Accepted and Detoured: How Columbia Saved My Life in a Way I Never Expected

Nobody expects a detour in life to happen. It’s what happens when we think we have things planned and all figured out, and then we’re thrown a curveball. Believe me, I didn’t expect to be in a coma my senior year of high school.

I was an extremely type-A teenager, stressed out for the SATs, feeling the pressure to go to the “best” college–and I applied to 17 of them. Then, at 17, I was molested for almost a year by my voice teacher, and at 18, my stomach literally exploded due to an unforeseen blood clot. I was in a coma for months and almost died.  I thought that my path would lead right to college. I had just gotten my college acceptance letters.

I was thrilled to get an acceptance letter to Columbia.  I knew exactly what I was going to study, plus, I’d be in the city, so in addition to delving into psychology, business, playwriting and arts, I could also immerse myself in the world of theatre. Waking up from a coma, it took a while for the reality to sink in that the following year, I was in no shape to go to college.

But Columbia rooted for me all the way.  To this day, I believe I was the only student who was deferred seven years!  Every year, they checked up on me to see how I was doing. But I don’t think anyone could have anticipated what a long journey this would be. After 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I didn’t know where my life was going anymore. As my stitches healed by one, my thoughts seemed to unravel day by day.

My detour took me to a very scary place, into a new body and a new mind, troubled by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The detour I traveled was a very rough path . Although it became worth it, for a while I didn’t want to keep going. I lamented why my path had gone this way, and, plagued with anxiety and hopelessness, I wanted to give up. Now, I’m an artist, actress, author, playwright, “survivor-to-thriver”, and lover of life’s beautiful detours – but I had to get there. The path was long-winded, scary and challenging. When you don’t know where you’re going, its stressful and anxiety-provoking. You can feel very alone.

But I wasn’t. 

It’s here that I should mention that, when my local hospital couldn’t do enough for all of the emergency repairs, I was transferred right away to the best place in the country, with surgeons, doctors, staff and nurses who saved my life: Columbia Presbyterian.  I’ve visited there many times since.  I’ve performed concerts there, and I’ve event presented one of my keynote presentations at Columbia University, “Hope Builds Resilience.”

Even better, my older brother Jeff, who was so inspired by how the surgeons at Columbia worked tirelessly to save my life, ended up going to Columbia Medical School.  He’s now a doctor himself!  Our entire family is forever indebted to Columbia. The most important thing I learned about a detour? You can still live a happy, healthy fulfilling life. I even got to college – at 25! 

For a while college was out of the question. Years of medical triumphs and setbacks followed, and added up to a wealth of life experience. Always a creator and busybody by nature, I went on to do more in my “sick” years than most people do in their lifetime: I had founded a chocolate business, wrote and starred in a one-woman musical about my life, mounted art shows, taught nursery school, and most importantly, I was alive. But something still felt empty. 

I wanted college. At 25 years old, I had never received that degree of which I had dreamed. I had never even been to a Friday night, red-plastic-cup-in-hand campus party. I had gained so much in the meantime, and had accomplished three resumés worth, but I still felt like there was something I was missing out on. Like somewhere my life had left off, that it was a story that that I just wanted to finish. So I thought: Is it really “too late?” Had I missed the boat with a few years passing? Then I thought of the practicalities. At 25, how was I going to feel surrounded by a bunch of 18-year-olds? How would I feel being on a campus for four years?

College certainly, at this point, wasn’t to stay busy or to get a job. I had gotten through years of medical trauma and uncertainty by accomplishing feat after feat, which was also how I rediscovered myself, but I was hungry for a different kind of experience. I just simply wanted the opportunity to know “what else” was out there, to see what I had missed out on. I wanted to expose myself to diverse interests, meet people from all over, study subjects I didn’t even know existed. 

College seemed like a huge, unknown realm of endless possibilities, where I could graduate with unexpected, newfound inspiration. Despite this and feeling the occasional downward pull of doubt, I asked myself, “If not now, when?” When I couldn’t find a good enough answer, I knew it was time to start browsing colleges online. Then it took a bunch of courage and getting past a lot of inertia to decide that after years of an “education in real life,” I wanted to go through the entire college application process again. So, what followed was months of printing out college applications, submitting forms, and re-writing college essays. Reflecting on what years of medical disappointments and frustrations had ultimately done to my spirit, I titled my essay “Keeping Hunger Alive.” 

How has it turned out?

When I was confronted with medical trauma, I re-routed my life on an alternate pathway of creativity and healing, branching out from my original plan to study performing arts. Going back to college at age 25 has given me an even wider array of colors to paint my life’s path with: I feel as though my vistas are much more boundless. In effect, I’ve reawakened and regenerated my thirst for knowledge. I’ve put myself out there. I ended up reapplying to college and enrolling at Hampshire College. I’ve written a three-act play about my story, I’ve taught art to children, and continue to study art education; I’ve also learned how to make puzzles, sculptures, studied Asian performance art, and have even become well-versed in psychology. But Columbia will always stay dear to my heart because of the doctors who saved my life – and now, this includes my brother Jeff!

I’ve shown myself that it’s never too late…for anything. As my first TEDx Talk discussed, a “Detourist” looks for the upside of obstacles. But the great part about a “detour”? You get to travel a route you never would have expected. The road may be tough, long, winding, and seemingly out of the way, but what I finally realized is, it’s the twists and turns in life that ultimately make us who we are. 

When I was going through my traumas, the biggest thing I needed to know was that I wasn’t alone. I wanted to reach out to a friend, a mentor, or a community of people, just to listen, to show understanding and compassion. I was shocked to find out, in a 2011 NAMI study, that 64% of college dropouts were for mental health-related reasons, and that, of those, 50% never accessed any mental health programs or services. 73% of college students report having experienced a mental health crisis while in college. This inspired me to develop a program that combines Broadway theatre and mental health advocacy. Now, I deliver this keynote to colleges and universities, providing hope, health, and resources. I never thought that 10 years after I was supposed to start college, I’d be doing a different kind of college tour!

Having just graduated college at 30 years old this May, I’ve realized that physical and mental health issues are things we all think about, even if we don’t label what we experience as an “illness”. We all need to learn how to cope when life doesn’t go like we expect it to. We all could use a few tips on learning how to love who we are. We all have detours in our lives, and we become empowered when we trust that we can travel those detours and come out okay – even better! This “detour” in my path has turned into the richest time of my life and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. That’s why I call it my“beautiful detour.”

I learned that the human spirit feeds off of hope, and hope is fuel we can cultivate ourselves.  Ultimately, I learned that with resourcefulness, creativity, and unwavering curiosity, we can transform any adversity into personal growth and a resilience that is uniquely ours. Everything became possible once I was willing to intentionally wander from the life I planned and embrace this “detour” as an opportunity for discovery. This is not the life that I planned for myself – but does anyone’s life ever work out exactly how they plan it?  

So many gifts came out of this.  I discovered painting in hospitals and flourished as a mixed media artist with solo art shows, merchandise and creativity workshops.  I wrote a one-woman musical about my life, Gutless & Grateful, which I’ve performed in theatres across the country for three years and now take it to college campuses, conferences and support groups as a mental health awareness and sexual assault prevention program.  After never having a boyfriend in my life, I tried online dating, got married, did two TEDx Talks about how everything came together, and then, when suddenly faced with divorce, I realized strength I never knew I had. I was not able to fully appreciate the beauty of my detours until I was able to share them. As a performer, all I’ve wanted to do was give back to the world.  But now I have an even greater gift to give: a story to tell.

I turned my detour into a thrilling trip. But I definitely could not have done it without Columbia – and not how I expected, either! The more we share our detours, the more we realize we’re not alone.  

Thanks, Columbia. 

 Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD  specialist, artist, author, multidisciplinary educator, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright. Learn more about Amy’s program for colleges here. As creator of Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres nationwide, after it’s NYC Broadway-World nominated debut in 2012, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences.
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