May 31st, 2013
11:28 AM ET

Five things I learned in the ICU that helped me start a business

Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 1, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of innovator Francesco Clark.

By Francesco Clark, Special to CNN

1. Show up.

They say “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” When I was laying in a hospital bed hooked up to a ventilator and dozens of tubes, the most impactful moment was when I saw so many of my friends and family there, sitting just a few feet away. I couldn’t speak. My left vocal cord was paralyzed. My left lung had collapsed. I had inhaled too much water and shattered two vertebrae in a diving accident that became the pivotal instant that changed my life.

What did I have to rely on for those first terrifying hours after? When I felt alone, when the doctors told me I probably wouldn’t survive the night, I still felt at my core that somehow I’d survive. But how can you know for sure when everyone around you doesn’t?

Those are the moments when a well-intentioned note doesn’t matter, but being there does. What got me through was that I felt at ease and immediately comforted knowing my parents, brother, sister and so many friends were there supporting me. It was a testament to how meaningful the unspoken word can be.

The emails were touching but I don’t remember them. What I remember is everyone who was there in person.

2. Live with passion.

In the helicopter on the way to SUNY Stony Brook’s emergency room I finally closed my eyes. The door was open and I could feel the warm wind wafting onto my face but the thought of seeing the ground disappear below me was too much to bear. I was strapped into a gurney, my spine filling with an increasing amount of pressure that felt like it would explode.

For the first time, I didn’t have to reassure anyone I was alive or direct someone to call 911. Those ten minutes of introspection made me realize, “I might not make it through tonight.” None of it made sense. The weather was too serene for something so catastrophic to happen. It was a beautiful summer night with the moon and stars floating in a sky I wasn’t sure I’d see again.

I wanted to live, desperately. My first instinct, in a surge of energy, was to fight to fix what just happened. As it turned out, every part of being in the ICU was a challenge. Relearning how to breathe became the first and most important task of living. With my lungs unable to clear themselves by coughing, my blood oxygen levels were too low to sustain my body. I had to make it better or I’d need to be on a ventilator.

The nurses gave me a clear cup with a tube attached to it. The goal was to blow into the tube and make a little red ball float intermittently for thirty minutes. It was the most boring thing I was supposed to do but it was the most important. I needed to figure out a way to get strong enough to breathe. I found a way that was just as effective but all my own.

My sister and a childhood friend, Alex, stopped by my room the next day. They unpacked a disc player and placed it on the table facing my bed. Alex had an ABBA CD with him that he put in the player and said “sing.” For nine days, I didn’t care if I made a fool of myself: I sang so horribly and my lung capacity rose to a normal range. I could breathe on my own, without a machine, and it felt like a triumph.

3. Make a connection

There was a night nurse, Cynthia, whom I began having long conversations with. I’d wake up gasping for air from a recurring nightmare I couldn’t escape. It would play over and over in my head and I’d panic. Imagine dreaming that you suddenly can’t feel your legs or arms, only to wake up and realize that this horrible nightmare is actually reality.

But through conversations with Cynthia I began to feel human again because we’d talk about anything but my injury. That connection to another human being, the feeling of mutual respect, gave me the peace of mind I needed in order to go back to sleep and hold on to hope.

4. Commit to what’s important.

Like most twenty-four year olds, when I was confronted with a big change, there was a two-part reaction. The first was, “how do I deal with this?” and the second was, “what are my other options?” My injury forced me deal with the former on a level I never thought I could.

Many times I’d question whether my nerves would grow. The scientific community didn’t think they would. But it didn’t and doesn’t make sense to me why I can’t get better. I don’t have a disease, and new research is breaking the old boundaries.

I committed to my recovery. By focusing on that goal it became easier to email the leading spinal cord injury researchers and doctors around the world. I moved past the fear of asking a dumb question and learned to be direct and honest. It was easier than I expected and opened a world of possibilities where once there was none.

When I started Clark’s Botanicals, I had no idea what it would mean to run a skincare company. I was only sure of the formulation my father and I had made, and believed in our organic collaboration. The rest of it felt like a world of unknown. At first I thought I had to understand every part of it immediately. Eventually I realized that if I just stayed committed, I’d learn and grow as we expanded. And, like my nerves, why wouldn’t it grow if I were truly committed to it?

5. Realize there is no box.

Everyone has a different story. My good friend, Brooke Ellison, sustained a high-level cervical spinal cord injury when she was a young girl. It disconnected her body from her thoughts and made her dependent on a ventilator.

I often wonder if her brain ever just chills out. I suppose it might not have time to. She emails me while grading her students’ term papers, the ones who are hoping for a passing grade from their college professor. Those pupils probably don’t know she’s one of the first quadriplegics to graduate from Harvard and then become a leading Ph.D. in bioethics.

She’s not the kind of person to mention that because her focus is on something so much more beyond herself—engaging others and explaining the most complex topics in her brilliantly simplified way.

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Filed under: Culture • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Cheryl

    such a valuable, insightful, helpful article...my 20 Y.O. son was terribly injured a year and a half ago...now a T6 complete...so much of this resonates with ME, who was sitting in that ICU waiting for a miracle...still waiting for the BIG one but there have been MANY smaller ones...thank you for taking the time to write this...i'm hoping my boy will read it.

    June 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Reply
  2. julie C de Perez

    Solo es para hacerles saber lo que admiro a los que estan al frente de CNN son extraordinariamente profesionales de Primerisimo Nivel gracias y mi s respetos para todos los que hicieron posible esta Monumental obra

    June 1, 2013 at 12:52 am | Reply

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