After a sudden blood clot caused Amy Oestreicher to fall into a coma for months, she had to rebuild her life and try to find her place in the world. Read about Amy's incredible story and how she discovered just how powerful the world of theatre and musical storytelling can be.
I literally was a girl waking up from a coma trying to find her place in a big world. I didn't know where to start. So I just started somewhere - anywhere.
Piecing myself together after a decade of medical trauma has been a project, a journey, a story that I am still writing.
I was always a creative, artsy type since I could remember, but creativity and resourcefulness took an entirely new meaning at 18 years old, when due to an unforeseen blood clot, my stomach exploded, both lungs collapsed, and I was left in a coma for months.
After 27 surgeries and 6 of the past 10 years, I was miraculously reconstructed with a digestive pouch. For this whole stretch of time, I was wandering in the midst of uncertainty - there was no timeline, no roadmap, only the faint possibility that one day, I would have my life back. But I used my creativity to create hope, joy, and gratitude in my circumstances.
I am an artist, performer, musician, foodie, creator, and life-lover on a beautiful detour after at age 18, a sudden blood clot caused me to fall into a coma for months. Piecing together my life after my initial dreams of performing musical theatre took a turn into broader horizons. I believe, it is my mission to spread messages of hope and strength while doing what I love to do, which is CREATE. I have starred, written, directed and produced Gutless & Grateful; my one-woman musical autobiography which I have performed since it's NYC premiere at the Triad Theatre in 2012.
After being nominated for a Broadway World Award for Best Theatre Debut, I reprised my show the following year at Stage 72 (NYC), The Bijou Theatre (CT) and Barrington Stage Company (MA) as part of William Finn's Cabaret Series. I most recently wrapped up Gutless as part of the United Solo Festival in November 2014 and have plans to take it to more theatres, hospitals, schools, women's shelters and conferences as a motivational tool.
The other half of my mixed media and acrylic artwork is for both the art itself and the story behind the art. Since I used my art primarily for healing through my medical traumas, my art is full of inspiration, joy, sadness and discovery. I am displaying my work in galleries, as well as giving artist talks, selling prints, inspirationalÂ books, and have plans to expand on that with motivational posters, cards, and more. My ultimate goal is to create an organization, center or foundation that promotes creativity and healing, as a means to share what I've learned with the world.
In the process of creating, I found myself and learned lessons along the way. Through creativity, I discovered my voice. I picked up a paintbrush for the first time when I was stuck in the hospital for months after a disastrous surgery. My mother brought fabric, glue, paints, and markers to my small hospital cubicle, and I made art for the first time. Suddenly, I found a way to express emotions that were too painful, complicated, and overwhelming for words. I used everything; even toilet paper from the hospital bathroom. I painted the trees that I missed; I created my inside and outside worlds, full of their joy and pain, tears and hearts, lightning bolts and flowers.
Art was a voice I could recognize: the Amy that was there before dozens of surgeries, the passionate part of me that no medical intervention could surgically remove. For me, painting was one more step toward feeling human again. Art was my way of documenting my life and pinpointing my soul at a time when I wasn't sure who I was or what I was feeling. Making art inspired me with the courage to put myself out there, and emboldened me with the confidence that I was a person and not just a patient. My life had changed, but my Self was still vital as ever; in whatever colors I dipped my brush in.
Each morning before the doctors came in for rounds, I'd paint feverishly whatever abstraction came to mind and what evolved from my situation. When I completed my pieces, I felt like I had not only gotten out my frustrations and worry, but also found a place of joy and gratitude. I would put each canvas outside my hospital room, and soon the unit began to catch on, even taking patients by my room to see what I had created that day. I was sustaining my aliveness and inspiring others, which filled me with unanticipated meaning and satisfaction.
Ironically, the darker the circumstances became, the more joyous my paintings seem today. Every tree seems to be singing and dancing, although the teardrops and lightning bolts are always streaked across the bold backgrounds. Even though an onset of sadness would prompt me to paint the act of painting became joyful, and by the time I finished a painting, I was exhausted and oddly happy.
By painting, I could see what I was feeling. And to know I could feel at a time when every surgery made me feel more and more like a robot, well, that just made me very happy. Finding my heart in every canvas was a happy discovery, the sweet reward every time the paint dried and it was ready to display.
I found my way to painting accidentally on the road to healing. But I had no idea that art would continue to heal the part of me that the doctors couldn't. When identifying as a "patient" for so many years made me lose a sense of who I was, the paint picked up where I had left off and created vivid worlds that I didn't even know I had within me.
Through painting, I could express emotions that were too overwhelming for words. But once these emotions were brought to fruition on a canvas, I yearned to speak it, to verbally share my story with the world.
However, with a ventilator and a tracheotomy, I couldn't even talk. From months of bed-rest, the first time I was able to stand up, I was alarmed at how they trembled as if my legs were Jell-O. I lost the energy to even think about what I loved, and being unable to eat or drink in these new medical circumstances turned my once-steady focus to mush and irritability.
I remember asking every person I could find in the hospital if they thought I would ever be able to sing and dance again. I was faced with many apologetic "I don't knows", sighs, shrugs, and awkward changing of the topic. However, I remember one occupational therapist gave me words that to her, felt like words of encouragement. She looked at me compassionately, and said, You never know - the human body is amazing. I had one patient who showed no signs of hope, and a year later, when he was discharged, he only needed a wheelchair!
(These were not exactly the words of encouragement I was looking for.)
With time, patience, and dogged determination, I was eventually discharged from the hospital. What I'm glossing over are the multitudes of surgeries, setbacks and frustrations, because what was the most important was my passion - I never forgot how I missed the stage. Even not being able to talk or stand up on my own, I still visualized me singing and dancing.
Without theatre, I felt disconnected, purposeless, a has-been. I missed the vibrant girl I remembered being the first to sign up for auditions, now condemned to a realm of medical isolation.
I had always had a dream of combining song and dialogue in a show of my own design. I love the idea of storytelling through theatre, but as a teen, I didn't really have much of a story to tell. But sometimes, a setback is an opportunity in disguise. Suddenly, I had a tale of hurdles, triumph, and heart.
Eight years after my coma, I was finally headed towards a life of medical stability. I learned through experience that things can heal with time, and that's not always the prettiest or easiest way. It was an extremely difficult journey, yet when I started to put together a musical of my life, things felt like they had happened for a reason. Now I had a story to tell, a message to share.
My one-woman musical autobiography, Gutless & Grateful started out as stapled pages of my journal a few pages from the thousands of journal entries I had completed when unable to eat or drink for years. I selected 16 songs; some of which I had written - that had always resonated with my journey and me, and loosely strung them together to sing for my own therapy. I'd perform Gutless & Grateful for my parents, my dogs, but mostly for myself. Through the songs, I could allow myself a safe place to feel the charged emotions I was still trying to process from years of medical trauma.
I had always loved musical theatre and was always fascinated by how the art of song and story could be so seamlessly woven together to share a universal message and to inspire others. All my life I studied music, drama, writing, and lived for the world of the stage.
It was only when I underwent my own beautiful detour that I discovered just how powerful the world of theatre and musical storytelling can be. Coming out of a coma just as I was supposed to be entering my freshman year of college was confusing to say the least. Suddenly, the career path that had seemed to apparent to me my entire life was pushed to the wayside while I took on the more pressing task of fighting for my life. It was easy to feel like a has-been and wonder "why me", or how my life would ever maintain a steady course again.
With no clear road map on how to get my life back on "track", I just stayed true to what had always felt like home expressing myself through the arts. Although I had lost my ability to speak for a while, I committed myself to arts that I could express, “I lost myself in the world of painting and mixed media and ended up putting on three professional art shows. The Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda ended up hearing about my story and my art, and had me on for a segment they do called Everyone Has A Story.
It was there where I met David Friedman a kind soul and a talented composer. I went right over to him and told him I admired his work and would love to put together a cabaret act with him. Two years later, using excerpts from my thousands of journal entries, and songs that effectively expressed my journal some songs being original Gutless & Grateful had its New York premiere. Becoming a business owner was like a rite of passage to me; it made me feel like I had finally taken ownership of what had happened to me, and done something beautiful with it.
I performed Gutless & Grateful for the first time in NYC in October 2012. It was a frightening, bold, vulnerable, and breathtaking experience. In it, I told everything in the pain, the medical, the joy, the infuriating with music, drama, and humor, most importantly. I had played before, but for the first time, I was honestly revealing my own medical and emotional struggles for hundreds of strangers every night. It was a risk to lay my soul bare, but the reward was in how my own vulnerability caused others to become vulnerable and moved by my own struggles.
Since then, I've been performing it in theatres, hospitals, and groups in need of any kind of inspiration and encouragement. Next year, I'll be taking it across the country to inspire everyone from foundations, support groups, women's shelters and cabaret clubs. Through Gutless & Grateful, I'm sharing my story and helping others find the gifts and the gratitude in the hardships. And in healing other people, I heal my own self a bit more every day.
Medically, my life is far from perfect, but now when a surgery goes wrong, I use it as more material for my show if we can't learn to laugh from hardship, we cant learn anything. And for me, when I learn, I feel alive that just as trees grow, change, and evolve with every season, I can too.
After my show, people would come up to me and tell me how inspired they had been by my story. They would almost apologize, as if ashamed that their own problems could possibly compare. This always struck me odd - because I believe that suffering is relative. Although my situation was extreme, I experienced universal feelings that everyone goes through in life - whether it's a surgery, a break-up, or a broken heart.
Whatever the story, it is ours and uniquely ours and we all have to get it out there. Through telling our stories, we realize that we are not alone. We feel connected by a shared experience - and this experience strengthens us just enough to keep getting through life's experiences day after day!
This realization I had that we all need to tell our stories inspired me to start leading workshops about the healing power of our stories, the transformative power of words, manifesting success through creativity, and cultivating joy through gratitude. Through telling our stories, we create a roadmap where there is none, and we find that lantern to guide us home. I discovered this empowering lesson through art as well, which was the impetus for leading my "Show Me Your Heart" workshops.
When Gutless & Grateful premiered in New York at the Triad in October 2012, I felt like everything had really come to fruition. I stopped comparing myself to others and realized that I had stayed true to myself and in doing so, I was still the same performer I had always aspired to be. Except that now I was telling my own story rather than playing an ingenue in Guys & Dolls. It took a bit more work, and the path was a bit rockier, but I now had the privilege of performing theatre that was connecting with audiences on an even broader level inspiring others with a journey of my own that I had never anticipated.
After the run, I would get hugs from total strangers who told me I didn't know anything about this show...my wife dragged me but I'm so glad I came. I had messages in my guest book from audience members who disclosed that I had helped them through a very traumatic time in their own lives. Suddenly, I was telling my story in my own words. Word was getting out about what I had been through, but in my own words, "It was now no longer Amy Oestreicher the woman who's stomach exploded, but Amy Oestreicher the actress, telling her inspiring story at the Triad. I was so grateful for this experience, and it felt like a springboard for even more opportunity.
If there is one thing I've learned through life and through starting my own business, it's to never give up. Persistence. In every respect. Keep going, never giving up, even when I was exhausted or overwhelmed by the idea of what I wanted to accomplish. I literally was a girl waking up from a coma trying to find her place in a big world. I didn't know where to start. So I just started somewhere, anywhere. And just kept going from there blindly at first, but eventually finding a focus, and then just following it intently. Persistence softened with a faith that with that determination, I would get there.
As a performer, all I want to do is give back to the world. Being up on stage and singing is one part of the joy, but what brings the process full circle is knowing that somewhere in the audience, I am affecting someone and making them think in a different way. That is the power of theatre stirring you to see things differently.
Doing what I love, my passion once again can freely flow through my veins, and I'm a person now, not just a patient or a medical miracle. Passion may not heal 27 surgeries, but passion has healed my heart. My passion has re-anchored me in who I am. And for that, I am Gutlessly Grateful.
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