I’ll never forget the first time I almost died. I was twenty-five years old, trying for 36 hours to give birth to a 10-pound chunk of a child. Everyone knew going into it that my labor was going to be rough—that I would have to sumo wrestle my way through it. The doctors had tried everything but when they realized that my son was face up with his head stuck halfway into the birth canal, they feared I would not be able to deliver. They postponed the C-section as long as possible as they feared the risk of cutting his forehead. My blood pressure spiked, and my son’s heart rate waned, so surgery was the only option. I was in and out of consciousness at this point, hearing only fragments of the emergency that was under way. At one point, I felt completely detached from myself. I saw what appeared to be a vision of a baby’s face glowing before me. My baby. I came back into myself and vaguely remember a painful jab in my spine. The epidural had not yet kicked in when the first incision created a burn across my lower abdomen. Chaos consumed the operating room as they worked lightning speed to save my son. All the while, I lay there wondering as the morphine kicked in if I would ever wake up.
(8 months along)
Obviously, I woke up. My son and I both survived, but my doctor reminded me that back in the old days, we would have died. It was a sobering thought, one that left me grateful to be alive.
Flash forward fifteen years, and you’ll find me on vacation in California with a gnarly kidney infection. I tried to ignore it, but it got so bad I could barely stand upright. I went to the ER, where they found the infection had entered my bloodstream. Immediately hooked up to an I. V. containing a potent antibiotic, I felt my veins pumping it throughout my system. Within a few minutes the incessant sneezing began. No one was in the room at the time, and before I could say the words anaphylactic shock, my eyes had swelled shut, and my lips were bulging and stretching like a balloon about to pop. My throat began to shut, so I climbed off the examining table and felt my way to the door, trying unsuccessfully to shout for help. I heard a lady’s voice say, “Oh my God!” followed by fast and furious steps running away from me. Hanging onto the doorframe, I thought to myself, This cannot be good. Just in the nick of time, a team of people charged into my room and carried me back to the table. This is where I remember feeling like my lungs and chest were filling with fluid and caving in. Then came the reminiscent, detached feeling I had experienced while contending with my bowling ball of a child stuck in my body. What shook me out of dying this time was the sharp stab of an Epinephrine pen into my thigh. The medication took effect almost immediately, but my life felt strangely thin. The next day, miraculously, I shuffled through Disneyland with the whole family, looking like a cross breed of Yoda and Angelina Jolie, but again, I was grateful to be alive.
Now the last time I almost died was four years ago during the week of Good Friday in 2009. I had been traveling by plane quite a bit, and had caught a bad chest cold when I returned. The cold turned into bronchitis, and when it got so bad that I had to twist my body to breathe, I went back to my doctor. She wanted to send me home with anti-inflammatory medication, but when I told her I felt like I had a baseball in my lung, she sent me to the hospital to get a nuclear scan—just in case. I drove to the hospital, walked for what felt a half-mile then entered the nuclear basement. The pain in my left lung was growing unbearable, and by the time they got me into a hospital gown and strapped me onto the scanning table, I knew something was terribly wrong. Lying flat on my back, I could no longer breathe in at all. I could exhale a little, but gasping to inhale was impossible. The scanner woman had no idea that I was declining as she told me to hold still while I was trying to wave her over. I felt my eyes roll back into my head several times. I thought this was how my life would end. I worried about my loved ones, especially my sons. I needed to arrange for a sub to step in and teach Shakespeare the next day. Everything was slipping away from me. It was different from the other times. This felt final. I surrendered and told God I would go if that was what He wanted. Then with my eyes closed tightly, I saw a vision of Jesus on the cross. He was struggling much the same way I was—His arms stretched out like mine. He twisted His body slightly and gasped for air as if demonstrating to me how to do the same. I twisted as much as I could, and to my surprise, I could breathe that way. Scanner woman shouted at me to hold still again and when she had finished, she came to unstrap me.
I must have looked really bad because she thrust a wheelchair under me and ran me into an elevator, straight to the E. R., where I was again feeling my life ebbing and flowing. Air was hard to come by, and the pain was ferocious when out of nowhere, an observant ambulance technician noticed my condition and intervened with an adrenaline shot that he said would buy me some time, which it did until a specialist came in to tell me that I had both lungs full of blood clots. Pulmonary emboli. He asked if I wanted a priest or a chaplain. Another woman asked if I needed to write up a living will. They made phone calls for me. I arranged my sub. I asked the specialist how long I would have to be in the hospital, and he said grimly that it all depended on how quickly the blood thinners would work. I asked him if I could die from this, and he said it was a 50-50 chance to survive the next 24 hours. He told me the largest clot consumed a third of my left lung—like a base ball—and was partially blocking my pulmonary artery. I naively asked him what would happen if it blocked it entirely. All he told me was that it would be a three-minute struggle. I got the point and waited it out after they transferred me to the critical care unit. I didn’t die that night, but the lady in the room next to me did. I heard it all. The crying family members. The medical staff. The rolling away of her body. But I survived. Again.
(nuclear scans of my lungs full of clots)
Besides these three ordeals, I’ve enjoyed a healthy life thus far. Sure, there have been a few minor stomach ulcers, migraines, knee surgery, and a scary bus crash—but I’m otherwise healthy enough to get out every day and tackle the world as it comes at me. I feel blessed to have never had cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.
I’m not a cat, so I’m not expecting six more lives. But what I am planning to do with the one I have left is to live it for everything it’s worth.