The day I died was the perfect New England fall morning. It was 11 a.m. on Saturday, October 8, 2011, when I set out on the 12‑mile bike ride home from work along the Connecticut shoreline. The sun was brilliant against the blue sky, and the leaves were starting to change colors.
It was an exciting time for me. I loved my job as a program manager at PeaceJam, an organization that educates kids about leaders in the peace movement. At home, my husband of one year, Sean, and I were trying to have a baby.
Sean, a mail carrier, was working, so I’d made plans with a friend for a long ride later that afternoon. But I would never get to meet up with her.
As I settled into the right-hand lane of a busy avenue, a freight truck turned in my direction from a side street. He slowed at the corner. We made eye contact. Then, for reasons I’ll never know, he accelerated.
There was nothing I could do but scream. The giant truck knocked me down onto my left side; my legs got tangled up with my bike. I heard snapping and grinding as his front tires drove over me. I felt my insides cracking when his back tires did the same.
People came rushing from all directions as the truck rumbled away. “Oh my God!” I heard. “She’s alive.”
I raised my head just enough to see something bright white and yellow protruding from my leg: bone, tendons, and fatty cells. The skin had peeled right off most of the lower half of my body, along with my clothing. There wasn’t any normal flesh to see. My abdomen was opened up, and I was bleeding out.
A woman with blond hair appeared and sat in the road with me, holding my head. One man stopped the fleeing truck. Another ran over carrying an emergency heat blanket from a kit he had in his car. He began screaming out orders: “YOU, STOP TRAFFIC. YOU, HOLD HER HEAD STILL. YOU, COVER HER ABDOMEN WITH THIS. Holy … God. Hang in there, girl. Hang in there.”
The paramedics arrived—a team of three women. They began by rolling my body onto a backboard. Later I’d learn that for one of them, it was her first day on the job. In fact, I was her very first call.
The ride to the hospital took about 20 minutes. The double doors of the ambulance opened to the sunlight, and from there it was straight to the emergency room, where, for the next eight hours, I kept dying. I would flatline, someone would do CPR, and they’d pull me back from the abyss. They did this over and over. People had to keep rotating because keeping me alive was exhausting. At the same time, the orthopedic-trauma team was debriding my insides—cleaning out the gravel and rocks and debris. My stomach was ripped open, my backside was ripped open, my pelvic bone was severed. The pelvis holds up all the vital organs, so when it’s compromised, internal hemorrhaging doesn’t stop.
On top of that, my left femoral artery was severed. The blood would run through me and right out again, over and over. Our bodies hold roughly ten pints of blood. That day, I went through 78 pints—eight bodies’ worth. At times, I had lost so much blood that there was nothing left for my heart to pump.
Twelve hours after I’d left for work that morning, I was stable enough that Sean was allowed to see me in the ICU. I had tubes running into my nose and mouth. I was bloodied and swollen. My belly was so distended that I looked like I was pregnant with triplets. Sean gingerly took my cut-up hand in his. He had been by my side for only a minute when a nurse saw red fluids staining my gown again.
“You need to leave. We have to keep working on her. Now!” she said firmly. He kissed my forehead and said a quick prayer before being ushered back to the visitors’ lounge.
With the odds stacked against me, the doctors decided to place me in an induced coma, a lifesaving step that slows down brain function and reduces swelling in order to prevent or lessen brain damage.
During this period, I was in and out of surgery several times. Once, I woke up just as the surgeon was starting to operate on me. I saw a bright light and masked faces hovering over me. I remember my chest rising and falling, but I couldn’t take a breath. As I woke, the pain hit hard, but I couldn’t move or communicate no matter how hard I tried. Well, except for my fingers.
“Her fingers are moving,” someone in the room said.
“There’s no way her fingers could be moving. She’s out,” someone else said.
I’m right here! I wanted to scream. I can hear you!
“Maybe she’s having a seizure.”
Then another masked face appeared right in front of my face, and I remember a strange smell, and then everything went dark again. They wrote “mild seizure” on my chart.
People have the wrong idea about what a medically induced coma is. They think it means you’re totally unconscious, unable to see or hear or respond in any way. But that’s not how it is. For weeks after the trauma, I felt like I was locked in a nightmare, imprisoned in my body. Sometimes I was unconscious, but other times I existed in a state that has no easy comparison.
I couldn’t focus on anyone or anything, but I could hear sounds and feel sensations. I was so hot all the time that it felt as if my body were on fire. I began having thoughts that were almost hallucinations about lying in a pool of water.
Occasionally, I would hear a familiar voice, and that brought some comfort. Whenever Sean came into the room, he would call out, “Hey, honey, I’m here.” I know that only because he has told me so since then, not because I remember it. He says I would open my eyes and look around like I was looking right through him. I was too out of it to think, Oh, that’s Sean, but I did sense the familiarity. I relished when someone would hold my hand, stroke my head, or comb my hair. That was the good part.
The dreams were the bad part. Over and over, I had graphic nightmares about being attacked. I now know that the dreams came when the nurses were cleaning my wounds. Although I was heavily sedated, my blood pressure would spike, and they would see my face grimacing. Even in that state, I recognized the pain, but I couldn’t process it, so my brain turned it into the only thing that made sense: assault.
A medically induced coma can’t take away all the pain—nothing can. The coma just dulls it enough so that you don’t actually die from the shock of it all. But overmedicating can kill you, too, so doctors must walk a fine line. As a result, you are put into this otherworldly haze of an experience where your brain tries to put the puzzle together under the influence of heavy drugs. It’s not like a trauma-induced coma, where you’re fully unconscious while your brain resets itself. It’s more like a deep dream state with moments of partial awareness.
Sean watched everything that was happening. The first time he saw me trying to scream was awful for him. During a wound-dressing change, my eyes were screwed shut and my mouth was open in a screaming position, but no sound came out. That’s when he realized the pain I was in and that I was locked inside my body. There was little he could do except try to soothe me with his words and his touch and to stay by my side. Indeed, he refused to leave the hospital for a week, and the staff provided him a cot in the lounge. After that first week, he headed home for a shower and fresh clothes, but he found it unbearable to be there without me. He cried in the shower and vowed he wouldn’t spend the night there until I was home.
By late October, there was talk of stepping down some of my medications to test my responsiveness while still keeping me sedated enough for pain management. They began by testing my breathing, turning the ventilator on and off over the course of three days to check whether my lungs would take over. After a brief failure, it was successful. The breathing tube was removed on October 30, three weeks into my stay. That meant I could no longer be as sedated; the pain medications had to be stepped down to allow my lungs to function properly. It also meant I would regain consciousness.
It wasn’t like the cheerful “Hey! I’m alive!” moment with a big smile that you see in scripted dramas. My first post-trauma memory is the gauzy image of Sean standing at my bedside. I also saw a doctor, so I knew I was in a hospital. Then I spotted my parents across the room.
I tried to speak to Sean, but my vocal cords had atrophied. I mouthed the words “When did Mom and Dad get here?”
“They came in for the weekend to see you,” he said.
I thought the crash had just happened and was amazed that my parents had gotten there so fast. In my mind, hours had passed. Maybe a day.
“Honey, you’ve been in a coma for almost a month,” he said.
That stunned me. I started crying.
In mid-November, with my body stabilized, I was moved to the Gaylord Specialty Healthcare facility in Wallingford, Connecticut, to begin physical therapy. It was my next ring of hell. My therapists wanted me to try to walk with a walker. It was difficult and painful and, for someone who had considered herself an athlete, disheartening. I just couldn’t do it.
“Am I ever going to walk normally again?” I asked.
“We don’t know, but we’re going to work on it,” the therapist said.
They were so damn honest.
What pulled me out of my funk was remembering a speech I’d heard by Nobel Prize laureate Jody Williams. In it, she said, “Emotion without action is irrelevant.”
She was right. Screw this, I thought. There has to be a reason I’m still alive. All this wasted emotion feeling miserable for myself needed a direction. The direction I chose was gratitude.
I thought of all the people who had saved my life. The strangers who ran to my side after the truck hit me; the doctors and nurses who brought me back from death more than once; the staff at Gaylord who were doggedly helping me walk again and relearn basic tasks.
And then there were the strangers who had donated their life-giving blood. In order for me to receive those 78 units of blood, as well as 25 bags of plasma and platelets, more than 125 people had to donate theirs.
Suddenly I felt a need to do something to honor them. I may not have been able to walk yet, but I could, from my rehab bed, organize a cycling tour to raise money for adaptive bikes for disabled athletes. We ended up raising more than $10,000.
I then turned inward, concentrating on my own recovery. One day in December, Robyn, my physical therapist, stood behind me holding my catheter bag in one pocket and my heart rate monitor in the other, pushing my wheelchair after me as I slowly inched step-by-step across the floor with my walker. My back wounds seeped from underneath my dressings onto the floor, and my head started to tingle with weakness. Down I went, back into my wheelchair. I heard a tender voice saying, “You did it, Colleen … You did it … all the way across the room!” I’d finally taken more than a step or two.
Ten months after I died, and eight months after leaving Gaylord, I ran in the Superhero Half Marathon in New Jersey. I did it while using a walker, toting a colostomy bag, and dressed as Wonder Woman—cape and all! At the finish line, I was greeted by Sean, who smothered me in kisses.
Since then, the colostomy bag has been removed, and I’ve completed dozens of races, sans walker.
What I endured was a nightmare. But every time I cross a finish line, I think of the strangers who literally gave of themselves. In my mind, I see a diverse group of people—black, white, and brown, of all different ages and backgrounds—all conspiring to help a fellow human whom they’d never know, for no reason other than to save a stranger’s life.
My injury also made me realize just how lucky I am to have Sean. In the darkest moments of being locked in the coma, his voice soothed me. It does to this day. With each step, I am gratitude in motion.
Next, read on for another incredible story of a woman who was run over by an 18-wheeler—and survived.