Every weekday morning, Mary Grace St. Claire checks into her full-time volunteer shift at Methodist Hospital knowing that a newfound sense of peace and fulfillment will fill her heart at the end of the day. As a volunteer with the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP) and an organizer for the Park Nicollet Foundation, it’s a hard-earned outlook on a life she said has become devoted to helping others since a motorcycle accident in October 2003 nearly took her life.
When St. Claire was struck that fateful day, she was going just 45 miles per hour. That didn’t stop the collision from sending her flying 30 feet across the pavement, resulting in a broken spine, neck, legs, and a traumatic injury to the frontal lobe of her brain. She wasn’t expected to survive, since her heart had stopped twice.
Far from intimidated by the horrific incident, she peppers her tales of the experience with laughter and exudes a lightness that seems like a rare feat considering the magnitude of her ordeal, and she hosts no bitterness. In fact, she says she’d probably thank the driver who hit her for turning her life around if she ever met him again.
St. Claire joined a support group at the hospital for people with traumatic brain injuries or recovering from strokes called INSPIRE, and instantly found solidarity and support. It was through her experiences there that she launched into volunteering after she fully recovered from her brain injuries, which imparted a new sense of purpose and put her in touch with a remarkable level of empathy for people going through what she had endured.
In 2014, she began to transition from male to female. St. Claire was previously known to the outside world as Marty, and she believes that decades of struggling to reconcile her true identity with the one other people perceived had rendered her tired, weary, passionless. Inspired by her brush with death and rendered fearless by having seen the other side, her former identity melted away as she regained her brain’s functions.
“My previous life as Marty just didn’t register. It was like looking at somebody else’s home movies or black and white pictures—there just wasn’t any feeling about that previous life,” she said.
An out-of-body experience she had when she clinically died after her collision is part of what changed the course of her life and helped instill a newfound fearlessness that now seems innate.
“There was this ancient woman, just ancient. She told me, ‘You can’t stay here. You have to make a choice,’” she recounted.
As she healed from her brain trauma and began volunteering in the same program that had supported her in the wake of her accident, she had a nagging feeling that something was still missing: a personal identity.
At the behest of a longtime friend who had recently transitioned, St. Claire began seeing a counselor, who effectively helped her get in touch with the identity that had been hidden her entire life.
“Within 15 minutes, she said, ‘You know what? You’re Mary Grace. You’ve always been Mary Grace.’” St. Claire recalled.
It was a major relief to hear those words. She had been “diagnosed” as transgender in 1973 by doctors who still viewed it as a disorder, and had become suicidal. Her turning point had finally come as she approached age 60.
She had been volunteering 40 hours a week as the lead volunteer coordinator for a group of over 300 volunteers for HELP who visit elderly patients in an effort to prevent dementia, plus working with the Foundation to coordinate and host fundraising events. Now she faced the new challenge of informing her colleagues that she would soon begin identifying as female.
“I was afraid for a year. I was afraid that if I said anything, I couldn’t be a volunteer anymore,” she said.
The first colleague she told was extremely supportive, which instilled confidence to reach out to the Foundation’s CEO, Christa Getchell, who also offered tremendous support.
“(She) said, ‘If anybody gives you any trouble, I want names,” St. Claire said with a smile.
Gradually, she told all of her colleagues and fellow volunteers, and found support across the board. Her manager immediately got her an updated name tag, and much to her relief, her fresh identity took root at the hospital in a short period.
Since her transition, St. Claire’s sense of purpose and inner peace has been significantly restored. While the occasional glare or sideways glance in public is unnerving, she tries not to take it personally. Instead, she channels her limitless compassion and empathy and focuses on her volunteer work as a lifeline to other people in need, sharing her warmth and wisdom to help improve their own outlook and quality of life.