The flight to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital would take fifteen minutes, I was told. Joseph, on land, would have to drive for two hours. I suddenly felt very alone, and my body began to shake uncontrollably. The lieutenant on board held my hand, and Jeremy started an IV. My mind was racing, ebbing and flowing with scenarios about the possible extent of my injuries. I realized I was on the verge of panic, and forced myself to take deep breaths. I gazed at the span of blue sky outside the window, trying to empty my mind of all thought.
By the time we landed on the roof of the hospital, I was feeling a bit calmer. I was transported in a blur to the trauma center, where a team of medical professionals immediately surrounded me to evaluate the damage to my body. After a CT scan, it was determined that I had four broken ribs, a bruised lung, and a lacerated liver. I was bleeding internally, but it was not clear at the time if I would require surgery.
The trauma doctor who headed the team admitted me to the critical-care unit, where my blood was drawn every few hours to check my hematocrit level and determine the status of the internal bleeding. For two days the level continued to drop, keeping me at risk for possible surgery or a blood transfusion. I was given intravenous pain medication and nutrients, forbidden to take food or water by mouth in case an operation was necessary.
Joseph was by my side every day. Even though the drugs kept me knocked out most of the time, I would always awaken to his face. My friend Jill made the daily two-hour drive to the hospital for nearly a week, comforting me with her presence and healing touch. On nights when the pain made it impossible to sleep, a nurse named Keira sat with me, talking gently until morning light.
By day three, my hematocrits had stabilized. Since I was no longer at serious risk, I was moved to a regular room. I was still on morphine – and the color of my face looked as if someone had fused an eggplant to it – but I was alive.
The trauma doctors and nurses told me I was incredibly lucky. Given the nature of the accident, my injuries could have been much more serious. One doctor told me that if my head had been subjected to the extensive injury sustained by my liver, I probably would not have survived. Another said I might easily have drowned in the strong current. And all agreed that Joseph’s quick response made the difference between life and death.
As it was, the damage to my body would heal on its own over time. Six days after defying the odds on that fateful beach, I was released from the hospital.
I returned home to a comforting flood of phone calls, cards and flowers. Friends stopped by bearing dinners, stacks of books, baskets of fruit, and body-soothing lotions. One arrived with tubes of body paint, while another sent me a hunk of petrified wood with a poem she’d written:
Though a piece of old wood once left you terrified,
It is now, as you see, the old wood that is petrified.
The outpouring of love and concern gave me a powerful sense of good fortune. But there was more heart-swelling information to come.
As my three-month recuperation continued, I began to learn details about the accident that define my survival as nothing short of miraculous. During a phone conversation with Jeremy Pierce, the Sonoma County paramedic, he explained that the sheriff’s department helicopter crew had been videotaping the coastline that morning. They had just touched down to clean the windshield when the 911 call about my accident was transmitted over the radio.
“We patrol 200 miles of coastline,” Jeremy said, “and when your call came in, we were parked 200 yards down the beach from you.”
While I struggled to register the impact of his statement, Jeremy went on. He explained that the log probably saved my life, because if I hadn’t been pinned, I would likely have been dragged out to sea by the fierce undertow. By the time I hung up the phone, I was filled with a growing sense of awe.
More astonishing facts continued to come to light in the months that followed the accident. While at a party, I overheard a friend comment to Joseph about being my hero and saving my life. He replied that he turned just in time to see the log hit the back of my head, and then I disappeared under water. “A split second later and I never would have seen her,” he continued. Until then, I’d had no idea that my window of salvation had been so very small.
The realization started a slow, subtle process of changing me in ways that I am still discovering.
Surely, I embrace life more fully. I have a renewed appreciation for the people I love, and am grateful for every conversation, every laugh, every precious moment I spend with them. I have discovered, much to my delight, that the little annoyances and disappointments that used to cause me angst now dissolve into insignificance.
Perhaps most important, I have a clear understanding that the sudden surprises offered up by the ocean parallel the sudden surprises offered up by life, and I have learned to value the possibilities. Instead of seeing myself as settled, I realize that opportunities for change, for growth, for learning present themselves at any age – often in completely unexpected ways.
In addition to these lessons, I have gained knowledge about the sea and the secrets it harbors. Instead of leaving me with feelings of fear, I have developed a respect for its utter unpredictability and awesome power. It is a force of brilliant, surging energy. And in all its goodness, it delivered me back to tell this tale.