The Day I Almost Died

When I arrived at the Emergency Room at 11:30pm, I was panting and pale. I told the receptionist my heart was palpitating, I felt a sharp pain in my lungs every time I breathed in, and I’d tasted blood in my mouth.

She responded with the kind of empathy that only hospital staff can truly muster — she handed me a clipboard with a stack of forms to fill out.

When I was finally allowed to see the ER Doctor, I recounted what happened. And that I’d then gone on the internet…

“And let me guess”, he interrupted me. “You went to WebMD and you think you had a pulmonary embolism, right?”, he said sarcastically.

“Uhhh…right.”, I replied.

“Ya, WebMD is not a reliable way to diagnose anything. And it’s highly unlikely you had a pulmonary embolism. But we’ll run a test any way to see if we can figure this thing out.”

So, they ran a test.

An hour later, a nurse came in to say they were running a 2nd test.
Another hour later, they gave me a 3rd one (a sonogram).
And then a 4th (an Xray).
And then a 5th (a CT).

Then at 4am, the Doctor busted through the doors with a serious expression on his face.

“I want to apologize to you”, he said, looking into my eyes with genuine remorse. “You not only had a pulmonary embolism, but it was so massive that I’m shocked you’re still alive. And I can say with certainty that had you not come in to the ER tonight — had you just gone to bed — you would have been dead in the morning.”

“I teach medical school”, he continued, “And I’m going to be talking about your case for many years because I have no explanation for why you’re still here. The only thing I know is that you have someone or something on your side.”

That was 9 years ago.

Last week, I was in an interesting discussion about how meditation can help you realize what truly matters in life. And then someone asked this question: After you realize what matters, how do you then re-integrate yourself back into the day-to-day of normal life and still retain that focus?”

Before I almost died, this was a question that constantly percolated in my mind:

How can we find Zen or God or even have deeply meaningful experiences, and then battle belligerent crowds in Safeway to pick up hot dog buns and toilet paper…without feeling like we just went backward? How are the meaningfulness of life and the meaninglessness of its trappings compatible?

Really — how can we be enlightened beings and still operate in a world of stress, chaos, traffic, meetings, angry people, the DMV, tax season, the Kardashians, endless email, endless spam, and the Kardashians?

Kollective unKonsciousness of the Kardashian Kind

Ok, here’s where I’m going to get a little, um, flowery…

My ER Doctor couldn’t explain the reason I’m still alive, but what I haven’t been able to explain is the reason that by almost dying, I can now live.

Before, I wasn’t living. I was just focused on my own selfish thoughts, goals, and ideas. But now almost everything and everyone is meaningful to me.

And I think this is the key — when I almost died, here’s 13 things that happened:

  1. My heart started racing.
  2. It hurt to breathe in.
  3. I tasted blood in my mouth.
  4. I could no longer walk, and I fell to the ground.
  5. I tried to crawl, but I couldn’t even do that.
  6. I was forced to lay down with my head on the cement, facing the sky.
  7. I stared at the clouds.
  8. The clouds were moving through the sky, as they always did, but this time it was insanely beautiful.
  9. I took shallow breaths, and imagined the clouds as my breath. With each breath, I stopped worrying. I just watched the clouds and felt at total peace.
  10. It was very overcast, and then it started to lightly rain. After just a few minutes, suddenly the clouds opened to reveal a little patch of blue sky.
  11. It stopped raining, the sun beamed through the opening, and the rays shone directly in front of me. I felt its warmth.
  12. Suddenly the wind started blowing and the leaves on the ground started dancing in the air. They were reds and yellows and oranges, and it was like I’d never truly appreciated leaves before.
  13. I knew then that the clouds, the sun, the wind, and the leaves had given me the time I needed to regain strength. I sat up. Then I crawled. Then I hobbled down to what could have been my death, but ended up being my new life.

That experience which probably lasted 15 minutes has given me this strange ability to oscillate at will between what’s happening in the air, and what’s happening on the ground. I can zoom between the two mindsets as if my headspace is one of those bungee experiences you see at carnivals:

In the morning, I will find peace of mind while I walk my dog. Then I’ll go into my startup office, so many things will be broken, I will feel stressed and frustrated, and then — zoooooom. I will feel the sun beaming in through the window, and I’m back in the air. This happens multiple times to me every day — I catapult up, gravity brings me down, and then I push myself back up again.

Life is really hard. And even though we all pretend like we have it together, the truth is that none of us really knows what we are doing. We are all just on that bungee carnival ride, only many don’t know how to push ourselves back up in the air.

I’m not sure, but I think perhaps the question isn’t so much about how you maintain an enlightened perspective — because its pretty dangerous to stay overly “positive” and not fully acknowledge and respond to what’s actually happening on the ground. Suppression does not make problems go away.

Instead, maybe its more about how you can shift perspectives at the right times and in the right amounts, keeping both in healthy balance.

The entire world is interconnected, and I think almost dying fused these connections for me. The connection between the air and the land, the meaningfulness and seeming meaninglessness.

Sure, you want to help others — but you cannot have the means to help those in need without the grunt work it takes to build those means. Awesome that you want your career to make a difference in the world, but sometimes the biggest impact you can have is by doing the thing you are best at, at scale. And how wonderful that friends and family are most important to you — but you still need to go get those damn hot dog buns at Safeway for the family reunion BBQ.

Maybe my Doctor was right. Maybe I do have someone or something on my side. But I have to believe almost dying isn’t the only way to learn how to actually live.

I have to believe that what I experienced that day — the clouds, the rain, the sun, the wind, the leaves — were all just proof of interconnectivity.

That in interconnectivity lies true peace of mind.