When Taking Out the Trash Changed My Life in a Split Second


How can doing something as mundane as taking out the trash change a life? If I were you, I would be skeptical as well. However, this wake-up-call story shows that life can change in a blink of an eye, causing a ripple effect and transformation from tragedy into triumph.

On a normal fall day in Hudson River Valley, New York, I was tackled while taking out the trash. No, I wasn’t mugged, but I was clobbered. In a split second, a 1,000-pound tree limb struck me, breaking my neck and leaving me unconscious.

I didn’t hear, see or feel a thing. 

The next memory I have is five days later in the ICU of St. Francis Hospital where my mother, husband and doctor put the pieces of the puzzle together for me. I awoke limited to a brace, as I had fractured my C7 vertebra.

I was in denial of my circumstances. I almost immediately asked for my iPhone to check in with my “real” life. Yes, before the tree, I was a self-proclaimed “Superwoman,” juggling a successful travel industry career, marriage, homeownership in south Florida and an active lifestyle. Even from the ICU, I wasn’t going to let a broken neck get in the way of my plans.

After nearly a week in the hospital I underwent neurosurgery, where the surgeon encapsulated my C7 with steel to naturally fuse it instead of inserting a rod. Although my doctor was a gifted surgeon, he certainly was not forthcoming with me or my family about the recovery process. In fact, after my mandatory eat, pee and poop, I was given an overly general, one-page instruction sheet from the nurse and rolled out to the car.

Needless to say, my recovery wasn’t so quick, nor painless. In my post-op appointment, I learned I would be out of commission: no work, no showers, no travel, no return to my home in Florida, and limited to my full back, neck, torso brace for the next four to six months.

My life was forced to pause.

With that news, my career and professional identity vanished. I was forced to resign from my position to obtain long-term disability coverage. As I simultaneously dealt with my health in peril and my career in the toilet, I discovered a destructive trail of lies. My husband had been living a double life. All that I held dear that fall was lost.

Was there an upside to losing everything? 

Over a lengthy, nine-month period, I regained my health with the help of a team of doctors, therapists, and my clan (friends, family and virtual supporters from around the globe), after which I revisited that very tree in Poughkeepsie, New York. By standing in that same place, I saw the tree and my life with new eyes. I accepted the opportunity I had to architect a new life and share my story to inspire others to not only survive life’s obstacles, but to thrive in spite of them.

I’m a living example of post-traumatic growth.

In 2009, I didn’t know the term post-traumatic growth (PTG), but I was familiar with its opposite, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although I’m not discrediting PSTD, I believe as a society we tend to downplay the positive after-effects and growth potential that come from life’s challenges.  I’m a living example of PTG. However, I’m not alone. You, too, have the tools to tap into PTG.

With the power of perspective, you can use life’s curveballs as a springboard for life change and triumph. It has to do with your outlook. When life hands you lemons, make the best lemonade or limoncello. And if you mess up the first batch, try, try and try again, learning along the way and tweaking your path to success.

Heidi with the tree that changed her life

Follow this journey on Heidi Siefkas.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability and/or disease, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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