Two weeks ago today I was dead. Literally. A complete stranger pulled me out of the surf at Coogee beach. I had no pulse. I was blue. My lips were deep purple.

Nobody was taking happy snaps 13 days ago. Pic: Daily Telegraph

Two other strangers came to assist, one with piercings, the other in a soccer jumper. Another stranger, whose second language was English, yelled, “Blue Lady! Blue Lady!”, pointing to me. These strangers worked together, lying me on my side, clearing my mouth and pumping my lungs.

Luke, a lifeguard on the job for just six weeks, ran towards us. The stranger who had pulled me from the water was by my side, his name was Neil. Luke knelt down and began CPR. Still no pulse. Luke kept pressing my chest, never faltering, counting and breathing all the way. Neil used Luke’s radio to call an ambulance. Another lifeguard, Matt, joined the group to help.

More strangers helped, a nurse and another, bringing oxygen and a defibrillator to the beach. Another identified himself as a physician, he began administering oxygen. Luke kept pounding away on my chest with more water shooting from my mouth, with so much water and foam inside me I looked six months pregnant.

Luke kept pounding and pounding. Minutes passed. Still no pulse. Luke’s arms were cramping but he kept going. Neil held my hand and assured me, repeatedly: “It’s going to be OK; it’s going to be OK”. The defibrillator was activated but couldn’t get a reading.

Luke kept going, pushing down on my chest. By this time his arms were really tired, but he kept going. Volumes of foam and water kept coming from my mouth. Luke kept going. The growing crowd of strangers were all working together to help save the blue lady on the beach.

Neil, holding my hand felt a pulse, a faint ‘boom-boom’ and then another one, ‘boom-boom’ and then in a big rush my heart starting beating, ‘boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom’.  The blue lady had come back to life. The paramedics arrived. After a shot of adrenaline I was bundled off in an ambulance and taken to the Prince of Wales hospital.

Luke, Neil, the physician, nurse and the group of strangers were left on the beach. Me, I was unconscious, in a coma and no-one knew who I was. The Maroubra Police tracked down where I lived through the real estate agent whose tag on my keys allowed them to piece together who I was, where I lived and my next of kin.

On a ventilator in ICU, I regained consciousness. That’s when I saw the frightened faces of my family and friends, some of whom had flown from interstate. Everyone, including the brilliant doctors and nurses, were amazed I was alive and speaking. The word ‘miracle’ was used a few times.

The MRI showed no brain damage. The chest x-rays showed water subsiding. After tests for cognitive and motor skills, I was safe to go home, five days after I had died and been brought back to life.

The missing part of this story is how I ended up as the blue lady, floating face down in the ocean, clinically dead.

I had a seizure in the water. My name is Cassandra and have had epilepsy for the past 20 years of my life. Other people describe me as strong and courageous. I describe myself as a mum, a professional writer and corporate communicator.

I am also a funeral celebrant. And I am an author, about to publish a digital book on autism that that my 9 year-old autistic son illustrated. The book is called, ‘My Name is Max, I have Autism’, explaining autism in kid’s language, at the heart of which is being the same but different. It will be available on Amazon and iBooks shortly.

Four months ago I undertook professional training that gave me the qualifications to hold funerals: adhering to protocols; composing the order of service; recommending readings; writing eulogies; and often delivering the whole service.

I put together a website outlining my commitment as a funeral celebrant to doing justice to a life, to articulate what defines us - who we are and what is important to us - family rituals, special meals and fun times with friends.

The irony is not lost on me, that I have now had the very personal experience of dying. I have been asked what I saw on the other side, I can confidently report a big fat nothing, like being asleep without the dreams.

As I encourage others to face fears, of death, of rejection, of prejudice and autism, this is the first time in my life I have publicly acknowledged my epilepsy.

I am on medication but why I have epilepsy remains a mystery. I have been reticent to speak about my epilepsy, fearing other people’s reactions and prejudice. Some I have told reacted badly, reinforcing this reticence.

If I had been less ashamed, I would have worn a MedicAlert bracelet - it could have helped saved my life.

Fear has lost its grip on me and, like autism and death, I now feel a responsibility to tell my story to help others to acknowledge theirs. I now have the courage accept many things - my responsibilties, my dreams, my hopes and my illness.

I now have more courage to redream and reimagine my future as the courage of strangers has given me the courage and opportunity to pay back the kindness of strangers.

We all have afflictions and fear. In that sense we are all the same, just different. By talking about them, we can break through cages of fear, mitigate dangers and enrich our lives. Thanks to the courage, vigilance, and generosity of strangers, working together, I now live.

My experience has reinforced my belief that we should make the most of every moment we live: to spend time with friends that understand us for who we think we are; to discern what we can mould and where we need to accept what cannot be altered; to forgive and be tolerant of difference; to learn from love, sorrow, books, art, travel and music; to accept that not everything which makes us feel better is good for us, and, not everything that hurts us is bad; and, to ultimately be honest with ourselves about who we are.

The unconditional love of my dear family and friends makes my life all the more precious, now even more so, with two new friends who used to be strangers.

Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2013

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14 comments

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    • Gregg says:

      05:37am | 26/12/12

      That was an extraordinarily fortunate outcome for you Cassandra and now I imagine you are wearing a very new Xmas gift to yourself of a Medicalert bracelet.

      May your future enjoyments of the beach not be quite as dramatic and you enjoy many more of them as well as Xmases.

    • craig2 says:

      06:07am | 26/12/12

      CPR, it doesn’t matter how you compress or what count you use, just getting O2 and blood moving is all I would think about. Lucky lady, enjoy your break!

    • Mik says:

      06:41am | 26/12/12

      There is a whole series of books you could write on many topics which make the character a little bit different .Include the negative reactions they get and why others react like that so readers can also perhaps identify themselves and understand their own reactions better.
      You are one lucky lady that CPR worked for you, it doesn’t work for everyone, but that young lifeguard showed that you don’t give up until you have given everything.

    • TChong says:

      07:11am | 26/12/12

      Great you made it !
      But, was it a “miracle ” ?
      Or youre good fortune to have recieved CPR, in time,  ( to prevent your death) from some people who knew what to do ?
      Not to be a spoil sport - the media term “clinically dead” doesnt mean much.
      You could equally say you were “clinically alive” but your heart was probaly misfiring (atrial or ventricular fibrillation)
      Curios- was the defib used?- lack of, or erratic pulse is what its designed to correct
      Death in ” Health” means your brain is no longer responsive- including the parts of the brain that control heart function, not just an absense of a pulse.
      Maybe being rescued in time was the miracle.
      AS for the message about living life to the fullest - who could argue otherwise?
      As some one once famously said- live every day as if its your last, ‘cause one day you are bound to be right.

    • Carz says:

      09:44am | 26/12/12

      A Semi-Automatic External Defibrillator (SAED - The type most likely found in public places and used by the likes of SLS and St John Ambulance) has to register some electrical activity of the heart or it won’t give the command to press shock. If there is none then it will simply instruct to continue CPR with regular checks. Wet skin, wet ground, etc, all make using an SAED problematic due to the risk to others and other reasons.

    • TChong says:

      10:21am | 26/12/12

      Carz
      Thats what I was thinking, too.
      It could have been the envioroment , and immediate circumstances, positioning of the paddles in not finding a pulse etc that prevented the use of the Defib.
      I’ll acknowledge I posted wrong when I implied that the defib will work when no pulse present.
      ( i didnt want to sound like an-inservice about ALS, and bore people)

    • Philosopher says:

      04:36pm | 26/12/12

      No Chongy, it was a miracle as Cassandra claimed: an angel, possibly swimming in a tiny little bikini that barely contained her heavenlies, saw her roll back in the surf and rushed to her rescue, massaging her faithful little heart while the ox-like mortals pumped ineptly away. This is what happened, according to my Christian brain! And what’s your account of what happened????

    • Ben says:

      07:12am | 26/12/12

      I agree fully about not being ashamed of one’s epilepsy.

      But I think we could have done without the link to the author’s business. It reads too much like a plug, and that’s not what Punch is for.

    • Chris L says:

      10:11am | 26/12/12

      It’s understandable for audiences to be cynical of modern media. For myself, I didn’t detect opportunism in this particular story.

    • Happy Dude says:

      07:27am | 26/12/12

      I have Tourettes Syndrome. I twitch, pop and grunt. I am 41 and doing my second degree.

    • Leanne says:

      07:45am | 26/12/12

      Great article. So glad you made a full recovery and are well. Congratulations on disclosing your epilepsy. These things that make us feel different also make us the amazing human beings we are. Epilepsy is not autism but your experiences would have given you insight into your son’s autism that I would not have been able to bring to situation should I have been in the same position. Likewise your near death experience will connect you to the families you will minister to, as you help them farewell their loved ones. We need to made people feel uncomfortable about differences - elilepsy, depression, anxiety, autism, different cultural background, piercings, homeless, whatever… uncomfortable equals unease, unease is a way of feeling which hopefully will lead to thought, opening up discussion and idealbringing understanding.

      Keep speaking out. And I will join you.

    • Chris L says:

      10:15am | 26/12/12

      When the author mentioned that her rescuers included someone with piercings and a foreigner I first thought this would be a story about losing fear of strangers.

      While the main message of the story was about overcoming fear of her own infirmities, I think it would be worthwhile to reflect on the fact that people many of us, at first glance, would be wary of turned out to be altruistic and caring.

    • Geronimo says:

      11:02am | 26/12/12

      With one down and eight to go never forget, in Cleopatra’s Day cats were worshiped as Gods with eternal life, today, not one of them has forgotten this doctrine.

    • Lauren says:

      11:26am | 26/12/12

      Hi Cassandra, I read your story on the Herald Sun website and instantly felt I should contact you…
      I was diagnosed with epilepsy too and would have seizures that were unpredictable and medications didn’t seem to work, I recently spent a week in the sleep lab at monash hospital under the careful watch of some great neuros and thankfully I had a seizure while I was in and being monitored, it turns out I’m not eplieptic, I have a heart condition, I flat lined for a few minutes and the seizure was my body trying its best to get oxygen to my brain… Thankfully this has saved my life and I’m now fitted with a pacemaker. I just thought I should share this with you incase you have any doubts about your condition, I was never 100% comfortable with my diagnosis and I’m so glad I stuck to my gut instincts and pushed harder for more tests to be done or else I too may not be here spending the holiday season with my family and friends.
      If you have any questions, your welcome to contact me.
      I’m so glad you have lived to tell the tale and will help others by telling your story. All the best with your recovery.

 

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