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Suzette Foster remembers how nice the weather was the afternoon she broke her neck – a perfect fall day. It was also a day laden with what some might consider miraculous coincidences. As far as Foster is concerned, it was simply a day ripe for a miracle.
It was Nov. 3, 2005, and she and her friend Charlie Kincaid had their regular mountain-biking date in William B. Umstead State Park. Usually, they just rode together, but their friend Andy Saliby decided to tag along on the single-track trail they had planned that day.
The track wasn’t ideal for even some seasoned bikers, but the loose gravel, tree roots and teeter-totter obstacles thrilled the 47-year-old Foster, who lives in Cary.
She can’t say what compelled her to show Kincaid her “in case of emergency” phone numbers on her cellphone that day – the cellphone she had not taken out of her backpack before a bike ride in well over a year. But she did.
When Foster arrived at Duke University Hospital later that afternoon, her neck broken, the C2 disc in her spine decidedly snapped in half in not one, but two places – they had all heard the snap when she landed head first on the dirt trail – her body was essentially paralyzed.
That she was breathing at all was the first miracle. She had the same neck injury sustained by actor Christopher Reeves, who lost the ability to inhale the moment he fell from his horse.
It took emergency-medical workers about 17 minutes to arrive on the bumpy, rocky scene on the trail. As Foster was loaded into the ambulance, Saliby remembers her telling one of the workers that she would be fine. The worker tried to tell her they didn’t have time for that sort of chit chat.
Among the other beneficial coincidences that November afternoon was the fact that Dr. Robert Isaacs was on call. As the director of spine surgery at Duke University Medical Center, Foster could not have asked for more skilled hands to perform her operation.
The surgery, at best, was thought to keep Foster alive as a quadriplegic. Instead, within 18 hours of the surgery, she was up and walking the halls of the hospital.
She was told she’d be in the intensive-care unit for at least a week, if not longer. She was out in two days.
She was told she’d be in the hospital about a month, and then she would go to a rehabilitation facility. She was home within a week, with just a day of rehab.
But what others might attribute to simply the stars aligning, or perhaps some incredibly good luck, Foster knows in her soul as simply her path.
Long before she fell off her bike, Foster had been practicing energy medicine, both personally and professionally. Her interest in energy medicine began with a book a friend gave her titled “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom,” written by Dr. Christiane Northrup.
When Foster moved to Cary in 1994 for her husband’s job (they divorced prior to the accident) she brought the book, and from there became interested in the practice of reiki, a spiritual form of healing.
“What I feel I’m here for, my destiny, is to be a bridge between western medicine and energy medicine,” Foster said. “Anything can be healed.”
The moment she felt her breath “turn off,” as she describes it, knowing her neck was broken, Foster knew what to do.
“I had everything I needed. I had my mind. My spirit. My oneness with God,” Foster said. “I commanded my body to refuse to accept this limitation, and a lightning bolt of energy went through me. It was huge.”
She did this again, and with that one of her arms flopped in response. Moments later her breath returned.
Saliby remembers how Foster’s eyes had rolled back in her head. He knew immediately it was a serious neck injury.
“You knew it was more than, hey, your average fall, and you got the wind knocked out of you,” he said.
The trio recreated the accident this spring for the filming of a documentary, “I Hope You Dance.” It is a film about miracles, and Foster’s story was found through her website.
She had just written a book about her experience titled “Calling Back Your Power,” and she had been citing the lyrics from country-music singer Lee Ann Womack’s song “I Hope You Dance” as a source of personal inspiration. The documentary is hoped to be vetted by the Sundance Film Festival for an official screening in 2013.
Foster said a number of “angels” tended to her in the aftermath of the accident, namely some close friends and her mother. Though she could walk and talk, she was hardly fully functioning. That would take months of therapy, and in the interim she needed help with just about everything.
“That little girl, she couldn’t do a thing when she got home,” said her mother, Marie McMahon. She flew down from Maine the day after she got the “devastating” phone call about her daughter’s accident.
Foster grew up in Maine, the youngest of four children. She was 5 when her mother divorced. Growing up, she was engaged in sports, theater and school, her mother said, even becoming the first female lectern at their church at the age of 12. To this day Foster calls herself a practicing Christian.
“She was always participating in helping others, even then,” McMahon said. “She was a very determined little girl.”
Foster’s determination was evident early in her recovery.
“She made me very angry one night,” McMahon recalled with a chuckle. “She was out in the kitchen dancing.”
Foster’s recovery has indeed challenged the traditional expectations of the medical community. Dr. Isaacs has yet to use the word “miracle” to describe the nature of Foster’s recovery. Still, he admits he has never seen anything like it.
“When it is a severe spinal cord injury that high in the spine, it is often very, very significant. Historically it would be devastating – one you would not survive,” Isaacs said in a statement. “I’m presented with a woman who got a lot better, a lot quicker than would have been comprehended, so I am trying to make sense of it in my mind.”
Foster, however, knows exactly what has transpired with her recovery. She believes this was her path, that her connection with her mind, body and spirit brought her through the accident.
“I really do feel I redefined impossible,” Foster said.
‘A little bump in the road’
Perhaps the other notable miracle in Foster’s story is the absence of surprise at her recovery from those who know her well – even those who do not share in her spiritual beliefs.
“This was all pretty much a little bump in the road for Suzette,” said Saliby, who does not share in most of Foster’s spiritual beliefs, though he admits he is more a believer in energy than he used to be. “It wasn’t that long after it I remember she was rollerblading.”
One of Foster’s closest friends, Jodi Free, was the first emergency contact called following the accident. Foster’s two teenage daughters and ex-husband were also notified quickly.
Free and Foster had been meeting weekly for years to pray together. Even though Dr. Isaacs pulled her aside to show the gray matter on the X-ray that was supposed to signify that Foster would never walk again, Free said she never once doubted that her friend would fully recover. Even after the fact, the rate and fullness of Foster’s unlikely recovery has not shocked Free. While Foster was in the hospital, Free said, there was an outpouring of positive thinking, of pure love. Friends wrote uplifting notes on her IV bags, and no one thought to doubt the power of Foster’s ability to not just recover, but fully recover.
“I don’t think we ever went, ‘Wow, it really happened,’” Free said. “We expected it to happen.”
Even so, things have changed for Foster since the accident.
“She’s not so risky as she used to be,” said her biking buddy Kincaid. Instead of meeting Thursdays to bike trails in Umstead, they now ride the American Tobacco Trail.
Foster does not feel invincible now – that would be ego-drive, she said. She does not think her recovery entitles her recklessness.
She simply listens to her inner voice. If it feels good, she does it. If it doesn’t, she chooses to not push the limits.
“The thing I told everyone in the ER was this is temporary, see me dancing,” Foster recalled.
“Holistically speaking, the body does not know what is real and what we keep telling it,” she continued. “I refused to give my paralysis any power.”
For more information on Suzette Foster visit her website www.choose2thrive.com.