Blyth's Julie Sawchuk shares her story in 'Shine' Part 1/3
Editor’s Note: The Citizen is proud to publish Julie Sawchuk’s Shine chapter. We will be presenting it unchanged from its publication form over the course of the next three weeks. As a result, there is brief use of explicit language. Reader discretion is advised. - SL
This time last year I was putting the finishing touched on a chapter within a chapter called “From Two Wheels to Four – Flipping and Forgiving”.
Although I have been writing a blog since August, 2015, this has become my first publication. Writing a book was something I knew I wanted to do and it was only by chance that I found the opportunity. Contributing to Shine: Inspirational Stories of Choosing Success Over Adversity just seemed to click with me, and I hope that it clicks with those who choose to read it.
Writing has been a form of therapy for me, I hope my therapy may also be of use to you. - Julie Sawchuk, May, 2019
BY JULIE SAWCHUK
Sometimes you get to choose the direction your life takes; sometimes others make that choice for you. I had been a science teacher in small town southwestern Ontario for 15 years. I saw myself as a role model for young women, especially those interested in science, the environment and fitness. But after 15 years of teaching more or less the same subjects, I was beginning to wonder what would be next for my career. Would I continue teaching, change subjects, or do something completely different? At that time, I had no idea how “different” my career would become.
The year I turned 38, I decided I wanted to be more fit. My husband and I were happy with our family of four and I knew that as I aged, I would require more muscle, more activity and some kind of goal to get me there. After watching my sister-in-law race the Goderich triathlon, I decided that was my goal; I would work to complete and compete in an Olympic distance triathlon. Over several summers I worked my way up to the full distance race; 1 km open water Lake Huron swim, 42 km. bike and 10 km. run. I finished third in my age group (40 to 45) and I was ecstatic.
The fall of 2014, I bought my first road bike -- I couldn’t wait for the next racing season to begin! For the next six months, I got up early four to five days a week to train at the pool, in the gym, on the ski trails, the sideroads and even on the track at the high school. I loved the feeling of getting up early to meet a group of friends to do a workout, and it didn’t really matter what it was as long as we broke a sweat together. Coaching the Nordic ski team after school meant double workouts and I got to eat whatever I wanted.
My husband Theo and two kids Ella and Oliver were supportive of my goal. As a stay-at-home dad, Theo was accustomed to getting the kids on the bus in the morning (as I was gone by 6 a.m. or earlier), doing the shopping, cooking, laundry, managing our tiny farm and doing all the after school running around. Although we had talked about it, I had not yet realized how much he was sacrificing so I could pursue my fitness goals and work full time.
July 29th, 2015 was a beautiful sunny morning. While sometimes I would ride with a training group, this morning I was on my own. The race was one month away, and I was feeling ready; I loved the speed of my new bike. About halfway through my 80-kilometre ride, a car passed me so closely deliberately that I could feel the wind from his side mirror on my back. That turned out to be the last thing that I remembered about that ride.
A short time later, on the last leg of my ride (20 km from home on the very road where we live), I was hit by a car from behind. I flew 30 feet through the air and landed in the ditch of a farm field. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I do know that my helmet saved my life. Several drivers stopped, including the one who hit me. They tried to keep me calm and lying still because apparently, I was trying to get up. When I arrived by ambulance at the local hospital, they knew that my injuries were out of their league.
Meanwhile, Theo and the kids had been called and he was able to see me for a few minutes before I was transported by air ambulance to London’s Victoria Hospital Critical Care Trauma Unit. Getting into that helicopter scared me so much that it must have woken up my consciousness enough to store it in a different place. It was terrifyingly loud and for several weeks I reacted with tears every time I saw or heard a helicopter fly over the hospital.
When I regained consciousness after several hours of surgery, I had chest tubes and an IV and I was attached to a ventilator as well as several other machines. I was also frightened, but Theo, my parents and my brother were there to hold my hand. In critical care, the drugs that are meant to take away pain do funny things to your head… the machines designed to keep you alive are too loud to let you sleep, and other sick and potentially dying people behind the curtains turn a room meant to preserve life into a scary space. The blurred line between awake and not really awake created a time of tears, confusing conversations about what had happened, what was wrong with me and what was next.
The surgeons explained to us that I had sustained multiple injuries. Plastic surgeons repaired my forehead, chin and nose. Spinal surgery fused my spine to support the two vertebrae that were fractured; one of those bones (T4) shattered into so many pieces that a fragment damaged my spinal cord. Other bones and skin would heal with time and surgery, but not the spinal cord itself. Nerves are like electrical wires. If you cut them, no power gets through. I have paralysis from the chest down and will need a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
The hospital was 1½ hours away from home and my children (who were with their other grandparents) would not see me for almost a week. My husband, parents and siblings slept in the lounge waiting for news and time to comfort me. It was the beginning of what would be three months in hospital. A long time away from everyone and everything that gave me comfort.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized how lucky I was to still have my hand function. As soon as I was able to, I started to write. Here is one of the first posts from my blog.
“UNKNOWN” AUG 16, 2015
Here I am, standing on the edge. I am not sure what I am on the edge of, but I can tell that the only direction I can go is forward. I look behind and can see faces, places and things that I know, but there is no way to go back to them. Like some kind of video game with no reverse button, you can only go ahead, not knowing what zombies or creepers are around the corner.
There is no choice but to look ahead, even though all there is is blackness -- no shapes, no figures, no light.
So, what is one to do? There really is no choice but to go forward. So, I try, but it's hard. I cry because I miss what is behind me that I no longer can reach. I imagine what it would feel like to go ahead into the darkness and slowly I do, eyes closed to concentrate as hard as I can, fighting to make my way. And somehow, I do it, I move forward. Likely because of sheer grit and wanting to prove my strength and stubbornness, even if it is just to myself. [No, I do NOT need that chest tube back in my body, my O2 “sats” are 100%, thank you very much.]
I open my eyes to that blackness. Knowing that they are quite capable of playing tricks on me [hello crazy hospital drugs] I don’t really believe what I am seeing. My guess is that they are fireflies. You know how you see them at night in early summer across the field? You think you see one, and then it's gone? Then you see another, and it disappears too? But then, when you let your eyes relax and stop looking so hard, you see that the field and the sky are actually full of them?
That is what I see now, the darkness with a few sprinklings of light. Then there are more, and more. I don't will there to be more, but they just keep coming. Somehow, they are there, and they make that darkness less scary, less unknown and more manageable.
I now know their source. The lights come from everyone surrounding me, both physically and virtually. And I don't even know all their names. It's crazy, because the lights just keep lighting. They are the cards, e-mails, texts, tweets, the Facebook messages, posts and reposts. They are the 4J campaign, the hugs, the food, the coffee, the time you spend with my kids and the kind words you say to my husband. They are the words that say “Share the Road” everywhere. They are the turtle. They are my family.
These lights all make me cry. Not from sadness and loss, although sometimes that does creep in; I cry from the sheer overpowering emotion of being loved. And in this powerful emotion, it makes the unknown go away.
REHAB SUCKS – BUT IT DOES GET BETTER
All included (recovery and rehabilitation), I spent more than three months in hospital. That was a very long time to be away from my family, friends and home. It was also a very long time to have NO personal space whatsoever. I was in a ward room with three other women, all with various levels and severity of spinal cord injuries. As the days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, I became the most “senior” in the room. I learned a lot in that time; one can’t help but hear what conversations are happening on the other side of the curtains.
The three months at Parkwood Institute (a rehabilitation hospital with a spinal cord injury treatment unit) was where I had Lisa as my charge nurse. She was known to say, “I don’t get paid to do it for you, I get paid to watch you do it” -- a true rehab nurse. I learned how to empty my bladder with a catheter, manage my bowels, check my skin (because I can’t feel if something is wrong), get dressed and transfer from bed to wheelchair. I had no idea what paralysis really meant. Not walking is just the tip of the iceberg. I was taught how important it was for me to learn to be independent, so I didn’t have to rely on someone else for the rest of my life. I also learned how heavy legs are, how long the nights are when you are missing your family and what hard work really feels like.
My physio team called me “110” because even when they wanted me to try a movement with just a little bit of effort (like 60%), in order to focus on one group of muscles, I would use everything I had -- even my face -- to try and get those muscles to work. Physio was a place that I could, on one hand, work hard to get things back to normal. On the other hand, at physio, I was constantly reminded that I could not even sit up without help or support. I had to make lots of small, realistic goals, like getting dressed and doing my hair. I also wanted to be able to sit cross-legged on the floor to play with my kids. I eventually met that goal, and many others that I made along the way.
Three and a half years later, I can do push-ups and planks from my knees, I can stand at a walker with only my knees supported and I can almost do a sit-up. Everyone said recovery would take time. Time. Oh, how I hated hearing that word. Even though they were all correct, I wanted it to happen right then and there. Three years later it’s still happening. I am still recovering.
WAITING, BUT NOT WAITING
Three years ago, I started saying “within 10 years, medical research will be able to repair paralysis” and I do believe it will happen. That is why I am working hard to keep my body fit. I want to be a candidate -- I will be in line and when they see me, they will say “you’re next”. When you have a spinal cord injury, the more fit you are, the easier it is to transfer, balance, cook, dress, put on shoes, blow dry hair and pick something off the floor. The stronger you are, the easier life is, and the less energy life consumes. Although I am waiting to get in line for that “make my legs move again” surgery, I’m not waiting sitting still.
I don’t really remember any one doctor or nurse telling me that I was paralyzed. I think that ever since I was lying in that ditch, I knew. When Theo saw me at the hospital in Goderich the first thing I said to him was, “Oh my God, I am so sorry”. What I said next was that I could not feel my legs. You don’t have to be a biology teacher to know that means paralysis.
I do, however, distinctly remember the two different doctors who gave it to me straight. I know where I was, what room, what bed, how they were standing and what they said. One, after three weeks in hospital said, “If you don’t have it [feeling or movement] back by now, you won’t get it back”. I stopped listening after that. The second one, when I asked him to give me a number, said “12%”. The likelihood of recovering my ability to walk, considering what strength I had gained after three months in rehab, my level of injury, my age and health was 12%.
Neither of these doctors had particularly uplifting news. But at some point in time, I’m not sure when, I started to say that 12 is not zero. Meaning that, at least there was a 12% chance of recovery, like 12/100 on an exam is better than zero! I think this is where I started to “flip it”. Here is my blog post from that time:
FLIP IT: OCT 10, 2016
When something is presented in a negative way, flip it. Make it positive. Draw it out so that whatever is being said changes from
bad to good or from a put down to a lift up. Every so often I run into someone that I have not seen for a while (or since the collision) and they say how it’s “good to see you out”. Like I’m not supposed to be out? I suppose it is possible that some people would choose to give up (I have had my moments), but staying in is just, well, boring.
I get out alright. On Saturday the kids and I went to market (again), the last outdoor market of this season. Even though I know this is silly, I felt like it was my last chance to get fresh local food. So my fridge is now full -- I think I bought three broccoli -- it all looked so good.
This is where I was when another “it's good to see you out” happened. I know it is meant well; really, I do. But how about just saying hello and asking how I am or how my recovery is going? So, this is where I have to try and flip it. They mean well; they are just concerned for my well-being and are not sure otherwise what to say. I say that I do indeed get out, a lot, and then I tell them what I want them to know: how my recovery is going and what we have been up to.
I think that Ella is starting to get tired of me flipping situations that she tells me about. I got told to “stop lecturing me” when we were talking about situations at school. You know, the kid who is kicking and screaming their way down the hall to the principal’s office? We don’t know what is going on in their lives, what home is like, etc. I'm just trying for empathy -- which I know she has a lot of -- but as a parent, it’s my job, right?
Oliver started going to karate lessons about four weeks ago. I went to watch last week. He got his Gi for the first time and ran to put it on -- so excited, he just threw his shorts into my lap and ran to join the group. At the break, he came over to see me and said “Mom, I feel so powerful in this!” When we went out to the car, I told him that it was evident that he had learned a lot in the past few weeks and that I remember doing a lot of what he had learned. We had karate lessons when we were kids; I think we even went with my Dad for some period of time. I remember it being hard but satisfying at the same time.
I told Oliver that I wished that I could do it with him. At this point I was keeping my voice steady, trying not to show the emotion I was feeling. He didn’t even miss a beat: “Well, you can still do it with your arms -- you can do it sitting on your plinth!” Of course I can. That's the thing with adults -- we get stuck in our ways (like parking in the same spot every day), not even trying to think outside the box. And here is ten-year-old Oliver, without even stopping to think about it, flipping it. Making anything possible.
So try it. Next time someone (or even yourself) says something negative, flip it upside down. Say how you want to be, not how you don't want to be. Give it/them the benefit of the doubt. Stop being negative and start being positive. It is hard, and you’ll forget (I do) sometimes. But you’ll feel better each time you try. I do.
I am still trying to practise this, because it is a practice. Flipping it will always take effort. But the more you do it, the better you get (just like shots in basketball). Don’t just “flip it” with strangers; I have been practising on those closest to me -- Theo and the kids. I try not to assume I know all that is going on in their heads, and all that has gone on with their day. Take a breath, stop a beat and think, “What is going on here?” and flip it. As a problem solver by nature, I have always jumped into that mode when people oppose me or present me with a situation that needs a resolution. Changing my first reaction has helped them, and me. It means not going to that “oh, this is what you should do” place which they don’t usually want to hear, anyways. They want to know that they have been heard, and they want their feelings acknowledged. It also helps me to get to know them better. Yes, my husband and my kids. After 25, 15 and 12 years, I am practising getting to know them better.
Read The Citizen next week for the second of three installments of Julie Sawchuk’s Shine chapter, beginning with “Forgive Yourself”. - SL