accomplished cellist, but that is no longer possible given my hand’s weakness and incoordination. After a season of processing grief for my cello playing, I was introduced to the hammer dulcimer, an instrument I never would have considered before, but now am glad that I picked up.

 

3. Enjoy the journey

Our years on earth will be short and, once achieved, some goals may seem less fulfilling than expected. In acknowledging my losses, I have been comforted by the truth that earth is not the end of our stories. I still gravitate toward making plans, but through the unpredictability of neural recovery, I have learned to be more flexible in accepting unexpected twists and turns.

In recognizing that this earthly journey is not the final leg to my disappointments and challenges, I have been freed to put less pressure on my circumstances, others, and myself. The passage that has continued to articulate my feelings of this hope in the midst of hardships, has been Habakkuk 3:17-19:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

I love how these verses demonstrate that it is possible for us to maintain joy in spite of our circumstances, through confidence in God’s presence and provision.

 

Knowing the best is yet to come, I now have the opportunity to savor what is still good on my earthly path. So, even while I have certainly been impacted by the car accident six years ago, I am grateful for where I am now and will continue celebrating His compassion for the details of my life. I’m not sure how God will use my unique background in brain injury, but I am excited to see how He will lead me!

Having Unproductive Weekends? You’re Not Alone

If you glanced at my list of intended accomplishments for this weekend, you might think that I’m superwoman. According to my checklist, I am a Social Queen who balances fitness goals, academics, and extracurricular hobbies like a champ.

In reality, I often groggily tumble into the weekend with an ambitious list of things to check off, but am quickly distracted by more primal demands: food, shower, sleep. So, Friday night vanishes, but hark!—Saturday is here, promising to be the productive day I’ve been waiting for!

Amid a coffee-filled morning and near starts to tackling “the checklist,” something unforeseen occurs. Maybe the dishwasher makes a growling noise, or maybe my car won’t start. Saturday is then absorbed in crisis control and, before I know it, Sunday evening arrives. Yikes—time to start another week?

Does this sound at all familiar? Weekends, as well as life itself, seem to pass by at an alarming pace—sometimes made worse by sudden crises that drop in uninvited.

Perhaps it’s against this backdrop that Proverbs 19:21 states that, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” It’s comforting to be reminded that the apparent twists and turns in my life do not thwart the intentions of the Master Planner.

 

The Twist in My Life

Long story short, I was involved in a horrific car accident five years ago, which crushed whatever long-anticipated, nearly accomplished goals I had at my fingertips, including expecting to earn the clinical credentials I had been working toward for the past six years, completing my first intense, obstacles race I had trained for, and accepting a role as deacon in my church.

Instead, the remaining years in my 20’s were a blur. Time slipped past as I focused on regaining basic abilities, like walking and trying to remember people’s names.

In the first year of my recovery, I felt like my years on earth were being unfairly taken from me. But then, a friend told me that that he believed the accident allowed me to touch more lives than I probably could have otherwise, and the truth of his words really impacted me. If God was willing to work through the most unlikely of circumstances and make use of my “changed plans”, then it’d be an honor to let Him do so. True enough, I have been given opportunities to share my observations as a brain-injury survivor, for example, in several prestigious locations, like the National Institutes of Health. I have also been able to include in my presentations how my belief in God has given me security, regardless of the circumstances.

 

Tips for a Meaningful Weekend

When things go differently than planned, we are given a chance to appreciate the bigger picture. Cancelled plans over a weekend, for instance, provide the gifts of much-needed respite and re-prioritizing. I’m still keen on productivity, but the last five years have shaped my idea of how to best pursue it.

So from my recent experiences, I have some pointers for any fellow checklist-followers out there:

  • Be realistic. If you’re like me and you find satisfaction from crossing something off a list, make the goals challenging while still attainable. Take into account other commitments that will impact your availability, so that the list is achievable, not just idealistic.
  • Think ahead. Starting with the end goal, work backwards, creating a list of sub-tasks that you can accomplish in a hierarchical order. I have found that working backwards to form tasks helps me achieve goals in the most practical and time-effective manner.
  • Don’t dismiss the mundane. If things aren’t going as expected, don’t write-off the potential worth of the circumstance. Seemingly “boring” seasons, for instance, may provide you with the vital growth and restoration you will rely upon in upcoming occasions.
  • Demonstrate gratitude. Even during a busy day, reserve intermittent moments to appreciate your journey. Don’t allow your tasks to distract you from acknowledging and celebrating the joys currently in front of you.
  • Trust in God. “We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Even when something doesn’t go according to plan, we can take comfort that God has a purpose, and He knows what He’s doing.

A challenging season is much easier to accept when I recognize that it may be used by God to have an eternity-altering effect on another soul. You may not get to see the impact you have on this side of heaven, however, so don’t let disappointment slow you down (1 Corinthians 3:6). This means that when your car breaks down or you have what feels to be an unproductive weekend, don’t give much weight to any discouraged feelings.  Every day is a gift, possessing great potential, regardless of the thoughts or feelings it brings about.

James 4:13-15 makes the humbling but accurate comparison of our earthly journey to that of a mist, which is here today, gone tomorrow. All we can do is try to be faithful in whatever circumstances come our way, then leave the intended productivity and end results up to God. That’s His job.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15).

Learning About Love from 50 babies

It’s not unusual for a child to exhibit a little jealousy when a younger sibling appears on the family tree. So how about 50 more?

From the time I was four years old till the time I started college, I helped my family provide foster care to over 50 precious infants. We took care of the babies while a Christian agency helped their parents decide whether they could provide the best environment to bring up their children, or whether the kids were to be placed in adoptive families.

It all began after my oldest sister died suddenly when she was six years old. As my parents raised my other sister and me, they realized they still had room in their hearts to love more children. So, they selflessly turned their grief into an opportunity to show love to children in foster care.

I inherited a deep love for all things baby, and helping provide foster care gave me ample opportunities to live out that affection. I could put my love into action daily, rocking a colicky baby or running to mix another bottle of formula. Having so many younger siblings may have made things a little chaotic at times, but I loved every bit of it. We’d pamper the little ones like royalty for weeks or months until their birth or adoptive parents could provide a permanent home.

In addition to giving me a lifetime’s worth of babysitting experience, these little ones taught me some big lessons about love. Here are four lessons I learned from my foster siblings:

 

Lesson #1: Live out your love.

One of my favorite bands in middle school had a song that said: “(Love) is a verb”. Even though they only had a few days of life experience under their onesies, these infants taught me the magnitude of non-verbal communication.

Since they had not acquired the ability to speak yet, the babies relied on body language and simple vocalizations to communicate their emotions. A smile or moment of eye contact spoke volumes from a baby learning to trust. The Bible reminds us of the weight of nonverbal communication in 1 John 3:18, which tells us “not to love in words and speech, but in action and in truth.”

Try not to get overly concerned about finding the right words to say, that you limit your communication to just speech. Instead, let your emotions flow into your body language and motivate you to acts of service. As a child, I learned that rocking a fussy infant was sometimes more important than playing outside. Foster care gave me practice in loving others.

 

Lesson #2: Love without conditions.

Some of the babies spent the majority of their time with us in crying fits; others were nothing but toothless smiles. Yet, we loved fussy and happy babies equally, treating them with overflowing love and compassion.

While many of the babies were from ethnicities different from my own, I knew every one of them was the beautiful handiwork of the same Creator. I remember one baby in particular, whom I absolutely adored. I loved everything about this baby, from her spunky personality to her beautiful skin color. I wanted to be just like her. My parents would recall how I diligently prayed for almost a year that I’d magically switch overnight to this baby’s ethnicity.

Well, God did not answer that prayer in the way I had hoped, but I gained a valuable perspective that will stay with me forever. I was not granted a sudden increase in my skin’s melatonin as I had asked, but through years of helping to provide foster care, God gently deepened my understanding of the unity all people share. Despite our unique and differing exterior, all humans are created in God’s image, which unites and bestows us with equal, priceless worth.

 

Lesson #3: Part of loving is praying.

As we held each baby, we could not predict the blessings and challenges that awaited him or her, yet we could be confident of God’s love for them. There were multiple people who came to our minds for every infant.

First, we asked God to bless the birth mother and be near her, recognizing her courageous decision to choose life for this baby. We also lifted up the adoptive family, who was still unknown to us, but had been known by God since the beginning of time. Whoever they were, they were surely experiencing uncertainties and challenges as they prepared to offer this child a forever home.

And, of course, we offered up many prayers for the sweet baby who was in our arms for a short phase, but forever in the hands of a Sovereign God. We were blessed to be part of this child’s life and fully trust that God would use our prayerful care to shape their journey.

 

Lesson #4: Love deeply those whom God brings your way, trusting their future to Him.

Even if you don’t know how long someone you love will be in your life, learn to appreciate them deeply right now.

Because we adored all the babies who entered our home, their adoption days were bittersweet. For months, we had poured love into these little humans, prayerfully aiming to give them the healthiest and happiest start to life possible. Then, with very little warning, we would have to say goodbye, often forever.

While we thanked God for the family He had given these precious babies, it was hard to say goodbye to each one. The morning of the adoption, we’d be sure to bathe, dress, and primp the little one, preparing him or her to enter their new family. After the adoption ceremonies were over, we would give our love to the happy family, then drive home with an empty car seat and tears that were both happy and sad on our cheeks. It made us savor every moment of each infant’s brief presence in our lives.

 

I learned so much from my years as a foster sister, but the truly life-changing perspectives were what these babies taught me about love.

A Shattered Dream Isn’t the End

A fairy princess? A queen? Those may be some of the typical titles that little girls aspire to, but that wasn’t me.

Believe it or not, my dream was to become a “physical therapist missionary in Africa”. That childhood aspiration pointed to my early interest in the field of rehabilitation, but also, my belief that I needed an exciting or even unusual life in order to be useful to God.

I felt a little adrenaline rush from stories like Daniel in the lion’s den and accounts of modern, brave missionaries meeting jungle tribes. “Wow”, I’d think, “God can only work through super-Christians like them.” My life, on the other hand, often felt too pleasant and ordinary to be of use to God.

It’s true that being willing to risk losing your own comforts, reputation, and safety for the sake of Jesus can be a precious gift that yields extraordinary returns. But what about the more or less mundane lives that many of us have? Can a mostly-ordinary life be of use to God too?

My plan to become a physical therapist missionary changed slightly over the years, but even through graduate school, I remained committed to the hope of one day joining a team of rehabilitation therapists. I intentionally made sacrifices for my educational goals, fully expecting my chosen priorities to result in a life well-spent. Despite my goal-oriented and focused quest, an unforeseen event caused my life to go in a wildly different direction.

Up till about five years ago, I had subconsciously visualized what a self-sacrificial and well-spent life dedicated to helping whomever God set in front of me would be like. I expected my years of sacrificing sleep for exam-prep to open doors to an exciting and useful life.

Then I got into a near-fatal car accident.

Instead of becoming a licensed provider, I was the recipient. And instead of caring for those in need of therapeutic intervention, I had to humbly receive it.

Now, having completed years of focused rehabilitation, my life is back to normal, even mundane, and is far from what I had anticipated. But I am encouraged by the many stories in the Bible of those whose lives took dramatic turns away from their plans, and were eventually used by God in ways beyond their imagination. For example, we usually marvel at the disciples’ experiences and their years of intimate interactions with the Savior, but even their lives weren’t always so interesting!

Peter, a disciple of Jesus who later became a pillar of the church, spent his early career as a simple fisherman. Although we’re not told about these quieter years in Peter’s life, surely they were still purposeful in preparing him for his great calling. Even the young woman Mary, who became the mother of Jesus, may have felt somewhat insignificant going about her day-to-day schedule, unaware of the great honor about to be given her. And going further back in Biblical history, the story of Abraham is recorded. While he would become the “Father of many nations”, there was a time when Abraham and his elderly wife didn’t even think they could have a child.

As many other Biblical and historical accounts prove, our God loves to work magnificently through the weak and the most unlikely of circumstances.

I’m not making predictions about my future career, but I’m in awe of what God has already accomplished through the hardest time in my life. I am still amazed by all the chances I’ve been given to speak and write about the clinical and spiritual applications of what I’ve learned. I still aim to return to the world of clinical rehabilitation and believe I have a unique perspective to offer that community. But I have grown to recognize my current reality as valuable, too.

So let’s not minimize the miracles God can accomplish during a relaxed coffee date or a quiet hour of reading. While His work may certainly include adrenaline pumping, dramatic conversions, He is not limited to the stories we would label as thrilling. However quiet your life may seem right now, please don’t underestimate the eternity altering potential of your current journey.