“You could be the next Barbara Walters,” my mom told me growing up. It wasn’t long before I believed her. Writing since an early age and with sportswriters and poets already in the family, I lived my childhood with great certainty and confidence that I would naturally become a writer and journalist.
I had a take-charge personality at a young age. I acted like a little adult and had already mapped out my college plans and writing career by junior high. At school, teachers often put me in charge of classrooms and school activities like newspaper, yearbook, and the school play. By the time I was a freshman in high school, it felt like administrators and teachers treated me more like a colleague.
However, when I was 16, my world of certainty and control began to twist and turn in ways I never expected. It was my mother who noticed the curvature in my spine. “Just like your father’s...” she said when looking at my back one day, referring to my dad’s severe scoliosis.
Suddenly, I was thrown into a tailspin of uncertainty and my medical odyssey began. At the mercy of the doctors examining the abnormal curvature in my spine, I felt like a victim for the first time in my life. I had to undergo what seemed like hundreds of doctor’s visits, pokes, prods, and tests. It was my junior year of high school when I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis having a nearly 70 degree curvature in my spine. Surgery was the only option.
With the inherent risks of the surgery, my future was unknown. I wondered, “Will I be able to graduate with my class?” Fortunately, we were able to postpone the surgery until after graduation.
My career path also took a hit from the trauma. In what I now realize was an attempt to regain control of my “chronic patient” status in the medical system, going into senior year, I conclusively informed everyone, “I’m going to be a nurse!”
“What?!” was the response from most who knew me. Others resisted, stating the obvious. “But you’re a writer…”
My other justification was my sudden fascination with science and medicine. (Over the years I would learn that writers are pretty much fascinated by everything! It doesn’t mean we should do it all for a living though.)
By the time I was a freshman in college, I had one of the most severe cases of scoliosis. I was labeled “X5” in the research journals due to my record-setting combined 116 degrees of spinal curves. The degenerative disease had progressed so much that one leg was four inches shorter than the other. We could no longer postpone surgery.
“There’s a 33% chance everything will go as planned,” my surgeon explained. “We will use titanium spinal rods and screws, in addition to bone graft, to help realign and stabilize your spine.”
“Ok,” I said, bracing myself for what came next.
“There’s a 33% chance you could be a quadriplegic with a partial or total loss of the use of your limbs and torso,” he said.
My heart skipped a beat, and I noticed the anxiety in the lines of my mother’s face.
Tightening his lip, he warned. “…And then there’s a 33% chance we could lose you on the operating table.”
For a fleeting moment, I wondered again if we could avoid the surgery, but my surgeon formidably reiterated, “If you decide not to proceed with surgery, your spine will collapse and you’ll be in a wheelchair by the age of 30, and possibly not survive for much longer after that due to the twisting of your ribcage.”
I only heard the first option and my attitude was, “Oh I’ll be fine.” The pure, unshakable confidence of youth took hold of me. My parents though, weren’t as certain and my mom described her time in the waiting room during my surgery as “being trapped in a steel cage.”
My operation seemed to go as planned, but during the procedure, the surgeons performed a neurological test. That’s when they realized something had gone terribly wrong, as the whole right side of my body was paralyzed.
Having to put me back under again, the surgeons returned to my spine to shorten the metal rods that were interfering with my spinal cord. At this point the surgery was going on 15 hours. Because I was under anesthesia for so long, I went into respiratory arrest. My lungs shut down and I stopped breathing, which led to my cardiac arrest.
I died on the operating table for close to one minute.
Thanks to the skill and tenacity of the surgical team, both conditions were reversed – the paralysis and… death. It’s interesting how all three potential outcomes of the surgery became reality during those 15 hours. The final result was a stabilized curvature of 67 degrees and 70% lung capacity.
All the odds had been stacked up against me, so when I woke up and was fully aware of my survival, I felt enormously enthusiastic about life! Then reality hit me… I was in incredible pain and could hardly move. For months even after leaving the hospital, I couldn’t sit up on my own without assistance.
Surviving that near-death surgery and making a full recovery in six months shaped me into the fighter I am today. Knowing that I beat those odds helped me realize I could survive anything.
Eager to get on with life, I returned to nursing school and made up for lost time. I demanded perfection from myself and graduated at the top of my class. Shortly after, I moved to Florida and began my nursing career. I thought I had gained control of my life again, and it felt great having things back in order. But I was wrong.
The curvature in my back had been corrected, but the most difficult twists in my life were yet to come.
The first turning point came in 1996. Living in Florida and working as an orthopedic-neurological RN, one day I spotted an ad in the back of the local newspaper, recruiting extras for the Jodie Foster sci-fi flick Contact.
“Why not?” I thought, noting that it filmed on my day off and might be a fun thing to do.
Well that one day of “fun” led to commercial acting classes a few times a week. Then, my “all or nothing” perfectionist personality kicked in and suddenly I was relocating from Florida to LA – to become an actor. By the end of 1997, I was living a double life, walking the line between the straightforward sterility of my job as an RN and the creative, spontaneous and often volatile life of a struggling actor in LA.
Doubt crept into my life. It became very apparent to me that my path as a nurse was the wrong career. I grew sick of my job and felt like I was living a lie. My creative personality wanted to be free, but my nursing profession oppressed it. I resented the fact that the best of me had been spent to perform my demanding day-job. Trying to be two different people living two different lives was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting.
So I quit being a nurse.
The decision was exactly what my soul needed, but I lost clarity and structure in my life. For the first time, I let go of control. I didn’t have a plan or a call to action. I didn’t know what the hell to do, and I floundered…for years.
I hung out with creative people and stopped following rules. I died my hair pink. I transformed from the good girl with a predictable life, to pushing my limits and living off the rails. I even experienced a number of strange and inexplicable spiritual events, which I later chalked up to my near-death experience.
I was the nurse-turned-waitress/temp to make ends meet as an aspiring artist. I might have been struggling financially, but my soul finally felt alive pursuing acting, directing, fiction writing, screenwriting, and producing films.
Then, along the way something wonderful happened. I placed an ad in a number of college newspapers offering to type student term papers (my mom’s suggestion to “play to your strengths and find a way to pay your rent!”). Through a random chain of events, I connected with the father of a college senior, who initially hired me to type up notes for his upcoming book. Once he discovered that his typist was actually a writer, I was “promoted” to the position of book editor and then writer.
My book ghostwriting client!
One client led to another, which led to another… I felt the thrill and the challenge of writing several hundred paged books for my authors under intense timelines. Each published book built up my confidence, and I finally embraced my calling! I was put on this earth to tell other people’s stories in a way they could never do it themselves. It was (and is) exhilarating and immensely fulfilling!
Within a few short years, I was a bona fide ghostwriter for celebrities and larger-than-life personalities. My day job was finally financially secure.
Not only have I experienced great satisfaction as a ghostwriter, but I’ve enjoyed the entrepreneurial journey of growing my own writing company called Christine-Ink. We are focused on writing books and then building content strategies around those books. Our solutions include book development, coaching, ghostwriting, strategy, and do-it-yourself products.
My near-death experience was certainly the beginning of a journey to fight for my life, but the most difficult struggle wasn’t recovering from my traumatic surgery. I realized my greatest triumph was overcoming the various hurdles I had placed in my life that interfered with my true life calling. And now, a day doesn’t go by without me feeling immensely grateful for living a fulfilled, purposeful, and inspired life.
Co-written by Christine Whitmarsh & Alyce Renee
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Photo Credit: Annie Marie Photography at www.anniemariephotography.com