What it feels like to be in a coma

Colleen Alexander after (left) and during her 5-week coma. Picture: Runner's World/Reed Young Giving Blood Feels Good
Colleen Alexander after (left) and during her 5-week coma. Picture: Runner's World/Reed Young Giving Blood Feels Good

LIFE has a way of coming at us in both beautiful and unforgiving ways ... sometimes on the same day.

On October 8, 2011, I was riding home from a work meeting on my bike along the Connecticut shoreline.

It was one of those lovely days - the perfect, crisp autumn weather, with leaves just starting to take on their new hues.

I was soaking it all in when I noticed a truck driver turning in my direction from a side street. He was just feet away from the stop sign, coming fast, and we briefly made eye contact. There wasn't even time for me to completely process the thought: He's coming right at me. Stop!

In an instant, my body was torn apart - first I was knocked off the bike and run over with his front wheels, then I was flipped over as he ran over my midsection with his back wheels.

I thought those might be my last moments on Earth.

I could see my bones, my blood ... things that were supposed to be inside my body were open and exposed.

People came screaming from all directions, some to stop the fleeing driver, some to hold me and call 911 and try to keep me from dying right there.

And I begged them for my life, as if they had that power.

"Please, I've just been reconnected with my soulmate. We just got married and we're trying to have a baby. Please don't let me die."

The all-female EMT team showed up in record time, put me in an ambulance and headed to the nearest hospital with a Level 1 trauma centre, nearly an hour away.

"I can't believe she's still conscious," I heard the driver say to Amanda, the young medic in charge of watching my vital signs.

I would learn later that it was Amanda's first day on the job.

She put her hand on my heart as I requested and made impossible promises that I would live as she injected me with morphine and told me I didn't have to fight so hard.

I stayed conscious all the way through the ride - and then promptly flatlined within a few minutes of arrival through those trauma doors.

There was practically no blood left in my body. My heart wanted to pump, but it had run dry.

An enormous team of people worked at saving my life - the runner who brought blood donations so I could receive multiple transfusions, the medical team taking turns doing CPR on me for 20 minutes, the surgeon who refused to call the time of death even after those 20 minutes had passed. They got a pulse back, but I kept coding again, over and over for the next several hours.

All the while, my husband was in the special waiting room where they kept people whose loved ones were expected to die.

He had no idea. The stranger who called him had only said that I'd been in an accident and probably had a broken leg.

It was hours before anyone told Sean the truth, that his new wife was unlikely to make it through the night.

But I did.

With insurmountable odds stacked against me, I was finally stabilised and put into an induced coma to help my body heal.

Now, if you've never been in a coma, I'm going to guess that you think they look like the ones on television: The person is just totally "out," no signs of awareness. That happens in the rarest of cases.

Usually, comas are more like twilight states - hazy, dreamlike things where you don't have fully formed thoughts or experiences, but you still feel pain and form memories that your brain invents to try to make sense of what's happening to you.

After going into shock and flatlining in the ER, my next memories began once I was in the Surgical Intensive Unit.

I remember being fully awake but unable to focus on anything. I could feel hands touching my head and comforting me, but I couldn't move.

I heard beeping, dinging, and ticking; I could feel my lungs expand and contract, but had no control over what was happening.

As they would do wound changes, they would increase my medications intravenously, which would sedate me further and help manage my pain.

My body thought I was being raped and tortured; what was really happening was that the wounds from my anal and vaginal areas, stomach, hips and leg were being unpacked, cleaned and then repacked.

My brain couldn't understand that they were really helping me.

Alexander two weeks after her brain surgery.
Alexander two weeks after her brain surgery.

Certain voices were soothing. When my husband would be in the room, I could hear him, but I couldn't understand his words.

Throughout the five-plus weeks, they would bring me in over a dozen times to do various surgeries; when this happened, they would need to wean me off certain medications and make other dosing stronger so I could be completely sedated and paralysed for surgery.

I remember being wheeled down hallways multiple times and seeing a bright runway of lights above me.

I recall feeling the temperature changing in the halls and operating room with the temperature on my skin and even feeling the little hairs on my cheek move.

Sometimes I would fall into a dream/sleep and think I was in a tropical climate; I would long for any sort of water to drink, and felt hot.

I recall various places that I "went" through those weeks.

Some were filled with family and friends who have died, and were as clear as if I was walking with them in the present. I could feel the grass, the sunshine and their hugs.

When the nightmares became dark, I would think I was being brutally assaulted over and over as I cried for mercy.

Most of my PTSD from the trauma was not from the actual act of getting run over and remembering every vivid detail - it was from being locked in my body, day in and day out, not knowing what was real and what was a dream.

To this day, I often depersonalise and question the present. I gaze upon my hands and wonder if they are really moving and I am truly alive.

When I was finally weaned off the anaesthesia, able to breathe on my own and brought back to consciousness, Sean had to tell me I'd been in a coma for a month-and-a-half.

Most of my lower body was shredded in ways that could never be properly put back together. There were stitches and tubes everywhere; I had withered to skin and bones and every minuscule movement was agony.

Colleen Kelly Alexander in a photo shoot for magazine Runner’s World. Picture: Reed Young
Colleen Kelly Alexander in a photo shoot for magazine Runner’s World. Picture: Reed Young

It was likely I'd never be physically intimate with my husband again. After months of this, I hit a point where I wasn't sure I wanted to live anymore.

What began to pull me through was a speech I'd heard by Nobel prize laureate Jody Williams. In it, she said: "Emotion without action is irrelevant."

All this emotion wasted feeling miserable and sorry for myself needed a direction.

I could sit there wallowing in the pain or I could do something to improve my mental health, even while there was nothing I could do about the physical side of things. The direction I found was gratitude.

I thought about all those people who had saved my life on the day of my trauma - the bystanders who leapt to action on the road, the EMTs, the medical team, and the ones who had plotted to save my life before it was even in peril: the blood donors and Red Cross volunteers.

In the end, I had needed 78 units of blood and plasma from more than 150 donors.

It suddenly felt very real to me that I had the lifeblood of countless people running through my veins.

People of all races, religions, genders, ages. People who liked rap music and country music. People whose lives looked nothing like mine, and who had rolled up their sleeves and donated this gift to a person they'd never met.

I felt a responsibility to do something positive to honour these many, everyday heroes who'd saved me.

My first project, from my rehab bed, was to organise a cycling tour to raise money for more adaptive bikes for disabled athletes.

Colleen Kelly Alexander completed the Superhero Half Marathon just 10 months after the accident.
Colleen Kelly Alexander completed the Superhero Half Marathon just 10 months after the accident.

We ended up raising more than $US10,000. I'd always defined myself as an athlete and couldn't picture my life not being one, so I pushed myself in rehab to get well enough to begin training again.

Ten months post-trauma, I did the Superhero Half Marathon using a walker and toting a colostomy bag, in a Wonder Woman costume.

I cried happy tears at the finish line because I had no idea I'd make it that far.

I'd barely been able to walk across the room a couple months earlier. I gave my medal to my chief surgeon, one of my most important heroes.

I've now completed dozens of half marathons, triathlons and two marathons, and recently had the honour of becoming a guide for another challenged athlete.

I will never be able to compete in the sense that I once did, but that's not the point anymore. I'm out there in this world doing the things I love, challenging myself and showing my gratitude every chance I get.

We can't control life's unexpected twists, only our reactions to them. Finding gratitude in the midst of even the toughest times is a gift from the heart, both for the sender and receiver. Sometimes a small shift in perspective can change the course of your life.


An edited extract adapted from Gratitude In Motion: A True Story Of Hope, Determination, and The Everyday Heroes Around Us by Colleen Kelly Alexander, Center Street, $39.99, out now.


This article originally appeared on the New York Post and is republished here with permission.

Topics:  coma editors picks hospital sick

Stay Connected

Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.

Kingaroy police investigating wallet theft

The intruder fired a shot at the resident, who suffered minor injuries.

Phone Crime Stoppers if you have any information

Store expands to new Nanango location

With weekly sewing classes Alisellou Designs is set to be a community hub for crafty locals.

One stop sewing shop celebrates grand opening.

Flasher charged with drink driving

Woman will appear in court on April 9

Local Partners