How a coma made me a happier person

Kelly Hager survived a coma and came back to running a successful business with the help of her team.

Story highlights

  • Kelly Hager's near-death experience saved her life, she says
  • The real estate agent survived an unknown virus and learned to value life outside work
  • She credits her employees and loved ones for helping her recover
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(CNN)Not everyone gets to have a near-death experience. Kelly Hager considers herself lucky for hers.

In 2010, the St. Louis real estate agent was the CEO of her own firm, married and parenting a 3-year-old son named Brady. Despite her drive and her success, she didn't feel like a whole, happy person. Working 12 to 15 hours a day, she rarely made it home for dinner at 6 p.m. She would throw parties for potential clients instead of hanging out with her girlfriends. Her work-life balance was more like "work, work, work," her friends said.
And then, that July, a dizzying head pain sent Hager to the hospital. Weeks later, the unknown virus had caused Hager's liver, kidneys and brain to start shutting down. Doctors couldn't pinpoint what was wrong with her even after a lumbar puncture and a battery of tests.
    She lay in a medically induced coma, which doctors did to save her life, for several weeks. Doctors treated the symptoms and weaned her off the ventilator. When she woke up, she had double vision, her muscles had atrophied and she couldn't walk. She could only say a few words at a time. She forgot she had a son. Friends and family showed her photo albums of the toddler, but it only made her upset.
    After she got out of the ICU, she and her husband divorced.
    She had never been so helpless, so dependent on other people. Her parents, who had flown in from Los Angeles during her illness, stayed to help with her recovery. Her best friend came over daily to wash and bathe her. And a nanny and personal assistant came into her life.
    "From being as independent and driven as I was to literally needing somebody to help me shower, there's a change in mindset," Hager said. "Unconsciously you take steps to get yourself outside of that situation by putting one foot in front of the other and having the support system around you to do it. That is what propelled me."
    Hager had a lot of physical obstacles to overcome. From a wheelchair, she worked to strengthen her atrophied muscles until she was able to use a walker and eventually a cane. She had difficulty going up steps. She wore an eye patch because she had double vision. And she didn't have the strength to lift her son.
    Hager and her son, Brady, who his mom credits in her recovery.
    Hager's former nanny and assistant, Kim Bursak, describes her boss before the coma as moving "at 100 mph" from when she woke up. Now, as she recovered, she was living life much more slowly.
    She used to lead a team at work but now she could no longer focus on her business and relied on her employees to help her manage it, said Bursak, who was hired during Hager's recovery. Bursak spent 12 hours each day helping Hager care for Brady and run her home.
    "She started looking at her employees as true friends that were not only going to help her with her business, but were going to listen and help her as she was struggling, physically and mentally," Bursak said.
    After struggling to remember her son after the coma, Hager reconnected with Brady. He visited a lot when she was in a rehabilitation facility and he did little things to help when they came home.
    Brady would grab a plastic cup and get water for his mom when she couldn't move. And when she looked tired, he said, "Mom, you don't have to do the stairs," Hager said.
    "When it was just him and me, he had an instinct that he knew he had to be helpful. I feel like that must have been such a burden on him," she said. "When it comes down to everything, Brady pulled me out of it."
    Two months after coming home, she went back to work. Hager took more time walking into the building than she spent at her desk. The screen exacerbated her double vision and she went home 15 minutes later.
    Co-workers drove Hager to work each day for 15 months. Bursak and different staff members took turns taking her to doctor appointments or meetings. "You had to be a mini-caretaker for Kelly at the time because she needed help doing so many things, like help walking up the stairs," Bursak said. The friendships between Hager and her employees grew deeper.
    Everyone grew a lot closer. And each day, Hager tried to do more. Slowly, she was becoming part of the team again. "My team that surrounded me was so amazing and supportive," Hager said. "It took me 15 months to get back to life. I had support all along the way."
    The team it takes to make things work at Kelly Hager Group.
    In early 2012, Hager started to collect herself and get back to a normal life. It was a new normal; she was still walking with a cane. But over the next few years, her company's sales would multiply fivefold and she would start a second corporation focused on helping people build business teams and overcome adversity. After all, if it weren't for the team supporting Hager, she couldn't have kept her business growing, let alone have recovered.
    "You can have it all. But you cannot do it alone," Hager said. "You can do anything if you have the right team around you."
    Hager gives motivational speeches around the country and self-published a book earlier this year. She hopes that sharing her story will help others overcome their adversity.
    Hager's story also touched those closest to her. Best friend Chandra Catchings, who helped care for her friend daily, gained a new perspective on life.
    "It's taught me so much. My bad day isn't really a bad day," she said. "I know what it is to be a true friend now and I think she does, too."
    Even though she's "all in" when it comes to her business, her friends say the near-death experience taught Hager how to find balance in her life. She encourages employees to spend more time with their families. She makes time to go to the gym and makes sure she's home by 5 p.m. so she can be with Brady.
    "She's never going to be the person that she was before and I think that's for the better," Bursak said. "Her understanding of work-life balance is better. She also sees her personal life and the personal lives of the people around her now."
    Balance in tow, Hager is back to her full speed these days.
    "You just are so excited to be alive and that hasn't faded," she said. "Now I run around the country because I just don't want to waste any of my time."