How To Heal From A Disaster
An M.D. faces the toughest test of a spiritual practice—healing herself from a terrible fall.
Liberation by Laura Berger
As an experienced physician, I had always abided by the old clinician’s adage “Common things are common.” So when a scratchy ache in my neck turned out to be a growing stone in a salivary gland, I wasn’t particularly worried. I figured that a common surgeon could fix a common problem.
A salivary stone is like a kidney stone. It builds up over time until it gets too big to squeeze through the tiny duct, just as the kidney stone becomes jammed in the narrow ureter. In the case of the salivary stone, the nerves around the teeth get involved, and there is excruciating and debilitating pain.
I’m also cautious. I visited no fewer than three reputable surgeons in downtown Toronto to get opinions. Head and neck surgery was offered casually: “We make a little incision here, just under your jawline, and pull out the gland altogether,” said one. With nonchalant accuracy, he listed possible side effects including a severed facial nerve and permanent facial droop, along with a myriad of other scary risks.
Not for me, thank you, I said to myself, and after much research I found a surgeon who could remove the 6-millimeter stone without removing the gland. I should add that this service was not covered by OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan), but I was willing to pay the extra thousand bucks—a small sacrifice to keep my facial nerve intact.
So I went for the procedure, which was not for the faint of heart. It involved full intubation and real surgery, with the doctor sticking a tiny rod into the duct, and trying to gently coax out the stone with a microscopic basket. My stubborn stone, however, refused to budge, and I awoke to the kind and apologetic surgeon explaining the failure of the surgery.
It was not long before my entire neck rebelled and I had an unrelenting ache in my teeth. I couldn’t eat, since the area under the tongue swelled to the size of a pudgy goldfish. I started to pop painkillers like Tic Tacs. There was Demerol, and Tylenol 3, and my favorite, the Percocets. Within days, I looked like a strung-out addict. Dry, itchy belly, constipation, pinpoint pupils, lethargy, and inability to swallow. My sister began feeding me her yoga-inspired power shakes through a plastic straw. I stopped going to work and set my alarm for a 4:00 a.m. Percocet so as not to feel the level 10 pain at 7:00, when I had to usher the children off to school.
With despair as my inspiration, I called an energy healer, a man I had heard about through a casual acquaintance. They say that every person comes into your life for a reason, but I had no inkling that this would be the beginning of a long and convoluted spiritual path. I knew only that I could no longer suffer.
My friends and colleagues continue to ask me what the healer did. I answer that it is one of those things that you have to experience to understand. I explain that I lay on a massage table with my eyes closed and my mind at peace. I listened to New Age music, while this man with a Welsh accent moved his hands around my body without touching me. I concentrated on a light inside my mind’s eye, one that actually did appear to me after relaxation and deep concentration. I breathed in and out. I unknowingly surrendered. The healer did some talking, but it was more of a supplication, and he encouraged me to remember that my body was whole, that my gland was my friend. I know it sounds really trite and hokey, but I was in no position to argue. I put every iota of my evidence-based science background into believing, and I breathed in and out.
After eight Percocets on Monday, I needed only one Percocet on Tuesday. After a second session, where I conjured a perfect image of my childhood, one where I was riding my banana-seat bicycle without a helmet on a sunny Montreal afternoon, I felt the pain settle. I went to the bathroom, and white junk came out of my mouth. I ate a stale piece of bread with peanut butter. The pudgy goldfish-sized tongue had shrunk to the size of a guppy.
A month later, I ordered an X-ray for myself, not wanting to try to explain the experience to any of the surgeons I had met. “No Calculi” was the reading, meaning that the 6-mm stone had disappeared.
A Seeker Is Born
So I became something of a spiritual spokesperson for my medical friends, but of course the experience was anecdotal. None of us could explain how the embedded stone could simply evaporate, but for me it was a calling to further explore the unscience of healing.
My search for the unseen side of medicine, the wisdom and the faith that affect our body’s function, was not a simple Google search. I delved into this entity called “energy” with a vengeance. In one workshop titled “Energy healing” we explored rebirthing, and how the journey through the birth canal could affect our life path. I danced with hippies in California, and sat naked with strangers in a hot tub at Esalen. I looked into Shamanism, but could not find the fit. I chanted in a language I did not understand. I engaged in profound rhythmic breathing with a “breath coach” and threw colorful scarves into a metaphorical fire, trying to engage the soul with every method I could muster.
And after much movement, I found the invitation to settle down. Whenever my body would speak to me, often through a tension beneath the left scapula, I found myself breathing into that pain, trying to decipher its message in a global sense. Pain became the messenger. And when there was pain, I learned, with much, much resistance, stillness would be the best salve.
The back pain led me to a practitioner of Rolfing (a type of massage therapy). The Rolfer was a Buddhist, and through our meandering chats, I found myself drawn again to the breath, in a very serious but inconsistent kind of way. I became a reluctant meditator, despite my best intentions to distract, derail, and delude myself into many other ways to spend my valuable time.
I can’t really explain why I stuck with it. Meditating is boring, and I love excitement. Stillness is quiet, and I love sound. Aloneness is lonely, and I love stimulation. Structure is rigid, and I love to move. But I am open, and I had a sense that there was something else asking for my attention. I participated in a silent meditation retreat (where I cheated, no less, and spoke to the innkeeper). I asked myself many times how I got there, and how I convinced myself to stay. I could not have predicted at the time that the training my body had called for would prepare me for the most heroic challenge to my mind, my thoughts, and everything in between.
The Test of a Practice
I was out with a friend for a walk in the woods. We chatted, we climbed, we sauntered, in no haste to get anywhere particular. My friend was a knowledgeable hiker, had been on Outward Bound, and ran marathons. This pleasant summer stroll was interrupted, however, when, without warning, I fell foot-first into a 40-foot-deep crevasse.
I will simply say that I did not see the crevasse. There was a path, there was a large root, and I stepped out of the way. The path was shaded, the crevasse was not marked, and I thought I was moving into a gulley. I know that I landed on my knees, on a tree stump that cushioned the fall. I know that I smashed my head on the side of the cliff, and that I tried to break the fall with my wrist. And I know that there was a point when my life stood still.
My friend scrambled down to find me conscious, blood trickling down my forehead. She called 9-1-1, and we sat alone in the crevasse, staring into each other’s eyes, waiting for help to arrive. If ever there was a time to surrender with a capital S, that was the time. Using every meditation technique I had ever learned, I stared back at my friend and I breathed.
One minute was one hour, but eventually the firefighter arrived, and EMS arrived. My friend signaled that my head was injured, and the firefighter whispered into my ear that they were coming to get me out. They taped my temple gently. I breathed. The EMS guy and my friend talked about marathons that they had run. I continued to breathe. The backboard came down the inclined rocky slope, and I was strapped onto the board. No fewer than 10 men silently pulled on the ropes atop the crevasse and carried my limp body on the stretcher to the waiting ambulance. At no time was there a missed step. I still remember the sound of the feet moving through the kilometer of unshorn shrub to the waiting ambulance. A jolty ride through the park led us to the helicopter, where I was transported seamlessly to the Trauma Unit of St. Michael’s Hospital.
The injuries were many, and I recognized the gaze of worry in every medical specialist who hovered around my ICU bed. There were two smashed patellas (kneecaps), leaving me horizontal. There was a pulverized wrist in a cast, and a neck brace stabilizing the C7 facet in my neck. There was a gash above the eye, which extended to the skull, and all the bones around the left eye were fractured. There were a few broken toes.
I made it through the emergency surgeries, and found myself getting deeper into my capacity to breathe. Lying in my bed awaiting the facial surgery, I found myself looking at the ceiling and breathing deep into the belly. Awaiting a bedpan at 2 a.m., I explored humility, and sadness, and shame, and I breathed. With a nonnegotiable mandate to be still, I saw patience, I met kindness, and from strangers all around I found compassion. Fear would pop up at night, when there was a power failure and I couldn’t be sure if they would remember to come get me. In those moments, I breathed.
I was scheduled to spend the summer in rehab. I knew that the path would be thorny, and I could not allow myself any indulgence in “poor-me-hood.” I also knew I could not leave my healing to “science” alone. So two times per week, with a sign on the door saying “Do not disturb, meditating,” my healer and I would move the energy around. My energy around. My oneness. My wholeness, my wellness to share this story.
A Course in Miracles
I was offered any pain-relieving cocktail I desired (physician membership does have its privileges); instead, I breathed into the discomfort, every micro minuscule minute of it. I did not welcome pain or indulge it. And I did not take a single painkiller.
My surgeon warned me that I might need a bone graft in my wrist. “Your radial bone is like dust,” my doctor said sternly. With the support of the healer, we concentrated on regrafting every bone cell—letting that radial bone grow strong like a flowering branch. And no bone graft was needed.
To reset the bones around my eye was akin to resetting the prism of a camera lens. We breathed into every image of the retina I could muster, and this eye was the one in a million that was not damaged.
The massive open fracture of my left knee risked infection and called for a skin graft. But with the healer I embraced that knee, we loved that knee, we cherished that knee for breaking the fall. My knee healed without infection, and the skin closed on its own.
And then there was the gash in my head that went through to the skull; and the C7 facet, the base of the neck, which if not set would require more surgery. This is where the breath grew deeper, the concentration more attuned. I am a medical doctor. I am not giving up on my brain.
So my healer and I worked more intensely. He laid his healing hands over my neck brace, and I stared into that light in my mind’s eye and I imagined those tiny bone cells weaving their web together. Doubt was not allowed. The only message was that this body is my body, and this body knows how to heal.
I reviewed the CT scan with the physician and, sure enough, there was damage to the brain tissue. But I did not give in to concussion. I breathed into that discomfort above my left temple. I answered every question asked of me with every nanosecond of mindfulness I could muster. I made it my business to remember every name I came across, so that there was every opportunity to fire synapses. My synapses.
In my quieter moments, when the healer was gone and the room was dark, I sat motionless and began to pray. But I did not pray alone. My girlfriend called the rabbi at my synagogue, and Holy Blossom Temple began to pray. And my brother reached out to a group of 30 Orthodox Jewish women whom I had never met, and that group began to recite hymns in my honor, so that I would be granted a refuah shlemah, a full recovery. And my sister, the yoga instructor, set intentions with her students and those students began to pray.
Emails arrived daily from friends I knew and friends they knew, and it seemed that many people around the globe had begun to pray with me. Miracle? Maybe. Karma? Could be. My stay was the shortest stay of a polytrauma patient to cross the Toronto Rehab Inpatient Unit.
And now I stand sturdy, with knees that cry out from time to time, a bit of asymmetry on my face, a wrist that won’t cooperate in backbends, and a brain that guides me back to the breath. The belly of the breath. The resistance of the breath. The awareness that this breath keeps me awake. This breath keeps me breathing.
To Find Your Healer
The way to find your healer is through an open mind. When we are struck with a medical illness or a lifetime obstacle, the immediate reaction is to look for a prescribed solution outside of ourselves. However, if we tap in, we will often recall a conversation or a situation where an alternative had been offered. The judgmental mind rejects these possibilities quickly. The intuitive self, however, replays the music, and listens for the chorus. The soul is a natural seeker.
With openness as a guide, your healer will appear. Yoga studios are often a good first step, as the yoga community is already open to alternative methods to wellness. Word of mouth is still the best option for finding a trusted practitioner. But I cannot emphasize strongly enough that we are our own healers, even when we are at our worst and most broken. The inner fire is tame at times, and the healer stokes the fire.
We typically seek out healers when we have exhausted all other resources. However, if we look more closely, we have often chosen to ignore the emotional body while seeking solutions to physical ailments. A true healer taps into the emotional body in a way that makes sense to us. A healer helps us to appreciate that we are one human entity, with an emotional and spiritual realm, tethered to a body of impermanence. There really need be no hocus-pocus, but rather an awareness of a deep well of resilience that lies within. That is the trademark of a true healer.
Joan Tucker, M.D., is a clinician in Toronto who now specializes in Occupational Psychiatry, helping patients with various degrees of psychiatric difficulty return to healthy workplace function.