Dr. Grace Dammann and the Dalai Lama in "States of Grace" at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
It started with a crash.
In 2008, Dr. Grace Dammann, the founder of Laguna Honda hospital's AIDS unit, who had signed more than 6,000 death certificates at the height of the AIDS crisis, brushed up against her own mortality when she was hit headlong by another car on the Golden Gate Bridge. Dammann was catastrophically injured; doctors doubted she would live. She did, and continues to practice medicine, though from a wheelchair. Her story of pain and recovery is the subject of a documentary film premiering at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival.
"There was hardly anything that wasn't broken," Fu Schroeder, a Buddhist priest at the San Francisco Zen Center and Dammann's longtime partner, says in the movie States of Grace, which screens Sunday. "They had to reinflate her lung, repair her ruptured diaphragm, place her organs back in the abdominal cavity, and repair her legs." Dammann remained in a coma for 48 days. Enter States of Grace directors Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman, longtime friends of Dammann, who began shooting the documentary at the suggestion of Dammann's 14 year-old daughter, Sabrina, who—along with the family dog—was also injured in the crash.
"The day [Dammann] was discharged we were filming it just for its own sake, and it turned out to be a very powerful moment," says Cohen. "After that, we just kept showing up every day." The film, a thoughtful look at Dammann's physical recuperation and the way the accident changed her outlook, chronicles her life from the day she woke up in the hospital to the present.
Dammann, who is 67 and an eighth-generation doctor, knows a lot about how vulnerable recovery can make a patient feel, but still wasn't completely prepared to see it on the big screen. "I was brain-damaged when we started, so I didn't think about the future," she says. "But the movie shows the resilience of the human body, and how even though age, sickness, and death are unavoidable, they don't have to be bad things."
These days, Dammann heads a unit at Laguna Honda that treats patients dealing with long-term pain. She says the accident has made her a better doctor. "Patients see me in the chair and come up to me and say, 'Doc, what do I do when I'm just tired of the pain?' That's not something you can ask an able-bodied person."
States of Grace premieres Sunday at Mill Valley's Cinearts Sequoia theater, and twice more through October 9.