At the age of 29, Julie Papievis was in a car accident that left her in the balance between life and death. As she was driving away from a shopping mall, a teen driver ran a red light, plowing into her at 50 miles an hour. The impact jarred her head and neck, severely injuring her brain stem. Her body instantly began dying. Within minutes, the fire department arrived and pulled her from the wreckage. They were unable to detect a pulse or blood pressure. They took her to Loyola University Medical Center, unconscious and unresponsive. Brain scans showed no brain function.
Dr. John Shea says, “The brain stem is really the vital center of where we breathe. It controls our heart. It’s sort of our center of life. Anybody that has pinpoint purples and the abnormal posture that she had, the survival rate is very poor. She had a serious brain stem injury that I did not think she’d ever wake up.”
Julie remained unresponsive in a coma. After several weeks, hospital staff give no hope of recovery and urged her parents to release her to a nursing home.
“If somebody comes in with a brain stem injury, not breathing, not talking, can’t feed themselves, have no control over bodily functions, it’s a miserable existence,” Dr. Shea continues. “With her type of injury, I just didn’t expect her to get return of function.”
Her parents refused to give up hope. They and their church family prayed for a miracle. To the astonishment of her doctors, six weeks after the accident, Julie woke up.
Julie recalls, “I couldn’t swallow. My left eye wasn’t open. I couldn’t hear out of my left ear. I was in diapers. I was fed through a G-tube. I was drooling out of my mouth. I was paralyzed on my left side. My body was not able to do anything.”
Despite all those physical limitations, Julie had an undeniable hope. She says, “I never felt as if I was alone. I always felt the Lord’s presence in my whole walk through my recovery, and from the minute I woke up, he was there with me. I felt that because of the experience that I had.”
While in the coma, Julie had been given a glimpse of heaven.
“It was so vast, and there was no real beginning or end to it. It was just perfect peace. I knew that I was there in that place, because I was dead. I knew that, and I was not afraid. I was not afraid to be there. I was happy. It was like I was home, and I wanted to stay there.”
She remembers her deceased grandmothers suddenly standing with her.
“My grandmother said, ‘No, you can’t come with us. You have to go back.’ I said I can’t go back. I’m not physically okay, and I was pointing to my left side that was paralyzed. She said, ‘Your body will heal.’ I felt right then like someone had come and put a warm blanket around me and their arms around me, and I knew right then that I was in the presence of our Lord. I felt it. I knew it, and then she said, ‘Go back and be happy.’ Then the next memory I had was waking up in the rehab hospital.”
Julie was alive, but her road to recovery was difficult, both physically and mentally.
“I kept thinking and saying, ‘God, why did You not let me stay there? Why did You bring me back to this body that doesn’t work and I have to struggle so hard to do everything?’ To wake up in a body like that, like I did, it was so incredibly disabled. I don’t know how I would have ever gotten past it if I did not have the experience of hope that He shared with me through my grandmothers.”
After two months of physical therapy, feeling and movement slowly returned to her left side. Her progress was nothing short of miraculous.
Dr. Shea confirms, “With the type of injury that Julie had, she had a four percent chance of surviving. Most people that have a four percent chance of recovery, if they survive and they live longer than six months, very often are in a nursing home in severe disability or persistent vegetative state. Her recovery is not due to medicine. Her recovery is some miraculous event — some miracle that happened because theoretically she should have died.”
Julie progressed so well that in 2007, 10 years after her accident, she trained for and finished an indoor triathlon.
“When people hear I did a triathlon, they say that’s impossible,” Julie says, “but I believe nothing is impossible, because I have been in front of the Lord. I feel like anything is possible.”
Today Julie shares a message of hope and purpose with others who have suffered similar injuries. She says, “I want people to know that truly inside themselves that they matter. There is nothing that is ‘less than’ about them, because they’ve gone through those circumstances.”
She has also written a book about her experiences and recovery entitled Go Back and Be Happy.
“I have more purpose here on earth to fulfill, and I take that very seriously. The Lord is with me, which I knew, but it just makes it so much clearer that He has been with me through all of it and that He has an intention, a good intention, for my life. I feel a much closer personal relationship now that He really has a definite purpose for my life, for this story and for this gift of hope.”