Game Changer by Kim Justus

In 1995, I suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. I was thirty-five years old, in the best shape of my life, and had just gotten a clean bill of health with an annual physical. The incident resulted in the need for a craniotomy, where a metal clip was strategically placed to stop the bleeding. The blood seeped into various parts of my brain, so once inside, a massive cleanup was required. Back then, micro-neurosurgery was a relatively new technique. Prior to that time, the most likely outcome was death. Given the same circumstances, odds for survival are only slightly better now.

The day started like any other Monday. I flew into work, coffee in hand, and went about my day. In the afternoon, I needed to make a sales call. Unexpectedly, my dad got a hold of me. He offered to drive me downtown for the job, and then he suggested stopping to have a cappuccino at a nearby shop. On the way, I had the sensation of a bolt of lightning crack through my head. Had I been driving, this story may have ended right there. The fact that I survived was attributable to what I consider a series of “miracles.” Some might say it was luck or coincidence, but I lived through it. There were just too many issues lined up in my favor to chalk my survival up to anything but a miraculous event.

Initially, I was misdiagnosed in the Emergency Room. I was sent home, where I lived alone, and would have died but for the fact that I was with my dad. This changed the normal course of action and saved my life. By the next day, my speech and comprehension were faltering, after a violent night of writhing pain and throwing up. Soon, I entered an eleven-day coma, underwent brain surgery, and encountered a near death experience. It was too much for me to wrap my mind around all at once. My recovery would be relative, and it would take years to process.

This period of my life was a game changer. Before this event, I felt “bullet proof.” Now, facing my mortality presented a number of challenges. Some residuals would resolve in time, and some I would carry-on forever. The way I looked at life and death was changed that day.

In my months of recovery, I started journaling the events as they happened. This situation was so intense that it seemed to be the “stuff” out of which books were made. I did some writing as a child and always dreamed of writing a book. I was not an English major, and my life’s path took other directions. Still, the true events as I would chronicle them served as a vivid reminder of how things were. This memoir is a heck of a story.

Eventually, I did obtain a copyright. I mailed the final composition to myself, never opening it. That way the postmark would prove that I had written the events as they happened. It was all fresh in my mind. I threw the package into a plastic tub in my basement, where it sat for seventeen years. Life goes on. There were more hills to climb. Every year, my mom would say, “You really need to get that book out and write it!” Yeah, yeah, maybe someday.

In the spring of 2010, I was blessed with an unexpected, mind-blowing opportunity. I was a salesperson, in the same place, since I graduated from college. I picked up photography as a hobby, and loved to shoot images of nature. One day on a lark, I stopped in our local Botanical Gardens to speak with the manager of the gift shop. I was there to see if they might carry some of my floral note-cards. As the woman leafed through my portfolio, she agreed. She enjoyed my work so much, in fact, that she offered me the chance for my own exhibition. The entire gallery would be filled for seven weeks with only my art decorating the walls. This was an awesome, “bucket list” experience!

When I was in second grade, an art teacher told me “some kids just aren’t artistic,” as I struggled over our assignment. It was a negative imprint that stuck with me, even becoming a life-long family joke. I was always smart scholastically, just not the artistic type. Imagine the coup I felt with this victory. Art by definition covers a lot more ground than that painting to which my teacher referred. It only took me from age forty-three years to see that dream play out.

During my exhibition, many friends attended. One of them was a new acquaintance. She admired one of my pieces in particular. I photographed an image of a female statue and overlaid the words to a poem I wrote. She seemed to marvel that I could write and take pictures. It was at this point that she told me about Fine Lines. She suggested that I might enjoy this group of writers. I had just become an official photographer for Pete’s sake! I didn’t think I could squeeze in a writer’s group, but where did they meet? I was ready to dismiss the idea but was polite. As it turned out, the group met in a restaurant I could practically throw a rock at and hit from my front door. Their meetings are once a month, and they publish a quarterly book of poetry, short stories, and essays. I learned that Fine Lines is a non-profit group that promotes literacy, creativity, and improved communication skills for all ages.

A few months later, I dropped into my first Fine Lines meeting. As we introduced ourselves, I couldn’t help but notice many of these people were teachers. They were former or current instructors, published writers, and English majors. I was a salesperson. What on Earth was I doing here? During the meeting, I approached the editor and said, “Nice meeting you, but I don’t belong here.” I explained that I wrote some poetry and took some pictures, but I sure wasn’t qualified to be in this group! Calmly, he told me to stick around, because he had a feeling I might have something to say to our members. Then, he said, “Write On. You just write. We have editors to help you refine your work.”

Over the next year, I submitted a number of photographs and some new poetry. The work I did went through the selection committee, and some of it was published. One of the publications the following year featured one of my images from the art exhibition on the front cover. Eventually, even the image of the woman with the poem overlay, prompting my whole involvement, was published. Wow, it was true. Even someone like me belonged here. I was so excited. I attended the monthly meetings regularly, and as a result of “hanging out” with writers, I was motivated to write myself. I felt my confidence get a much needed boost.

The summer of 2011 arrived and with it, my life underwent some major changes. I suddenly had some extra time on my hands and was depressed by it. This might be the time to dig through the old plastic bins and find my aneurysm story. My mom continued pestering me to write the book, and now for a year, I was seeing Fine Lines’ monthly meeting reminders and the comment “Write On.” The stars lined up for me to write my book. I couldn’t immediately locate the storage bin, so I procrastinated a few more months. In the fall, after another Fine Lines meeting, it hit me like a V8. This is my story. I must sit down, right now, and write on.

I received the copyright for my original draft on September 4, 2011, my parents’ fifty-third wedding anniversary. I added pictures, found my bin copy, did a more editing and formatting, and the big day arrived. My book, In a Flash: Miracles Here and Beyond was released on December 14, 2011. Details can be found on the Facebook page In a Flash (book).

This project in itself was a miracle. The feat was a “we” project, not a “me” project. Mother, Marty, and Fine Lines motivated me to “gitter done.” My husband was instrumental in helping make sure the project actually got produced. Among other things, he created my cover and designed our website. So many others helped with all of the elements of making it ready and launching the book. I’ll never forget the feeling, when I opened the first box of books to arrive at my door and when I walked into local bookstores to see them on the shelves. It was surreal, like the art exhibit had been. The exhibition was an unanticipated surprise; this was a lifetime dream come true.

This was not bad for a girl “who was not an artist.” In the eight months since my book was released, the story has reached people in every state and thirty-six countries. Many people have been impacted by my story and made it a point to contact me. It’s been a journey, the path of which I could have never foreseen. I have had the opportunity to become an advocate for the Brain Aneurysm Foundation and the Traumatic Brain Injury groups. I host an Internet Radio show focused on “recovery.” An opportunity to host an a.m. radio show is around the corner. I even have the mental outline for a second book, based on these experiences. I have traveled a lot of miles in a short time. There have been so many people to meet and new challenges to face. This book, so many years later, has been a game changer as much as my aneurysm. Every day, I talk with people who “want” to write a book, who have always “thought” of writing a book, and who have “started” a book. I’m here to tell you, it can be done against the odds. Now, “Write On.”