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After the Fall: The Tapestry of Disturbance and Recovery

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Abstract

On July 3, 2015, Nalini Nadkarni, a world-renowned ecologist who had been studying the biologic processes of ecosystem disturbance and recovery, sustained a catastrophic 50-foot free-fall from the top of the rainforest canopy to the forest floor at her remote field research site. She lost consciousness in shock and sustained life-threatening injuries. Her accompanying students hiked out, radio-called 911, and the Harborview Medical Center (Seattle) Medivac team arrived 4 hours later to rescue her. Her prognosis was extremely grim; her family gathered in anticipation of her death as she underwent four operations during her 10 days in the ICU. As she emerged from coma, she spent weeks of hospital recovery and months of progressive mobility and physical therapy during medical leave from work. She experienced ICU psychosis and postintensive care syndrome, but slowly recovered nearly totally, to the point where she can solo hike up to 18 miles in a day, and has fully resumed her professional responsibilities as professor of biology, including climbing tall trees for her canopy research. She attributes her survival and remarkable recovery to both exquisite medical critical care and support she received, and also to incorporating lessons learned from her interdisciplinary study of how diverse natural systems commonly experience and recover from catastrophic disturbances (e.g., forest fires, traffic jams, orphaned children, and refugee survivors of war). Insights from her own encounter with critical illness and study of disturbance and recovery led her to reflect on the tapestry of disturbance and recovery that permeate all ecosystems, and with relevance to the evolving Society of Critical Care Medicine, postintensive care syndrome, and THRIVE initiatives.

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