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'It Wasn't My Time'

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Life was good for Brooke Burns last fall: The actress, best known for her sultry turns on Baywatch and North Shore, had just been cast in her first comedic TV role, playing the sister of Rebecca Romijn‘s title character in the new WB show Pepper Dennis. Her 5-year-old daughter Madison—whose dad is Burns’s ex-husband, Nip/Tuck star Julian McMahon—had recently started kindergarten, and Burns, whose relationship with Bruce Willis ended in 2004, was happily single.

Then, in a fraction of a second on Nov. 11, everything was nearly over. The actress, going for a late-night swim in the backyard pool of her L.A. home, misjudged the water depth diving in and hit her head on the bottom of the pool, breaking her neck. After three months in a neck brace, Burns is now working 18-hour days on Pepper Dennis, which premieres April 4, and “is back to her old self,” says her best friend and manager Barbara Stark. “You would never know from seeing her now, except for the little scar on her neck.” The actress, 28, spoke with PEOPLE’s Brenda Rodriguez about her ordeal—and why bedazzled neck braces are a must.

I swim all the time at night—I’ve always been a water girl. It’s a black-bottom pool and my pool light was out, and as I’ve done a thousand times I just kind of did a little seal dive. I saw a huge bright light and I literally thought, “That’s it.” I felt my body floating. I think I blacked out for a second. When I finally came to, I went to take my first breath and I was underwater and that’s what kind of got me up. I put my feet down and I realized that I was standing in my pool. My friend [a former firefighter] had just come out to say good-bye and he goes, “Brooke, are you okay?” And I’m like, “I don’t think so. I’m in excruciating pain.” There was no cut. No bruise. No bump. Nothing. He started asking me questions: “What’s your name?” I knew. “What’s your address?” “What day is it?” I didn’t know.

He wrapped a wet towel around my neck and put me on the top step of the pool. My left side went numb and I got really scared. All I could think about was my little baby girl. She was luckily at her dad’s house that night. My friend called 911. The paramedic was like, “Move your toes,” and I’m like, “I am.” In my brain, I’m moving my toes, but I wasn’t.

It was a very high break. I bruised my spinal cord, which is why I was having numbness and tingling. Literally a millimeter more and I would have been a paraplegic. They had to put a titanium plate in for my fourth vertebra. I have 10 screws and a rod in my neck now. When I came out of surgery I remember thinking, “Am I going to be able to hold my child?” And then, “When am I going to be able to go back to work?”

I didn’t have Madison come to the hospital until five days after the surgery. She ended up being the little person who was like, “Mommy needs a pillow. Let’s help her get in the car. It’s okay, Mommy, I’m here for you.” Julian was unbelievably amazing as well.

My mother [Betsy, 54, who lives in Dallas with Brooke’s dad, Brad, 55] came out and lived with me. She drove me everywhere. I had to wear a neck brace 24 hours a day. You learn to sleep on your back. It was really weird. The braces come in gray and white. I said, “We’re going to the bead store immediately.” I went to town with my glue gun! I was like, “If I have to wear this for three months, it might as well be cute.” It was already written in [on Pepper Dennis] that I hurt my neck. When the writers saw that I bedazzled my brace, they’re like, “That’s exactly what [Burns’s character] Kathy Dinkle would do! We’re going to use that on the show!”

I definitely feel like when it’s your time, it’s your time. And it wasn’t my time. That was a really heavy realization: “Wow! 2006 is going to be awesome!” I must have a lot of stuff to do.