When I was 25 years old, I suffered a life-threatening motorcycle accident and lived, after having a near death experience. I went straight into, then over a guardrail with speed.

When I was 25 years old, I suffered a life-threatening motorcycle accident and lived. I went straight into, then over a guardrail with speed. I ruptured both lungs, my spleen and Achilles and had extensive lacerations throughout my liver, intestines and diaphragm with a flail chest. I also had a traumatic brain injury, bruised heart, ruptured vertebral discs, a grade-three talus fracture, road rash and more. Almost three decades later, CT scans still glare an alarming amount of wire, mesh, screws and surgical clip repairs from this single accident.

My family was told that if I survived the accident, I would be crippled and never walk or work again. I spent an entire summer in a level-one trauma hospital where I was fed through a jejunostomy tube. I emaciated to about 90 pounds with abscesses, pneumonia, septicemia, temporary paralysis and more. Social workers filed for disability and Social Security benefits before I even left the hospital. That’s when my doctors said my orthopedic issues would cause the greatest and longest lingering problems of all.

Well, those doctors were right about the orthopedic problems, but they were wrong about walking and working. A patient’s determination will often assist their function. Within six months I was walking with a severe limp and nine months later, I returned to physical work and was able to perform full body massage therapy appointments in a walking cast.

Living After a Near-Fatal Accident

After I was successfully removed from life support and discharged from the hospital, I had multiple sessions of chiropractic care, massage therapy and acupuncture every week for the first year as part of my rehab, and I continued these sessions with less frequency but similar success ever since. I am 100% certain that frequent bodywork improved my chance of survival and overall rehab process.

After a couple years of surgery and massive rehab efforts, most would never know that I had survived a life-threatening accident, minus the tracheotomy scar that usually signals life-saving care. Some have said I can obscure the scar with minimal plastic surgery. But instead, like Elizabeth Taylor, I wear it like a badge of honor. Whenever I’m having a bad day, it reminds me of how lucky I am and how far I have come.

Lessons From a Near-Fatal Accident

In spite of the devastating physical injuries, the entire accident helped me become a better massage therapist then instructor. I learned things such as how important the intercostal muscles are to breathing—a commonly known fact that is better understood when you lose this muscle function.

Despite being a world class athlete who once worked for Reebok, the worst muscle burn I have ever felt in my life was when these tiny intercostals struggled to contract again when the respiratory team weaned me off a ventilator. It’s a real-life learning experience of how these muscles work like none other. So was learning to walk again at age 26.

Undiagnosed and Untreated Orthopedic Fractures

I also learned in emergency medicine that life-threatening vital organ damage can lead to undiagnosed and untreated bone fractures. In fact, my condition was considered too critical to repair my ankle while the surgeons tried to repair my vital organs and internal lacerations. As such, I lived with:

• A partially severed foot, blood transfusions and massive bloody bandaging, until surgeons restored my ankle a few days after the accident;

• My finger fractures were not diagnosed or treated until after I was discharged from the ICU and admitted to the regular hospital floor ;

• A fairly large femur fracture was not detected until almost 10 years after the accident and then, suffered a failed osteochondral autograft transplantation system (OATS) procedure;

• A smaller fibula fracture went undetected until almost 25 years after the accident.

All of these initially undiagnosed fractures were only discovered after I experienced extreme pain with them. Severe pain was my only indicator that something was terribly wrong.

The reason orthopedic injuries can be missed in emergency medicine is because lifesaving measures are prioritized, and bone fractures are less obvious in critical, incapacitated patients. Additionally, the time spent immobile in a coma or ICU bed will allow fractures to heal. Of course, natural healing might not be the best if fractured bone(s) are not set in the correct position, which can become a new problem if the patient survives the initial trauma like I did.

Traumatic Shock

In the most severe accidents such as mine, you’ll also likely experience something called shock. When I regained consciousness after the accident, I felt nothing and had no idea that I was almost cut in half by the guardrail.

I was lying on my back and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sit up or stand. So, I raised one arm, then the other, then one leg and when I raised my last leg, my foot fell over and pointed in the opposite direction. Still, I had no idea how injured I was despite seeing my foot pointing in the wrong direction.

 It wasn’t until EMTs cut off my clothes and I saw the sea of blood across my chest that I realized I was in trouble, before losing consciousness again. My one saving grace at the scene was that I had well-trained EMTs who remained calm throughout, despite working desperately to restart my heart, stop the bleeding and save my life.

In real life-and-death medical emergencies, a patient may become too critical to comprehend their situation due to shock. But in stark contrast to this, when they attempted to insert my chest tubes, I woke up and swung about in extreme pain until I heard someone say: “How is she feeling this?” before I lost consciousness again. Unfortunately, shock can and will eventually wear off, and there’s little warning when it does.

Cardiac Arrest

I also have the distinct honor of surviving multiple cardiac arrests. My friends still remind me of the times they were ushered from my SICU room due to daily code blues.

What’s astonishing during this time of death is that my feelings and observations continued, but were processed and experienced differently. For example, I felt overwhelming stress for my loved ones while they cried over me, but that stress was immediately replaced with peace once my heart stopped beating. I was still able to observe everyone and everything during cardiac arrest despite not being able to move or communicate, but my existence and observations were inexplicably made from a distance.

I asked my ICU nurses about some of the things I experienced during my codes, and they told me that I would not have been able to see some of those procedures or people from the bed where I was lying. In fact, they shared that they had heard similar experiences to what I saw from other patients who survived their codes. Obviously, a patient can be confused when they regain consciousness after cardiac arrest, because we cannot tell if what we remember is real or a dream—as it often feels like both.

How Almost Dying Influenced My Bodywork

Bodywork in the ICU: While my left foot was wrapped in bleeding bandages, I’ll never forget my ICU nurse Randy, who was trained in and provided a foot reflexology session on my right foot. I’m positive that saved my life when I felt like I had nothing left inside to continue. I was sweating with a 105-degree fever and had very painful icepacks on my axillary and groin regions, plus I was struggling for breath with burning intercostals and more. Randy’s tender touch on that one foot made me want to live. I felt life again! Nothing ever felt so promising.

The second-most-promising feeling I experienced in the ICU was when a respiratory therapist placed a cool face cloth on my forehead while I was burning with fever and infection. I thought he dispatched me to heaven it felt so good. (My nurses were burning my skin with ice as their only concern seemed to be lowering my growing fever. Unfortunately, sometimes life-threatening situations become a dictation of protocols.)

With these critical care experiences and more, I try to work calmly with other critical care patients by providing pain-relieving techniques with modalities such as lymphatic drainage, foot reflexology or hand massage when infection is not present. Or I can use things like a cool moist cloth and stationary compassionate touch for those with fevers and infections.

I watch the corners of the client’s mouth to see if I can find a slight smile with my application. Seeing the corners of the mouth turn upwards is usually a good indicator that they are enjoying the work, especially when a client is paralyzed, intubated or unable to verbally communicate. Likewise, seeing any form of stress on a client’s face may be a negative response and an indication to stop.

If your critical care client is paralyzed or intubated but still conscious and unable to speak or move, you could also ask them to blink once for yes or blink twice for no, and then only ask yes or no questions, such as: Would you like me to continue working on you? Blinking of the eyes is a common way to communicate with partially incapacitated patients.

Hospice and Alzheimer’s Bodywork: I try to keep things light-hearted when working in depressing situations. Most loved ones will express concern, grief and a lot of emotions that do not feel positive in end-stage living. Being a cheery, smiling practitioner for someone who is dying can certainly lighten the mood.

I even try to joke a little at some of these facilities when providing the same client regular care. These clients are often stuck inside, and they want to know what’s happening outside. After getting to know a client, I might make a comment such as it’s snowing out in the middle of July. This makes them think, then respond, usually with great laughter when they realize that I’m being mischievous and silly. I always immediately admit when I am teasing them to preserve trust and integrity.

Life can be overly serious in an end-of-life care facility, and for good reason too. But I feel that trying to provide some lighthearted fun—plus bodywork can make a better existence for all. Modalities such as energy work, geriatric bodywork, craniosacral therapy, reflexology, aromatherapy, and other non-invasive measures are probably best for these situations.

The Last Moments of Life: My practices change for clients who are on their death bed. There is little-to-no humor, but I’ll remain positive, even when others are crying and expressing grief which is all okay.

I keep constant hands-on contact with the client after the heart and all life saving measures have stopped. While remaining compassionate, I rarely show sadness because I know from my own experience that this soul is now in a peaceful place, hopefully similar to what I have experienced. I’ll tell anyone in the room that they can share any last thoughts because in death, I know for a few brief moments their loved one can still hear and see them.

I also try to provide bodywork services that do not require disrobement in a hospice, memory loss or death bed situation. Most will be in a gown, pajamas or fully dressed. I don’t want these clients to become alarmed if they find that they were unknowingly naked in the presence of another regardless of draping. This type of client might also forget who you are, and we do not want to cause fear either. Wearing a name tag with your profession spelled-out can be reassuring and helpful.

Everyday Client Massage and Bodywork: My bodywork today for nonterminal and nonacute clients is probably most influenced with a neuromuscular approach, to restore optimal health and function. My client intake process never stops once the client gets on the table. If the client wishes for therapeutic services and I see a scar, muscle mass difference, lost ROM or anything else that wasn’t addressed in my client’s intake, I’ll start to ask more questions about how they achieved what I am observing.

One of my recent clients was able to obtain a swift neurological diagnosis and treatment from a specialist after I pointed out that his calves appeared to have lost muscle tone and were almost 50% smaller than when I had originally started working on him the year prior. He also had been in a devastating motorcycle accident, and like me, doctors regularly told him he was lucky to be alive and that ongoing pain from the accident is expected and normal. Their lack of observation and dismissals unfortunately missed his neurological condition, until the muscle loss was pointed out to a specialist.

Sometimes bodily function restoration may include my own bodywork techniques, and sometimes restoration requires a referral to another professional such as a neurologist, chiropractor or orthopedist.

In the end, I never stop asking questions and I rarely give up. I know that almost anything is possible, especially when there is a will and a way. The challenge is regularly finding what’s wrong to achieve proper care.

And if someone’s survived a major life-threatening accident, they might have more injuries than they ever knew about—similar to my many undiagnosed bone fractures and my client’s undetected neurological condition.

Survivor’s Guilt and Gift

Almost dying plus an excruciating rehab process that still continues to this day does not have to be the end of life as you know it experience that some may forecast it to be. In my case, I was able to continue an extraordinary albeit more complicated life. I also went back to my sport and won one more national title in professional athletics, eight years after this devastating motorcycle accident.

The doctors told me I was about a 1 in 100,000 chance to live from this accident. I never figured out why I was the one in 100,000 to live. I’m told that many who survive rare odds have questionable feelings about surviving like I do. It’s called survivor guilt. So, if I can create another positive experience from this horrible accident by sharing it all, then please, let this be it.

Selena Belisle

About the Author

Selena Belisle is a retired professional athlete and the founder of CE Institute LLC in Miami, Florida. She has practiced sports massage for over 30 years and started St. John Neuromuscular Therapy training in 1995. You can learn more about her training and CE classes at CeInstitute.com.