‘Go back and be happy’

After a horrific car crash, doctors gave up on Julie Papievis, but God – and her father – surely didn’t.

Julie Papievis often feels she is not of this world. 

“It sometimes feels as if my soul went home, but my body came back,” she says.

In May of 1993 Julie’s life was forever altered when a teenager ran a red light and smashed into Julie’s car. The violent crash left her with a severe brain stem injury.

Julie was considered medically dead.

However, after one month in a coma, Julie shocked medical experts and delighted her loved ones by waking up. But, Julie woke up to the devastating realization that the crash left half of her body paralyzed. 

A glimpse of Heaven
Julie woke from the coma with vivid memories from “death” after a rare glimpse of Heaven.

“I was alone, but not afraid. The room reminded me of a spacious foyer of an enormous mansion–a place to wait before meeting others for a guided tour,” she recalls.  “It wasn’t hazy or foggy. Everything is just pure, clear, clean.”

“Although it wasn’t like any place I’ve seen before, I was so comfortable, like I knew for sure it’s a place where I should be. It felt like home,” she says.

There, in that heavenly place, Julie had an encounter with her maternal and paternal grandmothers. Both had passed away earlier. “They looked wonderful,” she says. “They were no longer their physical selves. They were spiritual, but I knew exactly who they were.”

Yet, Julie says that she sensed that she was still a physical being. 

“I looked down and realized my body was broken. I so badly wanted to head towards the streaming light, and I said to my grandmothers, ‘Come on, let’s go!'” Julie remembers vividly.

Yet, one of her grandmothers told her she couldn’t follow them. “I pleaded with her and told her I couldn’t go back, that my body was broken,” Julie says.

Yet, she says her grandmother responded confidently: “Your body will heal. Go back and be happy.”

With those words, Julie knew she had to return. And that God had a purpose for her to stay on earth.

Medical prognosis
After the accident, the specialists at the hospital explained to Julie’s parents that their daughter was in a coma and on life support.

The doctors explained that it didn’t look good for Julie. They didn’t know if she’d ever wake up, and, if she did, she’d need long-term care for the rest of her life.

Julie’s father, Jerry Papievis, told the doctors that his daughter still had life in her, and he refused to take her off of life support.

The Papievis family learned that 96 percent of people with this sort of injury pass away. They prayed for a miracle.

Walking and talking with a purpose
Once a beautiful executive for Estee Lauder in Chicago and an active athlete, Julie never imagined she’d awake from a coma and find herself paralyzed. She spiraled into a deep depression as she re-entered an able-bodied world in a disabled body.

Yet, her glimpse into Heaven carried her through grueling days of pain, disappointment and financial setbacks as a result of the accident.

Against all odds, over a six-year period, Julie learned to sit up, feed herself, stand and walk again. In 1999, she ran a 5K race and in February 2007 participated in a triathlon.

Julie has become an advocate for other survivors looking for hope and guidance. She works with the Brain Injury Association of Illinois, the Spinal Cord Injury Association of Illinios and is a peer advisor to the Midwest Brain Injury Clubhouse.

She speaks to students about safe driving through the program, ThinkFirst, volunteers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and holds a part-time job as a community relations advisor for a top Chicago law firm.

Reunion with the paramedics
Several years after the accident, Julie’s dad took her to meet the paramedics who worked on her at the scene.

“They were so surprised to see that I was alive, and they couldn’t believe I learned to walk again,” says Julie.

One paramedic told Julie that she had started agonal breathing when they arrived at the hospital. Agonal breathing usually indicates that the body is taking its last breaths.

“Thank goodness my buddy, Tom Otake happened to be a block away getting his tires fixed when he heard the crash,” the paramedic told her.

It was then that Julie learned for the first time that an off-duty paramedic ran to her aid at the scene of the accident. Somehow, he managed to climb into her crumpled car and lift her neck to clear an air passage. This slight tilt of her head allowed oxygen to her brain and prevented further brain damage.

“I thought, ‘Wow, God never turns his eyes!'” Julie recalls.

A new day, a new book, a new life
Julie tells her inspirational story of triumph in her new book, “Go back and be happy,” and she uses the lessons she learned to speak to a variety of audiences in churches, as well as in the medical community.

And she’s found a new love that helps her with balance issues – yoga.

Above all, like an oyster, Julie has transformed the unexpected “grit” in her life into a precious pearl.


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