Organ and tissue donation · Transformation · Transformation Posts

Waking Up Without a Wake-Up Call: Transformation Without Tragedy

downloadMy 44-year-old sister’s violent death in 2004 at the hands of a drunk driver rocked my and my family’s world.  At first, I went about my business as marketing director of a Houston-based software company, thinking I was OK.  But after a few weeks, I realized I was really, really not OK.  I realized my life was way out of whack.  My drive to succeed professionally had overtaken everything else in my life.  I was overweight and in poor shape.  Constantly stressed.  My marriage was in shambles.

I had a sweet, blue-eyed blonde haired eight-year-old son, Burke, who was getting my leftovers – whatever remained of me at the end of each day after feeding my insatiable ego at work.

Blowing into his private school one day – between crafting a masterful PowerPoint presentation and writing an award-winning conference report, I’m sure – to catch a glimpse of him in the Egyptian mummy funeral procession, a third grade rite of passage, I overhead one of the other moms say, incredulously, “Is that boy in a Roman costume?”

The other moms had spent weeks carefully researching and hand crafting their kids’ costumes, complete with jewel-encrusted headpieces, Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra bangs and a sea of shades of blue eye shadow.  And those were the boys. Bopping along amidst a gaggle of tiny King Tuts was Burke, a miniature Russell Crowe from Gladiator in his hastily purchased Roman outfit from Arne’s Party Supply.

My wake-up call came at 7 AM on March 17, 2004.  I was working, always working, during a spring break family ski trip in Beaver Creek, Colorado.  With the coffee brewing and bacon frying, the rest of our group was groggily sorting through damp mittens and ski socks. I was at the kitchen table, hunched over my laptop, scrutinizing an excel spreadsheet.  A co-worker had called to say our team had inadvertently left a zero off our annual budget request, the business equivalent of the end of the world.

In the middle of the call, my sister Julie’s son Aaron beeped in to say, “You need to come home.” While traveling home from work in Downtown Houston that morning, Julie’s car had been hit from behind by thirty-two-year-old Eric Hinton, who the police estimate was traveling at a speed of 117 miles per hour upon impact, his blood alcohol content three times the legal limit.  Julie was being kept on life support at Hermann Hospital in Houston until I could get there to say goodbye.

In that instant, as if by magic, the apocalyptic budget crisis simply ceased to exist.

Over the course of the next three years, I methodically deconstructed my life and constructed Karen v2.  I quit my very important, all-consuming marketing job and began freelancing.  I quit my hopeless marriage.  I began to exercise and get into shape, exploring Pilates and hot yoga.  I sponsored a woman to become Catholic at my church.  I became an Art a la Carte docent at my son’s school, immersing myself into art and the classroom.  I spent time with my son.  I remarried.  Moved twice.  And started a new job.  I began to ponder what happens to us, to our spirits, after we die, and how they came into existence in the first place.

My sister was an organ and tissue donor, and through that experience, I became an advocate for organ and tissue donation, something I had spent little time thinking about before her death.

Eleven years later, I am seeking another wave of personal transformation, but this time without the catastrophe.  This time from a place of health and happiness instead of stress and dysfunction.  This time, I hope to get to know myself.  Not the Karen who shops at Anthropologie, drinks skinny lattes and writes press releases for a living, but the Karen who was put on this earth for a purpose, to fulfill a mission.  This time there’s nothing to deconstruct, save perhaps a few bad habits and limiting mindsets.

Almost a year ago to the day, I stumbled upon Dan Harris’ (then) new book, 10% Happier, which inspired me to give myself the freedom to explore new things.  Since then, I have joyfully bounced around a bit, letting things happen instead of making them happen.

First, I delved into mindfulness and meditation. Who knew eating a raisin could be so engrossing? I explored the life of the Bodhisattva through a course at the Houston Zen Center.  And I experienced life inside the womb through Watsu massage at a ranch in Baja California, Mexico (still trying to sort that one out, but it required a passport).

As a result of my family’s involvement in organ and tissue donation, I was asked to deliver a keynote speech in September to an audience of 900 members of the American Association of Tissue Banks in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Nervous about speaking in front of such a large audience, I took a course on effective public speaking at Rice University, taught by a man with a serious speech impediment.  (It was either that or devise the human version of the Thundershirt.   I even purchased a black neoprene jog bra about four sizes too small, but that’s another story.)

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I became a volunteer at LifeGift Houston, the organ procurement organization that, well, procured my sister’s organs and tissues upon her death, which promises an opportunity to support this worthy cause and a peek into the inner workings of organ and tissue recovery.

And through my first writing workshop, on memoir writing at Inprint Houston, I learned that I could actually put words on paper and properly use quotation marks.  Inspired, I joined a fledgling writers’ group, Writespace. Oh, and I started a blog.

All in all, 2015 has been a year of forming new relationships with some amazing people, two of whom are my sister and myself. If it weren’t for her and quite frankly her death, my life would be very different.  Every stone I overturn on this journey brings a new, interesting and sometimes bizarre experience.  In 2016, I plan to share some of these experiences, and I hope you’ll share yours.

168 thoughts on “Waking Up Without a Wake-Up Call: Transformation Without Tragedy

  1. Thanks Karen for your inspirational sharing. Some of us are blessed with the possibility of mindfulness and the ability to have insight about our own life journey. All the best to inspire many more people!
    If you have time you are welcome to visit my blog on Creative Optimism & Holistic Integration. Charles Alphonse
    Personal blog:
    For Counselling & Healing Insights:


    1. I am so glad you took the time to comment and to pose your question! After my sister’s death, I became involved in organ and tissue donation. For six years, I served as the donor family representative on the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation’s (tissue bank) Donor Board of Trustees. That gave me great insight into the world of organ and tissue donation. I can say based on that experience, there is nothing, nothing for a registered donor to fear with regard to not getting the absolute best life-saving care at a hospital. Inspired by your comment (and also the AZ Cardinals being in the NFC playoffs – will explain that tie in my post), I am going to write a post in the next week or two about organ and tissue donation, addressing some of the myths out there. Thank you for the inspiration!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I really liked what you wrote and I also used to live in around Houston,TX I lived in a town called Baytown,Tx.In fact, I lost my father-in-law in an airplane crash that happen in Pasadena,Tx but he was also taken to Herman Memorial hospital in Houston,TX.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Grieving, living, and the journey one takes is so individual. Thank you for sharing yours with such beautiful words. Looking forward to reading more posts.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This was a good kick in the butt for me, too. I’ve no personal tragedies in my life, just the everyday ones that I witness to in the small weekly I edit. That is not my life, thank God. It’s just part of my life. I also fix bicycles, occasionally blog on the less than dramatic events in my experiences, cut wood to burn in our wood stove in Iowa winters and wait for the chance to say “No” when state and national representatives want to bend my ear. There are more important stories to tell. Your writing was a good reminder.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I love this post. I lost my mother in 2014 and it led me to a similar place. I especially loved the title “transformation without tragedy,” because there’s so many times where I wish people would just truly understand what is important without having to lose someone. This title is just spot on.

    Liked by 2 people

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  6. I was very touched by your re-alignment after Julie’s death, and I appreciate the reminder of what is important in life. I look forward to reading more from you. Hugs, Pope.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I stumbled across your blog tonight, and I am glad I did. Good to see you making so many positive changes, death can teach us so much. More than life can I think. I lost 4 of my family members in the same number of years leaving me here solo now. I am still recovering but through writing, photography, travel and just taking my time, I am slowly getting there! I would love you to check out my blog too:
    Writing has really helped me, and it looks like it has helped you too! Well done, and keep up the good work! xx Anita

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Karen I really enjoyed your post. I just got the WordPress app, so I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m also trying to start a blog to add new experiences to my life. I think I followed you but I’m not really sure how all of this works.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I also can’t be more happy about your transformation. I often look at my life and see that it’s not how it supposed to. Last year i’ve lost someone. That changed me into workaholic.. In that time i was so sad that i pushed away people that made my life harder. I think that was the good thing about this.. But now.. i’m back where i’ve stared and i wish i could go back, have a strenght to cut off toxic people without loosing someone. / Sorry im not english fluent/

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Wow that was a great story. Im so sorry, i cant even imagine the loss of someone that important. I’m really sorry… i just dont know what to write. I know that words in that case are nothing.. I wish you well. I hope your life will be filled with joy from now on.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. So inspirational and extremely touching. So many lessons to be learned not just for those of us struck by tragedy but for anyone facing a crossroad in life. I begin writing my blog as a way to document my new journey in this life (after experiencing several losses- my job, my relationship and most importantly, my mother). I sit here this morning- being quite self reflective- realizing that I have not given much attention to how I feel about those losses. I think in my future entries I’ll have to make of an effort to not just discuss life, as I know it today, but to reflect on the events of the past which brought me here. Thank you for that.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. A tragically beautiful story! I myself have just started my journey of self discovery and hope that I can achieve my goals as you have yours. Thank you for such a powerful story and added inspiration!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Really great story! With large businesses moving towards that Work, Live, Play environment, and for good reasons like you pointed out with your journey, hopefully we find more balanced lifestyles. Especially with today’s values for success and working too hard towards our financial goals, we forget to pay attention to other aspects that may life so good. Appreciate you sharing your story! I know there’ll be a bright future ahead, as long as you don’t let the low points keep you down!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Just love the idea of Karen v2 (I didn’t know the v1 – just loving the ‘v2’ part). Always believe that we can reinvent ourselves. I think that is part of living a full life, really. Eager to read more. Sorry for your loss, humbled by what you have done with it. Rock on!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I have the same struggle on my blog. I often will save drafts for a few days before posting just to make sure, but ultimately I think if it can help others, it’s worth the risk. I look forward to reading more.

        Liked by 1 person

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