Monday, February 15, 2016

A survivor speaks

Amy Oestreicher, a thriver and survivor who went through 27 surgeries, a coma, sexual abuse and a decade of medical trauma. She dealt with all the setbacks and frustrations that go along with life-altering events, and has emerged a successful, bold and resilient woman with a deeper purpose. Here is her story! [Long Read]


My name is Amy Oestreicher, and according to doctors, I am a “surgical disaster.”  However, at 28, I feel truly blessed.  I may not have a stomach, but I sure am hungry for life.  It started in 2005 – a week before my senior prom.  It was our second night of Passover, and my stomach started hurting.  My dad said it might be gas, but he took me to the ER for an x-ray, just in case.  On the way there, my cheeks actually puffed up, soon after, I collapsed, and I woke up from my coma months later.  Apparently, there was a blood clot on the mesenteric artery that caused a thrombosis, and when they cut into me, my stomach actually burst to the top of the OR.  

Both of my lungs collapsed, I went into sepsis shock, and I needed 122 units of blood to keep me alive.   At 18, I was read my last rites.

When I finally awoke from my coma months later, the doctors finally told me what was going on.  I had no stomach anymore, I couldn’t eat or drink, and it was not known when or if I would ever be able to again.  What do you say to that?  I was shocked – I had been too sleepy to be hungry, but now that I knew what the real circumstances were, I was devastated.  I was confused, like I had woken up in someone else’s life – where was I?  Who was I?  I remember I was once so desperate for answers that I googled “How do I find myself?”

Part of me wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear, part of me wanted to throw something.  I was frustrated – I had just gotten my college acceptance letters – was I the victim of some cruel joke?  My biggest goal in life was acting on the Broadway stage – and now I couldn’t even walk or talk.  That’s when I made the conscious decision, that as long as this was my life right now, I would not let myself feel like a victim or hospital patient. My extremely supportive family and I found the humor and fun in everything, and made our ICU stay as pleasant as we could – whether it was setting up bowling pins in the hallway, serenading the doctors on guitars, or even my parents sneaking me out of the ICU in my hospital gown to go shopping, my attitude always remained to make the best of whatever circumstances I was dealt.


The more alert I became, the more I remembered of my old life P.C. – pre-coma.  Things like water – I missed water so much – drinking it, touching it…The first time they let me splash water on my face, I cried.  It reminded me of washing my face in my old bathroom, in my old body, and I didn’t know if it would never feel the same way again.  In the hospital, the highlight of my day was finally being allowed to brush my teeth, just for that soothing gargle of ice-cold water that would kill me if I ever dared swallow it.  Those basic human needs I couldn’t fulfill reminded me of other primal needs I couldn’t fulfill, like being outside, feeling the cool air on my skin…I would’ve given anything to run around outside, and would often daydream about frolicking through the sprinklers just outside the hospital.  But, in the ICU there were no sprinklers, no air, no windows, no food, no sign of life.  Time went by SO slowly – when all you can do is lie there, and your day isn’t broken up with meals, you can go crazy from boredom.  I would actually look forward to “field trips” – like when they took me downstairs – for a CT-scan.
The only marking of time and sign of hope were the small triumphs – being able to sit upright in a chair for the first time, my vital signs getting a little bit better –  and after months of not being able to talk, they finally took me off the ventilator – but within an hour, I talked so much that I used up all of my oxygen, so they had to put me right back on!  But that’s how the journey went – things would get better, get worse, stay the same – we all just needed patience.  Eventually, I didn’t need to be plugged into as many machines, so my family started taking me on high-speed rides – on my wheelchair –racing through the halls of Columbia Hospital.  We’d explore all of the hidden nooks and crannies of every floor – I’m sure we weren’t supposed to be in half the places we went to –  until one day, we found a beautiful outside where I got to enjoy my first breath of fresh air in months. I remember seeing the sunset for the first time…I felt like a child being born all over again.  The more glimpses I caught of the world, seeing people having lunch outside, the roaring of traffic, birds overhead, the more I wanted to be a part of it.
 I was discharged a few months after I had come to, and a month after leaving, I got the lead role in a local musical – tubes, bags, and all, and still not even being allowed to have an ice cube.  To cope with my hunger, I ironically found myself obsessed with food.  I wanted an excuse to play with it, organize it, smell it – so I started a chocolate business which shipped all over the country, and taught myself how to cook, eventually starting a food blog.  I taught nursery school, leapt across the stage in “CATS”, wrote over 30 original songs, wrote a one-woman play, started my autobiography, studied karate, yoga and dance, and starred in musicals.  I needed to feel like there was still blood running through my veins – that I still was human.  Without food, life felt bleak – the outside world felt threatening – watching someone open a water bottle brought tears to my eyes.  To survive, I tapped into the only part of me that still felt alive – my passion and creativity.  As long as I could create, it meant I was still a human on this earth.



I had this fantasy that on the day I would finally be discharged from the ICU, I would get all dressed up, have no medical devices attached to me, skip out the door, grab a burger on my way out, and waltz back into my old life. Except my waltz partner was my IV pole, and burgers don’t go down so well without a digestive system.  My parents felt like we all needed a “new beginning,” so they surprised me – with a new house.  The house was empty – no memories of my former life, like my life before the coma never existed. Who was I now?  What was this body covered in adhesive, plugged into machines, leaking out of openings I didn’t even know I had?  The only good thing about an empty house was an empty fridge.  Thank god there was no food in the house.  Until a family friend came over and brought us a dozen bagels, some whitefish salad, and a shmear.. I just remember standing there at the counter mindlessly picking the poppyseeds off of a bagel, carving out its doughy insides with my fingernails, making that crust feel as hollow as I felt inside.  And then when I had mutilated this poor mound of dough – this evil thing that threatened to kill me if I even attempted to eat it – I had no idea what to do with myself.  I was hungry for a purpose.  And food.

 Soon, I started to put words to the anger and pain I felt – my sorrows, memories, hardships, struggles, triumphs, warrior-mentality, inspirations, milestones, thoughts, joys – I typed and typed like a madwoman four hours, in an effort to process what was happening, and to find myself through the uncertainty.  That was the only way I knew to still make my mark somewhere – to prove that I was still alive, kicking, and breathing.  Isolated from the entire world and from my entire former life, but still here, and still desperate to live some kind of substantial, meaningful life.  I needed an outlet to just get all of my confusion, frustration, and musings out.  I needed to process all that had finished and all that was still happening to me, and all that was to come in my very uncertain (scarily uncertain) future.
One day, I picked up a paint brush and my world changed.  I had found a way to express things that were too complicated, painful, and overwhelming to put into words.
Whatever I do, I tend to do obsessively, and soon enough I was about to put up an art show with 70 of my paintings on display.  I didn’t expect much turnout, but hundreds of people showed up to see what I had done all this time, to know that I was still alive, still vital.  It has been a long road, but I wouldn’t be here if it was not for my art to provide me with hope, faith, courage, and an inner knowing that in the end, everything would be okay.  I could feel my spirit, and that was enough for now.


 I wanted spiritual fulfillment, to find God again,  but I’d give him up in a heartbeat for a hunk of steak.  Instead, I had what my dad would call my nightly “pina colada cocktail” -a three liter bag of milky white IV vein-food that I would carry around in a purse for 16 hours a day, in addition to a feeding tube in a backpack.  My parents were heartbroken that I couldn’t eat, so they rid the house of all food – my dad would come home from work and hide in the garage eating his eggplant parmesan.  But my sense of smell at that point was superhuman, so I was definitely on to him.  I missed having contact with food – what people don’t really understand is how playing with food, seeing it, smelling it, actually gave me some kind of vicarious satisfaction – in the hospital, all the kids who couldn’t eat were always the ones who wanted to play in the toy-kitchen – we’re obsessed with what we can’t have.  So I was going crazy with no food in the house!

 Not being able to eat was difficult, but not being able to drink – especially in the heat of summer – was just torture,  After a full year of not even an ice cube, I was finally allowed to drink clear liquids – HEAVEN!  2 ounces the first week, then 4, then 6…I couldn’t wait to take my very first sip of water with the tiniest straw I could find.  I took a sip and then I remembered that water didn’t have any flavor.   Day after day, week after week, month after month, I waited patiently to be able to take my first big bite of anything.  It wasn’t until two years later that I was finally able to eat, thanks to a 19-hour surgery and three shifts of nurses and doctors– as I was recovering, every other person came up to me and said, “oh yeah, I worked on you!  I worked on you too!”  (I felt like quite the celebrity.)

Life finally seemed enjoyable – I could eat and I thought any surgeries were a distant memory,  I went to California on vacation, and suddenly my wound ruptured.  I was immediately air-vacced to Yale Medical Center.  Once again, I was told that I could not eat or drink so the wound could heal.  When life felt shaky, I deferred to my rock – my paint brush and my creativity.  My mother went home and gathered every scrap of fabric she could find, an old set of acrylics, and a glue gun.  Every day, I worked feverishly in my hospital bed, gluing, painting, and letting my imagination set me free.  Every day I would create a new work of art, a new source of hope, and display it outside my hospital room.  Soon, nurses and even mobile patients would stroll by my room to see what I had created.
When I got home, I put up another art show  – “Journey Into Daylight” – a collection of 60 mixed media and acrylic paintings – 30 of them I had done at Yale.  

The biggest reward was being able to inspire others by sharing my message of hope and strength.  My gratitude and appreciation of life – the good and the bad – motivated others to find the same positivity that I had tapped into through my paint brush and glue gun.  This is why I create.  I create to live, and to remind myself that I live.



 Suddenly, I felt like I had a mission to share my story with the world.  A message that with hope, strength, and little creativity, anything is possible.  I delved through my literally thousands of typed journal pages that I kept over the years I decided to take some of my journal writings, combine both original and established songs, and make a one-woman musical of my life so far.

My show dared to explore a very personal topic – what could have been a tragedy – in a comedic, yet poignant musical.  “Gutless & Grateful:  A Musical Feast” was the culmination of years of struggling in the dark, and the spark in me that refused to die.  It told my triumphant survival tale in a way that inspired many theatregoers and prompted them to rethink the ways they live their lives.  It was such a powerful experience to share my story and have it affect so many people, that I truly felt firsthand the transformative power of theatre.  To quote a line from my show:

“They say that everything happens for a reason.  But that’s not always true.  Sometimes, you have to make it happen. I think about my old life, and I miss it.  I miss the simplicity and straightforwardness of it.  I look at old pictures and I miss the innocence, the joy, the carefreeness in my eyes.  I can’t be 13 again but I can be the best 26 I can.  But sometimes I wonder what life would be like if this never had happened –This is not the path that I planned for myself – but does anyone’s life ever work out exactly how they plan it?  I was led astray, and hurt, and betrayed, and dehumanized, taken apart and put back together, but differently.  But my passion never went away.  I kept my hunger alive.  Now I know that my role in life is still to be that same performer I always wanted to be when I was 13.  But now with an even greater gift to give.  A story to tell." 

Throughout these eight years, I’ve been strong, determined, and willing to do whatever it took to stay alive.  Yet I still wrestle with being grateful that this happened to me, wanting answers, wanting my old life back, being ambivalent, and just being confused.  But the one thing I refuse to be is numb.  I am changed by all of this, but alive nonetheless.  With creativity, passion, and that little spark, anything is possible.  You can find happiness in the little moments – you don’t always have to be thinking about the big picture.

And just as my life took an unexpected turn as a teen, life fooled me once again.  I’ve never had a boyfriend in my life…so I’m not exactly sure what made me create an online dating profile for myself one day.  The same day I registered, I started writing novel-like letters back and forth with a man who was quirky, spunky, passionate, creative, and though he hadn’t been through anything medically like I have, he reminded me oddly like myself.  A week later we met, and I suddenly I felt love like I have never felt before.  He reminded me of the woman I was aside from what had happened to me.  Five months later, he proposed to me.  I never would have guessed that I’d lose a stomach and gain a fiancé by the time I was 26!


I also didn’t want to give up on my dream of pursuing my education.  Better late than never, I am currently enrolled in my freshman year at Hampshire College.  I would love to eventually pursue my masters in expressive therapy – I see how the arts have helped me find my happiness and my self when nothing felt solid in my life.   Helping others through their own hardships would be the biggest reward.

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