8 Lessons I Learned After My Near-Death Experience

Flickr / hans van den berg
Flickr / hans van den berg

Back in September I had the immense pleasure of falling four stories off a fire escape in the Upper West side of Manhattan. Don’t ask me how; I don’t remember that part. Witnesses claim I seemed pretty sober at the time. What resulted was a laundry list of things that get you an instant backstage pass to the emergency room, especially when combined: ARDS (aka “lungs handed in sudden resignation”), a shattered pelvis, three broken ribs, an aortic dissection, a chipped C2 vertebra, a ruptured bladder, and internal bleeding.

I was brought to the closest hospital, which could only do so much before they decided I needed to be transferred to a different hospital and put on a virtually experimental life support system to be kept alive. My family was told to expect the worst and to “make preparations.” At one point my heart also gave up and I had to be revived with what I can only assume was Phoenix Down. But really, my chances of survival ranged somewhere between 10%-20%, maybe lower.

Somehow (read: I am the Wolverine), I lived. I woke up in the hospital a month later with no pain, a major high, and serious confusion. Nurses, friends, and family filled me in on current events and I was left to deal with a pretty sobering thought: I had narrowly avoided death. So what moral was there to be learned? Well, this is what I managed to glean from the whole ordeal:

1. Pride is meaningless.

In college I was known as that guy who wears suits all the time. I showered at least twice a day, wouldn’t be seen in public if my thinning hair wasn’t somewhat styled, and I preferred to leave the sink running when I shit just to cover up any rogue sounds. My public image was important.

Alas, when you’re inches away from kicking the proverbial bucket, your public image seems to lose a lot of that import. This could be because you’re rightly focused on simply breathing and/or because you’re fucking loaded on painkillers and don’t know what is going on around or inside you. For a month I was kept in an induced coma with plenty of Propofol and completely pain-free with Dilaudid, a combination and timeframe which druggies and hardcore Michael Jackson fans will recognize as “holy shit.” The withdrawal from these reduced me to a flailing and very exposed rage beast. I tried to kick, punch, scratch, pinch, and bite my way to freedom from the tubes and wires sticking out of me. Meanwhile, those hospital gowns really don’t provide adequate coverage, and visitors during these fits saw every part of me—bits that I wouldn’t purposely expose to my worst enemy were freely on display like an exhibit at the MoMA.

In one especially memorable instance, seeing a friend got me so excited that I shit myself. I didn’t realize this until the smell got to me and my buddy had bolted out of the room to get help. If you’ve ever pooped yourself in front of anyone as an adult, you’ll be familiar with the intense feelings of shame, panic, and self-loathing that accompany such an incident. I lay there in complete and miserable silence while two nurse’s assistants cleaned me. One of them must have noticed my embarrassment because he turned to me and said, “You have to let go of pride, man. These things happen. It’s OK.” I wish I could remember his name, because I really took this to heart. Embarrassing things do happen, and we have to take them in stride. Relax. My buddy and I will always enjoy telling the story of how I was once so amped and fucked up that I pooed myself. That shit is hilarious.

2. “I have no regrets” is a lie.

You often come across this slogan in the Facebook posts of that white-trash friend you had in high school, or at least a derivative of it. “No Regrets.” I used to believe it, too. I used to tell myself I had no regrets, that if I died I would do so content, that my ridiculous behavior signified I was free and young. YOLO, bro. Bullshit.

There are things I regret doing, sure. I regret mocking people in high school. I regret cheating on a girlfriend. I regret eating too much of that vanilla pudding and puking into my purple Spider-Man backpack when I was 11. More importantly though, there are things I regret not doing. I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I never really tried. I always wanted to move to California. The hospital I woke up in was two hours from my New Jersey hometown. I always wanted to be happy. I had just been released from a psychiatric unit for severe depression a mere three days before I fell.

A few days after the accident, I apparently woke up and was really super nice to everyone. I apologized to people, said “I love you” quite a few times, and I genuinely smiled. Everyone thought I was back, that I’d be fine. The next day my condition plummeted and my heart stopped. The doctors didn’t think I would make it. My brother described this as “the surge,” or more accurately something he saw on Grey’s Anatomy once. Basically I was so filled with regrets that my entire being rallied just so I could make as many amends as possible before I croaked.

“No regrets?” Stop kidding yourself.

3. The world really doesn’t care.

You know how many times John Kerry stopped in to check on me and offer condolences? Or how many doctors in Africa quit worrying about Ebola long enough to write and send me a get well soon card? None. Zero. Zip. Regardless of the oxygen in my blood or my systolic blood pressure, the world kept turning. Why? Because I’m insignificant, a brief blip on the radar. It’s all right; I’m OK with that. It has nothing to do with my accomplishments or my influence.

How much do we really think about Bobby Kennedy, Napoleon, or Zhuangzi? Not so much. They’re dead and you have a life to live, bills to pay. My student loans surely didn’t disappear just because of my fall. Ultimately, the big picture just keeps rolling regardless of how healthy we are. Deal with it.

4. A lot of people care more than you think.

This next part is going to sound like bragging, but it really isn’t. I had so much support throughout every step of my recovery. There were cards all over my room, drawings, a teddy bear shipped from across the country, you name it. My nurses commented all the time about how many friends I had and would guess as to which one was my girlfriend. This all for a dude who used to believe he was utterly alone in the world. Nothing cures you of your nihilism like having a friend you haven’t seen since grade school, she herself suffering from leukemia, send you and your family all the support and love she can. The thing is, sometimes we can’t see how much our absence would affect the people in our lives. It’s not random pity; it’s just that some people really do care.

5. Death is different for everyone.

I recently watched a movie (based on a true story?) about some kid who technically dies for a few moments, comes back, and then claims to have gone to heaven and hung out with Jesus so Christianity is totally the real deal and we should probably start believing. At some point there may have been celestial poker, but I was rolling my eyes too much to really pay attention. Greg Kinnear is in it and that is the only thing that made it somewhat interesting. You know what I remember seeing on my deathbed? Tokyo. I was hanging out in Tokyo. There was no light at the end of a tunnel, no pearly gates, no Morgan Freeman in a white suit. Just the streets of Japan’s capital.

Here’s the kicker: I have never been to Tokyo. Weird, right? It’s like my panicked and drug-pumped brain was making stuff up via flaring electrical signals. Otherwise, my brain was apparently on standby mode and I saw nothing. Like a dreamless sleep, oooh. Either way, I didn’t know I was close to never waking up again. I’m not saying there is no God or heaven or whatever. In fact, my spiritual beliefs are probably way more outlandish than yours, and Tokyo could have been my heaven for all I know. I wouldn’t presume to start telling people to believe God is not only real but also that he’s a Sailor Moon advertisement just because of what I saw, though.

My point is that there’s a physical and chemical science behind death. To me, it’s actually kind of comforting to now know that death is little more than just falling asleep, having some cool hallucination for what seems like an indefinite period, and then literally having no concept of time, pain, fear, or loss ever again.

6. It really is the little things that count.

The first thing I was allowed to eat that wasn’t brown mystery liquid pumped directly into my stomach via my nostrils was applesauce. Speech therapists use it to test whether or not you’re ready for solid foods because of the viscosity or whatnot. When it’s dyed green, it’s easy to follow down the esophagus and make sure stuff isn’t running into your trachea to the lungs. After a month of tasteless faux chocolate milk, green applesauce was basically a gourmet meal cooked by Gordon Ramsay and served by seraphim. My nurses started crushing my pills into it, leaving it on my bedside table, rewarding me with it every time I didn’t make a stupid comment about their boobs.

I was in love with applesauce. There were a lot of other small things that meant a lot to me, though. Because of a tracheotomy, I was unable to communicate unless it was through writing on a whiteboard for a while. When I regained the ability to speak, it was a huge deal. I sounded like the lovechild of Donald Duck and Bane, but I didn’t care, I wanted to talk to everyone. First song I listened to? “Take It to the Limit” by the Eagles. It made me cry. First movie I watched? Man of Steel in Spanish. Loved it, didn’t understand a thing. First time walking down a hallway? An absolute miracle.

7. These realizations will last a few days, tops.

Two months later and applesauce is back to being a sorry excuse for food. It’s baby mush and I want nothing to do with it. I can’t believe people eat that stuff. Fuck applesauce. I wear a hat indoors because my hair is falling out from the trauma my body underwent. Walking to the Laundromat down the street is a major inconvenience. Who has time for walking? Superman is a mass murderer if you think about it enough, and Zack Snyder totally ruined that movie. My closest friends don’t visit me anymore, and sometimes I still feel incredibly alone. I’m going to drink all the fucking vodka in this apartment. The world is cold and heartless, so long live the Keith Moon style. Whatever.

Why? Because…

8. Nothing really changes (unless you choose to change it).

So I came close to death. My already short life on this planet was nearly given the shepherd’s crook offstage. What happened as a result? Nothing. Like I said, the world keeps turning. The woman I wanted to be with didn’t suddenly change her mind and move in with me. I wasn’t suddenly living in California with a few novels under my belt. Everything wasn’t miraculously bright and sunny, happily ever after.

Life isn’t a movie. I’ve never seen While You Were Sleeping, but I would bet it’s all inaccurate shenanigans. You don’t wake up to miracles; you make them. I woke up in New York City, the same city that I fell in. It was cold and miserable outside, the people were still just as shitty, Rosie O’Donnell was still on The View, and I had tubes down my throat instead of shots of tasty booze.

But so far I’ve altered my lifestyle drastically: I’m closer with my family, have changed my diet, drink way less, and I’m OK with sleeping alone at night. Almost biting the dust didn’t change that. I did. Because I chose to. TC mark

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