Song of life
“Yes, I am the girl who almost died. But goodness came from my experience.”
by Jen Waters, Bus Ad ’17
“We must sing for her now,” said four of Connor’s quick-to-love students when he mentioned he had a friend in the hospital. The leader of the quartet looked into Connor’s camera and explained they would sing a song to make his friend feel better, to bring healing to her heart.
… Connor and I met during our sophomore year at Marquette and became fast friends. We both studied abroad the fall of our junior year; he in Cape Town, South Africa, I in Madrid, Spain. Connor spent a large part of his time abroad working with students at a primary school. I spent a large part of my time abroad being treated for and recovering from a traumatic brain injury.
When the midpoint of my semester abroad neared, I felt a need for self-evaluation and introspection. I decided to take a trip from Madrid to Granada and spend the weekend on my own to examine my experience so far.
I arrived ready to tour a new city in a fresh way. I visited La Alhambra with a girl I met in the hostel where I stayed. We took in the beauty of the gardens, the architecture and history together. After we parted ways, I explored Granada on my own. I popped into cathedrals, conversed with shop vendors to figure out what type of tea would be best for a sore throat, and picked up a Spanish novel to read during my trip back to Madrid. While I walked through the cobbled streets, I contemplated what sort of impact my next few months abroad might have on me.
My relationships with my host family, my fellow exchange students and Spanish students were formed quickly — and held fast. My Spanish language was improving. I began reading the Spanish novel as I waited for the train back to Madrid. To my delight a stranger asked me, in Spanish, if I knew English. That question was a wonderful end to my weekend away.
When the train pulled into a major metro stop, I had the opportunity to transfer to a train that would take me closer to my flat. I chose to take the long route home. The route would allow me to pass through Malasaña, my favorite neighborhood in Madrid. There I walked among the crowds and smiled at friends strolling arm-in-arm. I arrived home and ate a traditionally late dinner with my host family. I told them about my trip, about what I learned, both the cultural points and my personal intentions. I explained that while my time abroad felt fulfilling, I longed to be connected with a faith community in Madrid.
The next morning I reached out to someone I met a few weeks prior who mentioned a church he was helping lead in the city. The congregation would gather that Sunday night, so I decided to walk to the church to join them. That is when my experience abroad changed drastically.
As I crossed the street, I was grazed by a car. The impact of my head hitting the pavement was so severe, it caused a subdural hematoma that led to a rapid swelling of my brain.
I don’t remember riding in the ambulance to the hospital. I don’t remember the day of the accident at all. I do remember waking up in a haze a few weeks later, realizing I was in a hospital. I didn’t know why I was there. The nurses sped around the room checking on patients, speaking Spanish. Their voices comforted me, assured me that I was in Spain and the experiences I had were not dreams.
My parents and brother had arrived the day following the accident. When I emerged from a coma it was difficult for me to communicate with them. I was unable to speak thoughts that formed in my mind. My parents told me what happened, when the accident occurred and what the doctors did to keep me alive. Their explanation helped. I now understood why I was in the hospital, but I struggled to understand how critical my state had been. They told me to resist the urge to get out of bed (though I tried) because my muscles were weakened from atrophy and my brain didn’t have its normal amount of protection. To prevent the swelling in my brain from reaching a fatal point, my neurosurgeon, Dr. Kita Sallabanda, had performed a bilateral craniectomy, the partial removal of the skull. The procedure left me with a “mohawk,” which is what many neurosurgeons call the inch-wide strip of bone left in place. In later surgeries, pieces of my skull were reattached to this strip of bone. Between my shaved scalp and my “mohawk,” I received the most extreme haircut I had ever heard of. But I was alive to hear about it.
I am alive!
My survival is a result of the astounding care from the medical team. But I attribute my full recovery to many things. My parents and brother were enveloped with kindness. Marquette’s Office of International Education found an apartment directly across the street from the hospital where my family stayed for two months. My aunts and uncles came to Madrid throughout the weeks to comfort and care for my parents. Spanish families participating in the host program, members of the church I intended to visit, and friends of friends filled the refrigerator with food that was comforting and nourishing. When my brother returned to school, Marquette’s Campus Ministry reached out to make sure he was being tended to at Lewis University.
Reflecting on this experience, I realize I was surrounded by individuals, both kin and stranger, who prayed for my complete healing and restoration. For me, it was an experience of expanded belief, of learning how to express it, of learning how to depend on the faith others live out.
After I left the hospital, I had a few days when I was able to visit friends and enjoy Madrid. I returned home Dec. 12, 2014, and was welcomed with tears of joy and countless hugs.
I wasn’t able to return to Marquette right away. My parents thought it would be best for me to take time off to heal. I was frustrated, but am now thankful for their wisdom. During the months at home I had time to reflect on my experience, to think about all of the communities of people who rallied for me, and to be thankful for the chance to live a full life.
I returned to Marquette in the fall of 2015. After countless times of explaining that, “Yes, I am the girl who almost died” but also making sure to explain the goodness that came from it, I settled back into the place I love deeply. I will graduate on May 21. Although I don’t know my next steps, I know this: As I go forth, I plan to live as Connor’s students and so many others did, by singing a song of healing to the world. Join me, let us sing for one another. •