What it’s like to die
Six months ago, I died.
I have no recollection of the event, but I've heard the story retold so many times that I may as well have seen it all. I was at the gym in my apartment complex with my roommate, Sam. I was running on the treadmill when I turned and told him I was going to faint. I collapsed and fell onto the still-moving belt, which tore the skin off my knee and pushed me onto the floor. Sam was shocked. He called for help. A personal trainer and her client ran over, called an ambulance, and assisted Sam in giving me CPR while my body slowly drained of color.
My heart had gone into ventricular fibrillation. “Vfib”, as I heard numerous doctors call it, is an type of arrhythmia–a series of irregular electrical signals in the ventricle chamber of the heart. Instead of beating normally, the walls quiver erratically, like they're having a seizure . The heart quickly becomes unable to pump blood to other organs. I had suffered from what is officially, and somewhat morbidly, termed “Sudden Cardiac Death”.
The paramedics arrived and walked slowly down the length of the pool to the gym. This was procedure, they later told me; they didn't want to run and cause alarm. When they reached me, they defibrillated my heart by strapping patches to my abdomen and running a strong electrical current through my body. I was told that after the first administration my heart had remained in arrhythmia. After the second, it started beating regularly.
For those 4 minutes and 30 seconds, I was clinically dead.
I spent the next two days in a coma while the doctors cooled by body to 32 degrees in order to avoid brain damage. During this time I developed a pulmonary embolism and pneumonia. Whenever I visit a doctor now they are always surprised–“each of those alone could have killed you, it's a miracle you survived all three!” I survived by sitting through hours of MRIs with oxygen in my nose, three IV's in my arm and ten pills a day for weeks. Sam and my two mothers, Laurie and Kerrie, rarely left my side.
The stories you hear about people dying usually end with tunnels, lights, flashbacks, God, and big epiphanies. That isn't what happened to me.
After finally regaining enough consciousness to understand my situation, I sat for hours staring at the hospital walls. I didn't have any life changing realizations. I wasn't regretful. In fact, I couldn't think of anything in my life I wanted to change at all. Being trapped alone in that sterile room with wires hanging off my chest only made me think about everything in my life I wanted back.
Most people I tell this story to think I'm unlucky because I had a cardiac arrest at 21 years old. But I don't think so. Only five percent of people who suffer ventricular fibrillation out of the hospital survive. Of those that do survive, more than half of them have brain damage. That means only two and a half percent fully recover. Not only did I fully recover, but I did so in the company of the people closest to me.
If there is one lesson I took away from the experience, it is not to “live life to the fullest” or “have no regrets”. It is to feel lucky. Feeling lucky means you are appreciating the things in your life that sometimes go unnoticed. It means you are achieving more than think you deserve. Feeling lucky requires a certain humility we often lose sight of.
For me, it took losing everything to remember how lucky I am.