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How My Coma Was My Own Personal Awakening

It definitely changed my life for the better.

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Cropped view of someone laying in a hospital bed
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When I tell people I was in a coma, their faces look pained. Deeply sympathetic, they tell me how sorry they are that I had to go through such a trauma. But they’ve got it all wrong — because my coma changed my life for the better.

Twenty-five years ago I had just given birth. I was ecstatic, getting ready to take our baby home and be a family. I couldn’t wait to get skinny, to be speed-racing through life again. But then, my stomach abruptly hardened.

One emergency surgery turned to five; the blood poured out as if I were that hemorrhaging elevator in The Shining, and no one knew why, or how to stop it. Every doctor at NYU Medical became involved, from disease specialists to hematologists. And because the stress was deemed dangerous to my body, I was put into a medical coma for nearly a month. My family was called. Nobody thought I would survive.

But I did. When I woke, everything changed. Strangers prayed over me. A photo of my son was on the wall, festooned with my husband Jeff’s handwriting: “Get well Mommy, we miss you.” Doctors flooded my room, talking about my impending death. On morphine, I thought I was trapped in a TV show with a laugh track. Horrified, I shut my eyes. Finally, a hematologist diagnosed me with a 1-in-4-million disorder, a postpartum factor VIII inhibitor, which causes the body to lose its ability to clot blood. The treatment was toxic, and the outcome wasn’t good.

I proved the doctors wrong. When I felt frightened, I told myself, I can do this. Jeff came every day with photos and videos of our son. The nurses adored him, letting me know that many husbands of critically ill patients gradually stop visiting. Jeff’s vigilance and love were lifelines of hope.

Caroline Leavitt holding hands with her son on the boardwalk
Caroline Leavitt hold hands with her son on the boardwalk, months after awakening from her coma.
Courtesy of the author

Slowly, I began to get better, and four months later, I finally went home — to another transformation.

I had always been anxious. But now, grappling with survival, I had to learn patience because sudden movements or stress could start a bleed. I had to be patient with my baby, who wailed as if I were a stranger, until I parceled out our time together: five minutes, then half an hour, then, finally, he put his little starfish hand against my face, and we bonded.

Before I became ill, I was beautiful, thin and stylish, with porcelain skin and long, glossy curls. Now, still ill, I looked a thousand years old. Jeff sweetly told me that I was lovely, but I was balding and bloated from steroids, my skin gray. I cried when I saw myself. I didn’t want others to see me.

When an acquaintance from Victoria’s Secret offered me a huge writing job, I explained how different I looked, asking for the work to be messengered. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “Come on in.” When I did, her eyes traveled across my muumuu (the only thing that fit), my scarf-covered head, and her face fell. “I’m so sorry; the job was canceled,” she lied.

I drew myself up and thanked her, walking through a corridor of lovely, perfect young women into a blue-sky day. I lifted my face up to feel the sun, and then I had a revelation. What did my looks or this job really matter? What was that compared to being alive? To having a husband and a baby? I cried, but this time, out of gratitude.

My hair came back. I became thin again, but I stopped caring about either. Instead of noticing the stylish New York City beauties the way I used to, I noticed the style of a teenager with bad skin, the smile of an old man who probably thought he was invisible. And I complimented them. It made them — and me — happily connected.

Time passed, and the doctors told me cautiously that death — at least right now — was off the table for me. I had always been terrified of dying, seeing it as a lonely end point. But I began to remember (and have again) dreams I had had in my coma, about a town so real I was sure that it — and another life — existed on some other plane. Suddenly, I wasn’t afraid. Instead, I was curious.

But my transformation wasn’t over. Nineteen years passed, and to my joy, people began to tell me that I now had a reputation for kindness, for patience, that they loved how excited I could get at the smallest things. But still, my coma experience wouldn’t leave me. Any sort of hospital smell or color triggered panic attacks. Sleep, too much like a coma for me, terrified me. Panicked, I saw a therapist. “You’re a novelist!’ she said. “Write about this. That’s how you can heal it.”

“I don’t want to go back in that darkness,” I replied.

“So bring in light,” she advised. “Give your experience to someone totally unlike you. Your brain won’t know the difference, so in a way, you can re-create your reality.”

Reluctantly, I began to write my next novel, With or Without You. Unlike me, my character Stella awakes from her coma with a talent. Unlike me, she’s aware during her coma, so she isn’t as frightened as I was. To my shock, I couldn’t wait to become Stella every day. My triggers began to fade along with my devotion to Stella.

I now have a new mantra: I was in a coma and it enriched my life. My disorder could come back (it’s “resolved,” not cured), but that doesn’t scare me. Yes, the world is full of terror and tragedy and things can change in a nanosecond. But because of that possibility, the joys can feel even more profound.

Think about how you’d like to change. Believe that you can. Have patience. Allow yourself the wonder. A coma jump-started my transformation, but you don’t need to have one to jump-start yours.

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