I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Jennifer. She truly is an incredible woman, full of love and hope for women, babies, and families. Here she shares her struggles recovering from an accident that abruptly put life as she knew it, on pause. From her we learn, it is often easy to extend service to others, and not so easy to accept it back -- yet understanding how support lifts us and carries us, she has welcomed the scaffolding of her friends and family.
One Thursday evening in late January, an SUV sent me sailing out of the crosswalk in front of my children’s high school. I had just taught a beautiful prenatal yoga class. Following class, the polite son of the owner of the studio had helped me load my trunk full of donations for a new mom of one month old twin girls whose husband had left her. Mamas had come forward that night to bring bags and bags of clothes to pass on to her. I drove away marveling at the goodness in my classes, in my life, and in the world. In addition to teaching prenatal yoga, I was part of a successful doula group and after practicing privately for years, was loving the camaraderie and shared knowledge base of a group practice. I had co-workers I loved, in a field I adored. Supporting others was the foundation of my deeply satisfying work.
Less than an hour later, I was hit as a pedestrian crossing the street to attend a parent meeting at my children's school. In a grace-filled moment, the first responder on the scene, on her way to the same meeting, was a midwife that I knew. She and her husband deftly stopped traffic from hitting me as I lay in the street, spoke calmly and reassuringly to me, called my husband, summoned police and an ambulance while I began to use my 20 plus years of yoga & meditation background to talk to myself as I would a doula client. Mentally reminding myself that fear increases our perception of pain (a la Grantly Dick-Read), I focused on saying positive things to myself. I talked to my body, “There will be no internal bleeding. It’s time to begin healing in this moment. I am going to be ok. I am ok in this moment, even as I know my hip and possibly some ribs are broken, I am still ok. I will relax as much as possible to conserve energy for healing."
Lying now outside of the crosswalk, while police and ambulance arrived and asked me questions and assessed my injuries, I began to not only doula myself, but to gratefully, almost greedily, look to be doula’ed (supported) by my community. In that moment, I had no idea how long I would be relying on my community of family, friends, medical and therapeutic professionals to support me post accident. Many of the thoughts that crossed my mind that first hour were related to logistics regarding upcoming clients and their due dates, getting a sub for next week’s classes, as if I simply had to reschedule some appointments and commitments in the next couple of weeks. It did not dawn on me that I would be missing the work I loved for any “real” length of time. There is a mercy in the slow realization after a traumatic event; a mechanism that protects the psyche (or protected mine) from realizing what the potential impacts of the accident truly were and for how long I might need to heal and to rely on external support.
12 hours and many excruciatingly painful tests later, I had a thick file that attested to a shattered hip, which would require surgery to see if it could be saved; broken vertebrae, which thankfully did not require surgery; a broken leg, and partially collapsed lungs. I was thankful for acts of kindness when they appeared in the staff: handling my broken body gently when they had to move me; explaining in calm voices what I was likely to expect during certain tests (“You’re going to feel like you’re peeing involuntarily. Don’t worry, you’re not”); and letting me know that they knew from personal experience, how scary it was to be a patient. Even though the pain took most of my attention, there was a meta-awareness noting all of these elements and thinking about how some of the staff were acting as doulas for me, supporting me, explaining my options when there were any to be had, empathizing, and searching for ways to make me feel more comfortable despite my physical circumstances.
Sometimes as doulas, we refer women exhibiting signs of previous trauma to skilled therapists or practitioners who can help them release trauma before giving birth. We have seen how fear and “getting triggered” can impede the natural progression of labor, birth and postpartum recovery. Believing that I am most effective as a doula when I “walk the walk," I set aside my “I can do it myself” mentality and asked for help. Having heard that I would need surgery on my hip, and there was a possibility that if it was too damaged, they would do a hip replacement, I called fellow doula and skilled CranioSacral Therapist, Lori Fenner, to help my body’s tissues relax and allow the surgery it’s best chance to work. As a yoga teacher, I’m pretty tuned into what my body feels like and what’s happening; I could feel that even as I was mentally calm, physically, I was rigid, frozen and in shock. Given the mind-body connection, it wasn’t an optimal state in which to enter surgery. I was also fairly terrified of surgery in general. I posted on Facebook and asked for prayers. I asked for privacy the night before the surgery except my husband so I could “go inside” in the same way I did in labor, and focus on letting go of fear. As Lori worked on helping my traumatized body, I could feel the circulation in my hip increasing. It became warmer and softer as the rigidity dissolved. This felt like a more responsive hip to take into surgery in the morning. Friends, acting as prayer doulas, flooded me, putting my name down on prayer lists in several states and denominations. I coveted them all. I was scared of this new challenge I was facing and the prayers and well wishes felt like a security blanket.
I came home post-surgery in a pain-filled daze, and the community doula’ing of myself and my family began in earnest. Thankfully, I have never been hurt this badly before so I had no idea what was “normal” or what to expect. I thought I was just going to “get fixed up," grow back some bones lickety-split and get on with my life. It is not at all unlike that transition to becoming a mom and the vague expectations versus the reality of having a baby. I tell my prenatal yoga students my daydreamy notion that I had when I was pregnant with my oldest: being a mom would entail feeding my baby jars of baby food and brushing his hair with one of those little plastic baby brushes while he happily sat still. I had no idea the extreme, life-altering 24/7ness that was in store for me, then or now. My in-laws essentially moved in to clean, do yard work, and take care of me; my friend groups (decade long mom friends, Waldorf school initiative parents, former doula clients and prenatal yoga students, swimmers on the Masters’ swim team that my husband helps coach, homeschooling parents, my children's former piano teacher, etc) banded together and formed a meal train that ultimately wound up feeding us every single night for 6 whole weeks; flowers, notes and books streamed in to lift my spirits. I could not get my pain level down below a 7 for those first three and a half weeks because of my lungs reinflating, so the continuous emotional support, in all of the above mentioned forms, was the only thing that got me through. I could not have done it without my doulas! If it had just been left to myself and my husband, I can only imagine how emotionally low we would have been. It was hard enough to face the implications of the accident and absorb the shock with all of the support, I don’t actually even want to think about how bleak we could have felt without all of the people acting as our family’s doulas.
A couple of weeks after being home, I was unable to sleep from the pain and the flashbacks of the accident. I would see and hear it over and over in my mind and I couldn’t seem to stop it. After a few days, I recognized that I wasn’t “shifting” out of this state and probably wasn’t going to be able to on my own; none of my old mindfulness or yogini practices were working. I was in a different kind of shock now and it was time to call in the big guns and by that I mean Gina Vance, therapist extraordinaire. There had been “concern” my hip wasn’t healing properly at my surgical follow-up appointment, and I was feeling pretty lost. One two-hour bedside counseling/inner work session with her and I could feel that the worst of the trauma had shifted -- I got a glimpse of myself again as I knew me, and I was left with new visualization tools I could utilize to assist in my healing.
Day after day, we were lifted and carried by our community. We did not have to travel this path alone. One at a time, someone would step forward and offer or provide something that I would grasp onto like a lifeline, much like a woman in transition will gasp, “Keep doing that! It’s helping! Don’t stop." I didn’t want the avowals of prayers to stop, I didn’t want the warm food or green smoothies to stop, I didn’t want the stories of hope, like the one from a 65 year old swimmer who’d fully recovered from hip surgery almost three years ago, to stop. I didn’t want the support of my partner and children to stop, my mom-heart swelled when I could see that they were safe and taken care of too, while I surrendered to the mind-numbingly slow labor of healing.
It has been 15 weeks since the accident. I am still not walking, but I have a new set of doulas now who are helping me recover and support me while my world re-expands. I have a lot of fear as I do “new” old things again. My body feels vulnerable and my emotions are mixed as I work hard to regain, not a new achievement of some sort like a marathon, but simply my old activities. Much like trying to figure out how to get out of the house with a new baby and wondering when you’re ever going to feel “normal” again in the postpartum phase. That is where I am and thankfully, I’m not doing this part alone either. My friends and family now take me to appointments, on errands, and scope out the wheelchair accessibility of local high schools so I can watch my son’s track meets. I think of Luis, my physical therapist at Kaiser as an awesome postpartum doula. Even though every time I go see him, I wish the reason I were entering the spacious lobby was to take the elevator up to the 3rd floor Labor & Delivery unit, I am so thankful for his skill set. I’m through the hardest part, and now he’s helping me get strong enough again so when I can walk, it will be an easier transition. He isn’t phased when I am having hard days, and he believes in my ability to recover. Isn’t that exactly what we do as doulas, hold a positive vision of what our clients can do and accomplish, whatever the twists and turns the path may take?
It has been completely humbling to be the recipient of so much support, not only because there is that elevated “lump in the throat” feeling in the face of abundant human kindness and goodness; but because of how unashamedly I have lapped it up. I have always liked to be “in control” and perhaps even bordered on ungracious in accepting help in the past, preferring to be the “supporter” or doula, rather than “supportee." I am deeply humbled by how quickly I chucked that mindset aside and leaned on all of my doulas. Now I know from the inside the authenticity of the statement our clients make, “I could not have done it without you!" I have always squirmed a bit when told that, as if it somehow diminished their part or role. In a true atmosphere of loving support, there is no diminishing; only an increase, an increase of gratitude and an increase in respect for human interdependence, and awe at the difference between traveling with support and without. Namaste.
Jennifer is an incredible woman with an enormous capacity to give of herself. She nurtures expectant and new mothers as a doula and yoga instructor. She is the co-creator of the Modesto Doula Group. Jennifer has met many people and made lasting connections. To see them come together as she needed nurturing is truly a testament to being taken care of in the Universe when you have offered so much yourself. Her "doulas" continue to lend support as needed, while she builds up her strength to return to her previous activities with renewed appreciation for the changes life brings.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)