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Unstoppable: How Debra Sunderland has been able to thrive and empower others despite suffering a traumatic brain injury

Rejoice always! All things are possible. What you think is what you create. Look to what is good now. Ask yourself this question: “How am I enough right now?” I had the pleasure to interview Debra Sunderland, Founder of Sunderland Coaching. With decades of executive and team coaching, she supports executives and their teams in […]

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Rejoice always! All things are possible. What you think is what you create. Look to what is good now. Ask yourself this question: “How am I enough right now?”


I had the pleasure to interview Debra Sunderland, Founder of Sunderland Coaching. With decades of executive and team coaching, she supports executives and their teams in creating an empowered, internal culture — in a diverse range of industry: hi-tech, wealth management, engineering, healthcare, marketing and more. An expert in transformational leadership, culture build, and group dynamics, she specializes in building trust and collaboration: teams that achieve their strategic objectives in an empowered environment. She is passionate about people living full, abundant lives and creating what they most want. Debra graduated from Miami University, holds a degree in Psychology, a certificate in Corporate Goal Coaching, CTI Co-Active training, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, and is an iEQ9 Integrative Enneagram Accredited Practitioner. She lives and coaches clients in both Nashville and Chicago. In addition to coaching, Debra is passionate about the arts, cycling, fitness training, and spending time with her children Isabel and Luke, and their dog Kit.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Myjourney in life began living with a physically and emotionally abusive mother and an alcoholic father. My life was a spectacle, a series of incidents for my neighbors and schoolmates to read in the news. At a young age it became vital to trust my own thoughts and have faith that I could attain whatever I desired. I had to learn this to survive.

By age 19, I was thrown out of my home. With no shelter, money, food or support, I worked four jobs and lived with friends. I managed my pain and insecurity by becoming a compulsive overachiever — academics, music, sports and work — constantly in overdrive to be the best in every area of my life. When I was ready to finally face myself, I became aware that my pursuit of outward perfection was preventing me from knowing and living as my authentic self.

This realization inspired my personal growth work, and I began to understand the immense power of my thoughts and choices. I found my way to peace, joy and true purpose. Now, I align who I am with what I do, and choose to believe in my greatness despite messages of the past. These shifts bolstered my emotional intelligence, my self-awareness and brought me further than I ever thought possible. I do not regret my struggles because they taught me to choose forgiveness, love, and acceptance, even in the face of impossible odds. These concepts are the foundation from which I coach and guide others.

Can you share the story of how you became disabled/became ill, and what you did to not let it stop you?

I was a competitive cyclist and raced nationally. I was involved in a racing accident in June 2013 as I participated in the Glencoe Criterium in Glencoe, Illinois. I suddenly found myself trapped between other racers — someone bumped me and I was sent sprawling to the pavement. My head, neck and ribs on the right side of my body were crushed when I slammed into the curb. I began convulsing. Having suffered severe traumatic brain injury, the paramedics did not expect me to survive the trip to the hospital. I was placed in a medically induced coma and put on life support. The doctors told my friends it was a miracle that I had survived such an accident.

I did not let my brain injury stop me. I was told that it would take three years for my brain to heal and I did not listen to this! I was back on my bike within eight months. I discovered conscious neuroplasticity and this is the brain’s ability to change continuously throughout a person’s life.

As my brain healed, I understood its power to give or take life in an instant. We each have the power to think, believe and create our reality. We can choose life or death — not just physically — but emotionally and spiritually. The power we have is a conscious choice. While recovering, I put belief into the thought that I would heal less than three years.

Can you tell us about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability/illness?

I have been able to come to my purpose. I was not supposed to live and I did! I also knew it was for a very special purpose that I did survive. I discovered my calling. This specific thought came to me…”Thank God I almost died doing something I love and I am great doing it.” I see leaders go off to work doing something they do not most want to do and they don’t realize this is a slow death every day. I am here to wake them up!

It is my purpose and calling to help others find their own and create presence, joy and fulfillment in their lives. My near-death experience taught me that living joyfully and fully is a choice. I now live to coach those that want to institute deep change in their life, to align their unique being with their doing.

What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities/limitations?

Know you are your own body, mind, soul and heart authority. All things are truly possible. It rests in what you believe. If you do not have the results you most want, then check your beliefs.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

For me, it was my medical team that saved my life, my mentors and coaches, my friends who are like family. These are the people who never gave up on me. When you have people supporting you on your behalf, prayers get answered. I thank God for them.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am changing lives of leaders and their cultures by empowering them to step into their whole yes in life and work; coaching them out of drama and into trust and giving them tools to use when they are small — and not standing for what they most want to create in this world. People play small when they trying to succeed according to what the word around them demands. Being ourselves and allowing others — that we all have insight and offerings and how do we unite is key.

I’m changing the way teams communicate and hear each other as they move from defensiveness to curiosity to create the possible win for all solution versus a right/wrong culture. It’s about abundance versus scarcity in all ways.

Can you share some things you wish people understood about people with physical limitations?

I have a brain injury. Sometimes, when I am tired, words do not come to me as quickly as I want.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Rejoice always! All things are possible. What you think is what you create. Look to what is good now. Ask yourself this question: “How am I enough right now?”

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

A: I would like to meet Tony Robbins so I can join his team and not be alone to create more awesomeness with him. I would also like to meet Bill and Melinda Gates to share these tools that I have created to aid them in their foundation to support the limiting of suicides. I want to talk with them to help bring more life changing tools that I share now.

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