There are tests, but there are also small mercies. Life tossed us up into the air, scattered us, and we all somehow found our way back. And we will do it again. And again. And again.
― Alexandra Bracken, Through the Dark
There is no one on planet earth who has missed the images of devastation that have filled the television screens the last several weeks in the wake of Hurricane Harvey that battered Texas and Hurricane Irma that battered the Caribbean before barreling into Florida. Some of the images that struck me were of persons emerging as if from shell-shock, stumbling from the buildings where they had taken refuge as the first responders, mostly US military personnel, arrived on the scene to rescue them. Stumbling out on shaky legs from buildings, and then eventually from planes as they were transported from places like St. Maarten and the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico by the 106th Rescue Wing under the command of Sal Sferrazo and his team mates, there was an appearance of “coming out of the dark” and entering the light.
Finding one’s way out of the most hellish and trying circumstances not only involves one’s will to live (Mitchell, 2015), but it also requires the assistance of a supportive circle of persons who are committed to you finding your way back to life, and staying with you until you find all the fullness that it has to offer. When I surveyed the field of neuropsychology to understand what happens to persons who go into a coma, I discovered a number of lessons that are worth sharing here that will provide encouragement not only for the victims of all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, but also victims of physical and mental distress that have forced them into a comatose existence.
Medical doctors continue to discover the mysteries of the comatose state. Simply stated, a coma is a deep and profound state of unconsciousness from which a patient cannot be woken. Although they are alive, comatose patients cannot respond to painful stimuli (like pin pricks or pinches), light, or sound. They have no motor control and so cannot voluntarily move their bodies, feel, speak, or hear (George Dvorsky, 2012). Did you know that the prognosis for persons making a full recovery from a coma diminishes with each passing day? The Multi-Society Task Force on Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) (1994) reported that “Three months after injury, 33 percent of the patients had recovered consciousness; 67 percent had died or remained in a vegetative state. Recovery had occurred in 46 percent of the patients at 6 months and in 52 percent at 12 months. Recovery after 12 months was reported in only 7 of the 434 patients” In a case where consciousness was recovered 30 months after injury, the patient remained severely disabled. Additional studies confirm the likelihood of severe and persistent disability for those who do not recover within 3 months of the initial trauma to the brain. For example, 6 of 93 adult patients in a vegetative state recovered consciousness one to three years after injury. Four of these six patients had severe disability, and one had moderate disability; the status of the sixth patient could not be determined. Additionally, five of the six patients younger than 30 years (Traumatic Coma Data Bank).
Today, victims of these natural and man-made disasters that have devastated so many lives in so many regions of the world are emerging from a shell-shock state to evaluate the remains of their lives. Where are their homes? Where are their businesses? Schools? Family members? Friends? In some cases entire neighbourhoods have disappeared, or an entire country like Barbuda has been flattened. The prognosis for making a full recovery is challenging in light of the extensive damage that has been done. Entire lives and family histories have been destroyed because the house that their great grandfather built for his bride that had been passed down to the great grandson and his family is no longer standing. In other cases, the family members may have been airlifted to Arizona with just the clothes on their backs and what money they had on hand at the time. Newborn babies in the NICU had to be separated from their anxious new parents because their hospital had no clean running water. And, still many more fill shelters not knowing when they will be able to return to their lives. In crisis level circumstances like these, everything becomes scarce, like food, water, medicine, and basic necessities. Tempers can also flare as the frustrations of not being able to provide for oneself and one’s families’ basic needs become more overwhelming. In these harsh conditions, it becomes easy to lose sight of the simple treasures (Mitchell, 2015) and small mercies that each day affords. But they are there.
One of the most encouraging stories that I heard was of a couple in the Virgin Islands who were so devastated at their loss that their salvation came in rescuing the stray dogs and climbing the fence daily to take care of their neighbour’s animals after the storm. In another incident, college students in Florida rescued a group of elderly persons who had been abandoned at their nursing home during the storm. And the stories go on and on of others giving their lives to save another. In some cases even losing it like the police officer who was recently celebrated by family and friends for his bravery, and the mother that lost her life to save her baby. There is more than a grain of truth in the saying, “It’s a funny thing about life, once you begin to take note of the things you are grateful for, you begin to lose sight of the things that you lack” (Germany Kent). Peace affords us that ability to be ever so grateful for those small, yet undeniable mercies.
But no matter how long it takes, and no matter how dark it seems because our minds will wander back to the joy that we may have known before the storms blew over our lives, we must keep moving forward and finding a way out of the dark until we finally see the light of new life ahead. There are people with us, helping us and counting on us to make it. Think about Gloria Estefan who so eloquently sang, “Desde la oscuridad veo el sol de un nuevo dia; Naciendo en mi. Desde la oscuridad el amor me a salvado; Ha sido de ti…” [Coming out of the dark, I finally see the light now; It’s shining on me. Coming out of the dark I know the love that saved me; You’re sharing with me…”]. After surviving a car accident that almost took her life and going through rehabilitation, she woke up to a new day and she sang about the joy in it. Think about former Paralympic swimmer, Victoria Arlen who suffered from a strange illness that left her in a coma for 4 years and wheelchair bound for 10 years. Just one year ago she learned to walk again and is sizzling up the dance floor as she dances her way through competition rounds in Dancing with the Stars. There is no deadline on recovery if your mind is focused and your will is to live. She said in a recent interview that she heard a lot of what the doctors said about her as she laid in an unexplainable coma for years when they made their rounds. Her prognosis was never very good. But she just kept finding a way out of her darkness. And, eventually she made it. There is also Diana Wright, a bionic teacher who overcame her trauma and discovered her inner strength. Now she has become the face of the trusted Dove brand and is inspiring her daughters and her students to be more and to do more. These women stand as examples to all of us facing trauma that we can also find new paths out of our darkness. I leave you with a thought by Laura Staley, “Sometimes life events break your heart. Even as you grieve, allow light to seep through the cracks, uplift, and illuminate a healing. Baby turtles emerge from the cracking of shells; new life can burst forth. Clear away all broken belongings as a metaphorical pathway fresh, loving experiences in uncharted waters.”
To all of us: Grieve slowly. Dream big. Walk each step daily.