When I tell people my “stomach exploded,” people don’t really know what to make of it.
Apparently, Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb did. I was thrilled; I never thought I’d be featured on the “Today” show.
As a teen, I was merely thrilled to get my very first college acceptance letter. I couldn’t believe I had gotten into the musical theatre program at University of Michigan. All my life, I had dreamed of pursuing a career in theatre, on Broadway, in every musical possible — and this was my golden ticket. I didn’t realize in two weeks my world would drastically change forever.
It was the night of our family Passover Seder — a favorite holiday of mine. As always, there were 30 joyous and over-stuffed friends and family surrounding us. As always, we told the Passover story with our mouths full of laughter, song, brisket and kugel. As always, I felt snuggly embraced by the love and warmth of the people in my life and the safety of a time-honored family tradition. And then I felt something that I had never experienced before.
A stomach ache. A simple stomach ache that escalated into excruciating pain, never ceasing and only growing worse for two entire days. As the pain grew more and more intense, my father drove me to the emergency room for a routine X-ray, although my physician reassured us that it was only gas. On the way to the hospital, (as my mother has told me) my cheeks suddenly puffed up like a chipmunk, and I collapsed as soon as I tried to get out of the car. Then I don’t remember anything else but the physical sensations of awful pain. All I remember is gradually waking up about six months later.
I awoke as a newborn does, discovering sensations around her for the first time. Lying flat in a hospital bed, I only had a view of the ceiling for my first weeks coming out of a coma. I reoriented myself with the world of sound, sight and those I loved, who were all waiting for me when I awoke.
Unable to talk, sit up or control my trembling hands, a doctor — who seemed to know me very well at this point — explained as gently as he could about happened to me. Apparently, my stomach exploded due to an unforeseen blood clot. So much pressure had built up inside of me that my stomach actually burst to the ceiling in the operating room. Both of my lungs collapsed, I needed 122 units of blood and I was even read my last rites. I had no stomach. I couldn’t eat or drink, and the doctor didn’t know when or if I would ever be able to again. What do you say to that?
I asked why this happened to my family, to my doctors and to myself. Why was I blessed with such luck and blessings my entire life only to become a helpless victim of circumstances?
Then I rethought that word — victim. What makes a victim? Certainly, I had control over my own mindset, my passions, my thoughts and my dreams. That was my turning point. I stopped asking, “Why me?” and started asking myself, “Why not?”
You can call it bad luck that I spent six of the past 10 years unable to eat or drink. Being quite crafty as an artist and performer, I decided to make my own luck. My life was too full to suddenly resign to being a “patient” or a “victim” for the rest of my life.
Although my mother and everyone else questioned whether it was too soon to mount three of my own art shows, star in musicals, teach nursery school, learn karate, start my own chocolate business and remain as vital internally as I once felt on the inside and outside, I went past my fear and nerves. I took a risk based on the passion I still felt in my heart.
Eight years after my coma, I was finally headed towards a life of medical stability. I learned through experience that things can heal with time, and that it’s not always the prettiest or easiest way. It was an extremely difficult journey, trying to make sense of the bizarre story I was now the lead character in.
My story was apparently something the “Today” show was extremely interested in. My anatomical circumstances landed me on Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb’s lovable hour of chat on NBC, and all at once, I was out there in the world.
Kathie Lee and David Friedman wrote a beautiful song for me called “Still Alive,” an upbeat, joyful testament to my positive attitude throughout 27 surgeries.
I received hundreds of emails and friend requests all at once. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know more about the “girl whose stomach exploded.” How did I survive without a stomach? How did I sustain myself if I couldn’t eat or drink for years? Had this ever happened to anyone before?
No, it hadn’t. It was that bizarre. But as bizarre as my story was, I was about to show them the person behind the “medical miracle.”
“Still Alive” became the final song of my one-woman musical, “Gutless & Grateful.” I lost my stomach but gained a story. And now I’m taking my show across the country, inspiring others with the bizarre reality that anything is possibility with a bit of resilience.
As much as I love being bizarre, I do wish my life were more normal at times. I still think about my old life and the feeling that anything was possible. But everything and anything became possible once I was willing to wander from my teenage fantasies and take on this new life on proudly. I can’t be 18 again, but, lucky for me, I can be the best 28 I can. This isn’t the path I planned for myself, but does anyone’s life ever work out exactly how they plan it?
My stomach exploded. My world changed in an instant. My life took a detour as all lives do. So I made the best of it, and now I have my detour to thank for all the gifts in my life. I’m Gutless, but I am oh so Grateful.
And honestly? There’s nothing bizarre about that.
Amy Oestreicher is currently touring the country with her musical, “Gutless & Grateful,” which was inspired by her appearance on the “Today” show. You can learn more about the musical here. And learn more about the specialized version she performs for patients and those recovering from illnesses here.