Waking from a coma and paralysed down her left side, Kirsty Salisbury whispered a vow that she wasn't going to let her medical crisis ever limit her.
The then-12-year-old had been a competitive gymnast with Olympic dreams. There had been nothing to suggest she couldn't make her goal a reality – and certainly no health problems to stand in her way – until one night when she woke with an excruciating pain in the side of her head. Attempting to get out of bed, the youngster collapsed on the floor, waking her mother with the crash.
"The next thing I know, I'm coming out of a coma with tubes everywhere," recalls Kirsty (41), who had flatlined twice during emergency brain surgery.
She was told an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) had burst within her brain and surgeons had to abort the operation to save her life.
"I had what I believe was a near-death experience. And when I woke, I remember having this amazing sense that my life was perfect the way it was and everything would be okay," recalls the professional speaker and author, who has drawn on her survival story for her book A Life by Design and a series of podcasts.
The prognosis indicated Kirsty would probably regain some feeling and movement, but might not live a "regular" life again. She'd have to give up sport, including gymnastics, and would likely need ongoing help with daily tasks.
But the doctors didn't take into account the young girl's penchant for pushing the boundaries "in everything".
She explains, "I didn't know if I would walk again or not. But I wanted proof that I couldn't rather than just accepting that I couldn't.
"My father used to come visit me every morning at the hospital. He had always challenged me to push boundaries in life and one of my defining points came when I told him, 'I'm going to try and show you something new that I can do every day when you come in.'
"That was a big feat because at that point, I pretty much couldn't do anything at all. But little things like twitching a finger grew to twitching two fingers."
With a tangle of abnormal blood vessels still deep within her brain, Kirsty and her mother flew from Auckland to London for stereotactic radiation therapy – a treatment in which surgeons radiate the AVM until it's eliminated.
Getting on the plane to the UK was terrifying, she admits.
"I was a ticking time bomb and nobody knew if it was going to burst again before surgery. Thankfully, the treatment worked and I was a success story."
In the ensuing years, Kirsty had extensive rehabilitation and dedicated everything to her recovery. She learned how to walk again and went on to finish school and tertiary training.
She got a job as a receptionist and left home aged 18, but felt a deep desire to do something more, to help people and make a difference in their lives.
So she quit her job and joined a mission trip to Thailand and Malaysia, which included helping villagers build schools.
"I was afraid of everything but wanted to face my fears," says the mother-of-one. "I had been testing my limits at home, in a safe environment. I was heading away from my family and my culture to a place with little medical care. Part of me didn't even know if I would really get on the plane!
"But I remembered my vow in the hospital bed that my medical crisis would not limit or define me."
In fact, Kirsty went to great lengths to keep her struggle a secret from others.
After becoming a personal trainer and wellness coach, she would constantly be thinking "20 steps ahead" to come up with ways to hide her fatigue and the constant numbness down the left side of her body.
"I didn't talk about my story for a very long time. I was embarrassed, I guess, and felt ashamed for what I had caused the family to go through.
"Yet in wanting to hide that part of my life, all I did was live in a prison I had built for myself."
Deciding to share her story in a book – and typing it all with one hand – has given her "so much freedom", and she hopes it will help others design their best futures, regardless of their current circumstances.
"If I hadn't been prepared to push the boundaries, I wouldn't have my miracle girl," beams Kirsty, referring to her daughter Maia Rose (9).
"I was advised how dangerous it could be to get pregnant but a few years into marriage, we thought, 'Why don't we prove that we can't?'"
Kirsty and her husband Paul (36), who were then living in Switzerland, consulted a brain surgeon who advised against it but also told them that medical technology had advanced so much that if something did go wrong in pregnancy, she could receive help in Geneva.
"So we went for it – we got pregnant. And things did get a bit exciting when my heart started playing up," she reveals.
"I wouldn't try again for another pregnancy, however, having Maia Rose is such a blessing. She's so proud of me. I'll be mid-conversation with someone and she'll say, 'Mum, tell them about that time you died!'"
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