Time Magazine – The Tiny Bird Who Saved My Life After a Devastating Accident

Sam Bloom with Penguin on her shoulder

Originally published in Time Magazine, April 18, 2017

By Sam Bloom with Bradley Trevor Greive

I died four years ago, and then a wild bird brought me back to life.

It’s a strange and painful story, but also a happy one.

In 2013 my husband and I took our three young sons to Thailand for our first family holiday and stayed in a tiny village on the Gulf of Thailand. On our very first morning we swam in the sea for an hour or two and then climbed the spiral staircase to the hotel’s two-story observation deck to take in our surroundings. In the tropical heat, everything shimmered green and radiant gold; pineapple farms, rubber trees, water buffalo, jungle fowl, distant temples, bright sand, and even brighter water seemed to stretch into forever.

I wish with all my heart that I’d never seen that beautiful view.

At some point, I leaned against the safety barrier that ran along the observation deck. The barrier simply fell away from the deck and I fell with it, crashing onto the unyielding blue tiles twenty feet below. (The Royal Thai Police investigation would later find that the barrier was rotten and criminally neglected.)

My skull was fractured in several places, my brain was badly bruised and bleeding, I’d bitten clean through my tongue, and both lungs had ruptured. My spine was shattered at the T6 and T7 vertebrae—more or less in line with my chest—and a fist-shaped knot of bone had exploded through my back. Of course this grim medical account came to me second hand; I was unconscious, lying in an ever-expanding puddle of blood. Thankfully, I have absolutely no recollection of this horror.

You’d think this would be the lowest moment of my life, but it wasn’t. Nor was it the day when I was told I’d never walk again, though that was utterly devastating. My worst day happened seven months later, after I left the rehabilitation facility.

One of my favorite memories is of my husband carrying me through the doorway of our home on our wedding day. I had felt wonderful, my heart lighter than air. But when he carried me through the door on the day I returned home to my family, the gallant and practical gesture seemed unbearably cruel.

Our house wasn’t how I remembered it, and in my mind, it wasn’t my home anymore. It wasn’t the precious nest I’d made for my three babies. When viewed from a wheelchair, the once-familiar sanctuary of love and comfort became an alien landscape strewn with obstacles. Nothing felt right; I didn’t feel like I belonged anymore.

It broke my heart to feel so removed from my former life and the people I loved. My accident had made my husband both a single parent and a full-time nurse—even my children had to look after me. I was no longer an independent woman, and I no longer thought of myself as a wife and mother. Bitter, distraught, angry, jealous, and inert, I was everything I despised: the opposite of the active, happy person I had always been. My sense of personhood withered away, as did my will to live.

Within three months of coming home, my routine had become a death spiral. I would sleep for as long as I could, then I would cry in the shower, where the boys couldn’t see or hear me. I would constantly think about suicide. In my mind, I was already dead.

The guardian angel that saved my life was a baby bird. My son, Noah, found an injured magpie chick that had been blown out of its nest in a towering Norfolk Island pine tree. Having tumbled sixty feet through countless branches to slam into an asphalt parking lot, it was a miracle that she was still alive. She wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours without help. When no veterinarian would take her in, we carefully gathered her up and carried her home to care for her ourselves.

The boys named this noisy little fluff-ball Penguin because of her black and white plumage. I had absolutely no idea how important she would become to all of us, and to me especially.

Penguin required constant attention; she needed to be fed every two hours and kept warm at all times. Suddenly, I had something to do. I didn’t feel as useless anymore; my instincts as nurse and mother revived when I was tending to this tiny, feathered soul. I didn’t realize it at the time but, in a way, we were keeping each other alive. What a funny pair we must have seemed – chatting and singing to each other all day. As is so often the case, I found that helping someone else feel better was the best way to help myself feel better.

As Penguin increased her level of independence, so did I. I became committed to exercise and physiotherapy, and in time I rediscovered my love of watersports through kayaking, which gave me a new sense of personal freedom. I became happier and more meaningfully engaged with family and friends—and I resumed my most cherished role as a mother to my three beautiful sons.

Penguin matured into a stunning adult magpie. In time she overcame her injuries and learned to fly; her maiden voyage took place in our living room, to the delight of our family. I don’t think I had felt as happy since my boys were born.

By the time she was ready to make her home in the wild and start her own family, I had won two national kayaking titles and was bound for the world championships in Italy as a member of the Australian para-canoe team. More importantly, I was my own person again, with new dreams and new reasons to smile. For the first time since my accident I felt truly alive.

Bloom, her husband Cameron and the writer Bradley Trevor Greive are the authors of Penguin the Magpie, which Reese Witherspoon has optioned for a film, starring Naomi Watts.

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Leeann Taege says:

    Hi Sam
    I am sitting in my lounge room crying,,firstly because you have touched a part of my heart with your inspiration and partly because my son (age 28) is currently in The Spinal Unit for the past 3 months with a T11 Injury after an operation that went terribly wrong with prognoses poor to walk again. We still hold hope every day that he will walk again but as time goes on it becomes very hard.
    His young life has been changed so quickly and he struggles to stay positive every day..as I know you will relate. He will need to come live with us again (Mum and dad and older brother) losing his once known independence for a while and hopefully become that strong young man I know and love again,
    We have animals in our home whom have given me Much love, cuddles and licks when I feel lost and look forward to their healing power for my boy when he eventually comes home from hospital.
    I wish you and your beautiful family hope and promise. Thanks for sharing your journey xx
    Leeann

  • Jan says:

    What a beautiful story and what a brave and determined woman you are Sam. Your family were obviously very involved in your recovery and ready to claim you back as their wife and mother just as soon as you made the decision to live life to the fullest.

  • We just watched the film on Netflix all the way here in Malaysia and I cried when Penguin first took her flight. You are an inspiration. I’m online reading everything about you! Peng is magic….

  • Pat Rini says:

    I am so impressed when people overcome their challenges. I believe you are at the top of the list. Can’t imagine anything more difficult to go through then paralysis. And then to excel in the ocean where people with all of their abilities can lose their lives. You have set animpressive example of the fortitude I wish everyone had. God bless you and your wonderful family!
    Ps: loved penguin!

  • Lia Thia says:

    Thank you so much, Sam, for touching our hearts and inspiring us to live our lives to the fullest by sharing your difficult but meaningful journey with such sincerity and bravery. Your brave struggle has certainly lighten up and given hope to many others who are suffering. Best wishes to you and your wonderful family and we wish you all many many more healthy happy days together.

  • BORZEIX Fabienne says:

    Chére Sam,
    Je viens de voir le film “Penguin bloom” et donc, de découvrir votre histoire de vie.
    Cela m’a bouleversé.
    Cette rencontre avec cet oiseau est incroyable. Votre “amitié” et l’amour de votre famille vous ont rendu à la vie, à la joie.
    J’admire votre force, votre pugnacité et votre magnifique sourire.
    Bonjour à l’Australie !
    Je vous souhaite de belles journées de surf et de kayak ! : )
    All the best from me,
    Fabienne

  • Bridget Dwyer Ramsey says:

    Dear Sam,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I am moved by your courage and love for your family and belief in yourself as you struggled to overcome the devastating accident you suffered. The depression you felt is so understandable and I have no doubt that the darkness that engulfed you was mighty…but you triumphed, and the fact that a creature so small and vulnerable played a role in your recovery of self is remarkable- a helpless feathered baby bird–picked you! And what a character she turned out to be!
    I must tell you that I watched the film and found it beautifully made. I hope and pray that you and your boys and husband continue to find solace in your love for each other. Stay well, advancements are coming in spinal rejuvination…and may you have continued success in your athletic endeavors.
    Birdget

  • Gail says:

    Hi Sam. We were very touched by your story. My cousin had an accident in his early twenties (he is in his 60’s now) and he too was paralysed. From seeing how difficult it was for him and his parents/siblings I can only imagine that your family felt the same. More importantly it was how it had affected you that mattered the most.
    I am so so pleased that you found solace in kayaking and then surfed again with adaptive aids. I hope that your face truly looked as happy as the actress’s did when she was in the water with Gay during the kayaking session. That made my heart swell to see you so happy.
    You truly have a love of water and I am so so pleased that you were able to return to the ocean.
    Penguin truly was a character and someone you needed at the time – truly an angel sent to help you.
    What a truly remarkable woman and family and such an inspiration to so many people. Take care, keep surfing xx

  • Samantha Garnett says:

    Hi Sam,
    My name is Sam too! And interestingly, we have many other things in common as well – I’m a mum of boys, I grew up in and on the water loving many water sports (your windsurfing photo brought a smile on as I spent hours on a similar board). I too have loved travelling and exploring and also pursued a career focused on people (their mental and spiritual health). I grew up in suburban Melbourne, on the bay, so I’m sure there’s lots of cross over there too! So when I read your recent book I felt quite connected to your life journey. I read your book first and then Penguin Bloom. I cried and cried as I read your beautifully articulated and honest words. There’s so much love and humanity expressed in your story and I am writing to thank you for taking the time, facing hours of interviewing, which I’m sure were incredibly grueling at times, and sharing your very personal story. Boy you’ve got guts and I hope to god I could be as brave and determined as you have been. Some of my work is with people suffering chronic pain from accidents and injury. I work hard to understand the impact of their pain and suffering on their individual lives. I have no doubt that your books have already had a positive effect on the work I do – relating to other human beings in their suffering and meeting them where they are at. I wish you all the best with your work for SpinalCure and will look out for and support the cause. Thank you. Yours sincerely, Sam

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