A year ago today, I nearly died.
I don’t mean I had one of those near-death experiences where a truck almost hit me or a falling piano almost crushed my unsuspecting self as I walked below. No. I mean my body gave out. It twisted in a way that without modern medicine, I would not have survived. Even with modern medicine, the urgency to fix my ailment meant a tricky and potentially dangerous procedure. And it all happened within seven hours. A blur that sent me to the hospital balled up in pain, pleading for medication, praying that this wasn’t the end, encouraged that it was fixable, and eventually unconscious, without a grasp of my past, present, or future. If I had floated away in that moment, I never would have known.
But my then-fiance would have. She received a far different diagnosis then I did, and she had to suffer longer than I would.
Yet, a year later after I should have died, historically speaking, I don’t know what lesson I should have learned or what changes I should make. I don’t know what it’s that I should even remember. On the day of my deathiversary, should I even acknowledge it?
Let’s back up and I’ll explain what happened. On March 5, 2014 around 2:00 in the morning, I woke up with a sharp pain in my side. I’ve had this happen many times in my life, the causes of which have ranged from simple gas to food poisoning. On this early morning, the pain felt stronger than typical gas, and I ate leftover Chipotle for dinner. I was leaning towards food poisoning.
The next four paragraphs get a little graphic, if you want to skip over them.
I went to the bathroom to rid myself of what ailed me. But it was unusual in that I couldn’t use the facilities, as they say, nor could I force myself to throw-up. I actually took this as a positive sign, since, hey, if you’re going to have food poisoning, you tend to do those things. But an hour-and-a-half later, I had still not felt any relief, and it had gotten worse. At this point, my fiancé called my sister, a doctoral resident in Texas. My sister then asks me the most random question she has ever asked me, “Have you passed gas today.” I could not remember. She ordered me to go to the hospital immediately.
It’s at about this point where the pain levels increased. In sheer agony, my body hunched over, trying to protect itself from itself. It felt like what I imagine a knife sticking into my side would feel like. Unpleasant. Using my fiancé for balance, we managed down the four flights of stairs, out of my apartment complex and into a cab. Now it’s 3:30 on a Tuesday morning. No traffic. No delays. Nothing. But we had the slowest cab driver I’ve ever had in the city. He would lift his foot off the brakes at stop lights to gently apply pressure to the accelerator, slowly moving the vehicle forward as I sat in the back screeching for him to hurry, pressing my feet into the car’s floor to try and counter the pain. It wasn’t my finest moment – my fiancé ordered me to hush.
Once we got into the hospital, they quickly checked me in and I did all I could do: Scream for painkillers. None came, as I assumed they had to check my blood to make sure I wasn’t searching for drugs. Finally, a doctor saw the blood results, got some painkillers in me and this produced zero results. Still my intestines rumbled for relief, as pressure built, and I could do nothing. They wanted to give me an MRI (if I remember the name of the scan, correctly). I would have to lay down with my hands over my head, as they took photos. It felt like the last scene in the movie Braveheart where Mel Gibson’s character gets his gut slowly sliced open. I needed more painkillers.
The MRI showed my colon had twisted where it meets the small intestine. It’s uncommon for someone my age (at the time I was 31), but very typical in dogs. Essentially, my colon was filling up like a balloon and at any moment could pop. Actually, one of the creators of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and New Yorker blogger Andy Borowitz had a similar surgery, which he talks about hilariously below.
So my colon had twisted. But there was more. I found out that when in utero, the beginning of my colon developed in the middle of my body instead of on the right side, as is typical. This abnormality caused me no harm until a random Tuesday at the age of 31 when it suddenly became the most important issue of my life. While shocking news to me, it didn’t seem to throw off my doctors who said they would go in and heal me up, just like that. I thought great, let’s do it. By 9:00, I was prepped and finally getting fed meds that would kill my pain and knock me out in the process.
My fiancé heard a different story. While they told me they would get in right away and fix me up, they told her that she should prepare for the worst. While the procedure has a solid success rate, there’s still a higher than comfortable percentage that I wouldn’t make it. So while I sat unconscious for four hours, she suffered silently, waiting for good news, but fearing for the worst. Three days earlier, she had celebrated her wedding shower. We were to be married in three months.
But I did make it. The doctors did a great job. I survived. So what does this horrifying day mean?
I can’t help but think that if I was born 100 years ago, the chance of survival would have been slim. Two hundred years ago, then I certainly wouldn’t have made it. When people talk about the luck involved in success, I turn to this experience, since you can never really succeed at something once you’re dead.
While recovering in the hospital, I saw all sorts of illness. One man had aggressive cancer, diabetes, and had lost part of a leg, toes, kidney and who knows what else. I wonder if he still survives to this day. Does he get to reach his goals?
That’s what I struggle with. How should I take advantage of this opportunity? Why can’t I remember what happened to me and realize it’s enough just to be breathing when I get frustrated at things like work or wanting more success or money or the common concerns and stresses we all have? Isn’t it enough that I survived? Anything that happens now is simply gravy. Am I supposed to do something special with the fact that I made it? Should I be celebrating my first anniversary of nearly dying?
In the past year, I got married to the love of my life, I quit my job (unrelated to this experience), visited Chile, Martha’s Vineyard, my parents, friends, saw one brother graduate college, will see another brother get married this March and even became an uncle. Yet, I can’t shake this feeling that I’m wasting the breaths gifted to me a year ago.
Partly, it’s because I still think about this surgery everyday. My wife does too. I have scar down the middle of my lower abdomen reminding us. It’s not like others walk around realizing I nearly died, though, nor should they. But it’s such a prominent part of who I am in this very moment. Yet, even then, it’s not like I can cherish every drink of water, bite of food, or breath of air.
Nor have I gained some crazy insight into life. I can’t really tell that I changed, other than the inability to do stomach crunches or process B-12 – the two lingering side-effects of my surgery.
People say that you shouldn’t waste an opportunity to learn. Did I waste my opportunity to learn one of the greatest lessons? Or am I doing what people who survive something traumatic do? Live.
Maybe, that’s the biggest lesson of all. If you want a long life, just keep living. But that still doesn’t answer how I should spend my deathiversary. Maybe, if I’m lucky enough to have more time to figure it out, I will.