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.