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40 years of caring for others helped me recover from a coma

Rebecca Reagan is an author currently of two books, "An Empty Chair: My Miracle" and "Caregiving: Seven Tips to Avoid Burnout." Her newest book, "Eight Ways to De-Stress for Better Health" will be released in early 2017.

Caring for others for 40 years gave me the tools I needed for my own recovery process

My first thought was that I was tied down. I was terrified when I realized I could only move my head. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was in a hospital, but couldn’t remember why. I tried to talk, but no sound came out.

Finally, I made eye contact with my ex-husband Ross. He told me that after my dual-knee surgery I had developed respiratory and kidney failure, along with sepsis, and had been in a coma for several weeks. The doctors didn’t think I would make it. I laid there in shock as I remembered the day I had gone into the hospital for surgery almost a month before.

More: 6 things I've learned from being my mother's caregiver

The realization of my situation hit me full force. For 40 years, I had been a caregiver. I had taken care of both my parents, two of my sons, my husband when he had his strokes and my mother-in-law, and now I couldn’t even turn over in bed.

How was I going to take care of my 6-year-old son if I couldn’t even sit up? Would I lose him? I was scared. How long would I have to be here? Was this permanent? Who would take care of me?

The day came when an ambulance moved me to a nursing home for long-term care, even though I was only in my early 50s. I begged to go home to my son instead.

More: How cancer changes caregivers

I tried to be cooperative because I knew what it was like to have a difficult person to take care of; my father was an alcoholic and refused to stop smoking even though he needed oxygen.

But it was hard — the food was always cold and gross and I refused to eat it. I hated being dependent on others for my every basic need. I felt I had no control of anything.

Being a caregiver myself, I knew my situation was hopeless unless I improved physically. I tried to move every second I was awake. I prayed constantly that God would heal me so I could go home. I had two heart-shaped stress balls that Ross had placed in my hands the day I arrived at the nursing home that I tried to squeeze constantly. Eventually, I had movement in my hands and then my arms. I learned to talk again. I was determined to get better so I could go home.

Days dragged on and yet no one got me out of bed. I knew from experience that if you don’t use your muscles you lose them. I saw the doctor and although I had made progress, he said I couldn’t go home. I lost it. I started screaming at the staff about not getting me out of bed. They told me they didn’t have a chair they felt safe putting me in. I screamed louder asking why they took me if they didn’t have the equipment to take care of me properly.

I wasn’t getting physical therapy, so I decided I was going home at the end of the month whether the doctor released me or not. Ross agreed to be my caregiver and began to prepare a place for me. We were married for 30 years and still loved each other even though we had divorced three years prior. I was grateful.

More: Caregiver burnout: 5 tips for staying grounded

Ross came to the nursing home and learned how to take care of my tracheotomy to prevent infection. I went home at the end of February after being there for three months. I tried to do as much as I could for myself to make it easier on Ross. I took over homeschooling our son since I could use my arms and hands again.

I was determined to make progress. I knew what to do to improve my ability to take care of myself from being a caregiver all those years, including trying to keep a positive attitude. I think being a caregiver made me more cooperative than I would have been had I not known what it’s like to care for other people. I exercised for hours every day and finally had enough strength to walk about 8 feet without help.

It has been 10 months since I got out of the nursing home. I still need to work on standing up straighter when I try to walk, and I get weak quickly, but my endurance improves steadily. My ex-husband has developed new health issues since I came home, and now I am in a place where I am able to do some things to help him again. I’m also in a place where I can, for the most part, care for my son by myself.

I believe that working as a caregiver for so long gave me the tools and attitude to improve my situation and learn to care for myself — and others — again. I expect a full recovery.

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