Sometimes you have to die to learn how to live.
As Shawnee author Julie Brittain penned those words for her book she was not just being a clever writer who speaks figuratively — she was talking about her literal experience.
Brittain's life stopped at age 38 — but began again 14 minutes later.
She grew up with asthma as a child, before inhalers were a thing — nothing terribly concerning, but anytime she got sick it meant an automatic trip to the emergency room.
She got used to it.
Brittain had a deep-seated desire to make a difference — do something great.
She had dreams.
When her grand designs turned into a world filled with a husband, three children, a dog, work, civic activities and being a chauffeur for various after-school classes, she said she wasn't resentful, but was a little afraid of losing the dreamer inside.
In her memoir, “Crashing Into the Calm,” she wrote, “Writing was a way for me to stay creative, vent my emotions, and keep my hope for still doing something that really mattered.”
What she didn't realize, was that she already was.
On the outside Brittain had it all together, the American Dream; on the inside she was falling apart.
This stressed out mom was stuck deep in a rut of hopelessness and frustration, frantically trying to keep her head above water.
In fact, she said she kept having reoccurring dreams of being underwater, unable to catch her breath.
“Trying to give everything to everyone, and do it perfectly, was starting to take its toll on me, “ she said. “It was impossible. I started to become angry.”
Then it all came crashing down June 11, 2013.
“It was the 16th birthday of my twin daughters, Raegan and Jordan,” she said.
Brittain said she didn't feel at all well that day. And being an asthmatic who smoked, didn't help.
She said she felt like a failure — truly drowning, like in her dreams.
“I was angry that God had forgotten about me,” she said.
That night she looked up at the stars and told God she was done.
She had given up.
“Sometimes parents need to give their children a timeout,” she said. “I wasn't ready for what happened next.”
Brittain had just earned herself a come-to-Jesus meeting — that actually happened in the form of a severe asthma attack in the middle of the night.
What she experienced at that point was dramatically different than that of her family.
She was whisked away into indescribable peace and joy — and definitively learned that God had not abandoned her — as her family was clinging to every shred of hope that she would live through her ordeal.
“I needed to know why the greatest experience of my life was my family's worst,” she said.
What Brittain couldn't fathom was the brutal situation her body was enduring.
Her asthma attack had resulted in a 911 call and a seemingly routine trip to Shawnee's ER.
Bad quickly shifted to worse — landing her in critical condition.
Brittain was placed on a ventilator.
Then her heart stopped.
That would not be the only time a Code Blue was called at her bedside in the Intensive Care Unit.
Brittain's lungs were failing and her body was shutting down. She said hospital staff feared she wouldn't make it through another episode like that.
Then she coded again. And again.
The third time it took 14 minutes to get her heart beating again.
Her body encountered a bout with DIC — when the proteins that control blood clotting become overactive — which very few people survive.
After her heart attack, she then suffered a stroke from lack of oxygen, then kidney failure.
“The DIC caused my left hand to swell up so badly it looked like a black softball glove,” she said. The doctor said he might have to amputate it — but that was minor in light of her other issues.
Staff said she likely wouldn't live through the night.
She coded again.
The hospital said if she did live, it would probably be in a vegetative state, given the reported 20-percent oxygen level, at best, and no physical response to anything or anyone — there was little hope.
Her family and friends refused to accept the reports.
They would not leave her side and all prayed for her.
“I have no idea how my family made it through the night,” she said.
But they did, and so did Brittain.
In the morning her eyes opened. The concern shifted to whether her brain and kidneys would wake up.
She was stabilized and sent to St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City.
There Brittain was put into a medically-induced coma so her body would quit fighting the help it was receiving.
Her sternum was broken and no longer attached to her ribs, which also were broken up to her neck, and her brain had swelling.
Since Brittain's kidneys weren't working, she had nearly doubled her weight; she was severely over-hydrated and fluid started leaking into her tissues.
“I looked like the Michelin Man,” she said.
Brittain went through four-to-six hour dialysis treatments nearly every day for weeks.
She said she was thankful for them, because it would allow her family and friends a break without feeling the guilt of leaving her side. The treatments actually made her very ill.
Through it all, Brittain learned how to survive completely out from under her control.
She had several doctors at her side — a different one for each organ or medical issue she was facing, as well as countless nurses and hospital staff.
“I had never in my life relied so much on total strangers,” she said. “I needed these people, not just to physically take care of me, but mentally to help me. And they did.”
Brittain was in the hospital for three months.
In the end, everything was restored except her asthma and some visual impairment.
She said she's not allowed to drive now.
“I guess God is still trying to show me I'm not in control of everything — that's one thing that stayed,” she said.
The testimony of her ordeal is her purpose — why she survived what some might struggle to see as the great blessing she experienced.
She said before it happened she was just existing — not living.
She said one thing is certain, her life is not just a routine anymore.
“God didn't do this to us; He did it for us,” she said.
Brittain now does speaking engagements, sharing her testimony with others. She also wrote a memoir about her health scare, called, “Crashing Into the Calm,” which came out last year. She is now working on a second book called “Still Here.”
“We're all here for a reason,” she said. “People complain about all they have to do. Slow down and remember what you are here for.”
You can reach Vicky O. Misa at (405) 214-3962.