It was early October in 2009 in San Francisco. Things were going great. I was working as Head of Marketing for a hot internet startup. My wife and I were living in a beautiful luxury condo in a fancy new neighborhood. I was in excellent shape -- working out everyday, doing yoga, biking, walking to work, and eating very nutritionally.
And then one day out of the blue I started developing some pain in my chest. I didn’t think much of it as first, but over the course of a few days it got deeper and more intense. I thought maybe I strained a muscle, so I went to the doctor. They looked me over and did some chest x-rays, and everything seemed to be normal. My doctor told me to just take it easy for a few days and it should get better.
Unfortunately it definitely didn’t get any better. In fact it was about to get a whole lot worse. A couple days after my doctor visit, I was at the office and the pain in my chest was getting worse. I also developed a fever, and felt weak and light-headed. I told my boss I had to go home, and with one look at me he quickly agreed.
That night, I woke up at about 2 a.m. shivering, weak, and in pain. At first, my wife didn’t realize how bad it was, but after my fever worsened, she called a 24-hour nurse hotline. The nurse said to bring me to the ER right away.
It took awhile to diagnose, but after running a number of tests they determined I had a severe double pneumonia. This was during the “swine flu” epidemic, so I was actually relieved that it wasn’t that. To me, a pneumonia just sounded like a bad cold or flu, which I could get over in a few days. Boy, was I ever wrong!
I ended up spending two weeks in the hospital, about 10 days of which were in the ICU. They had to put me in a medically induced coma to insert a breathing tube in my mouth, a feeding tube in my nose, and IV’s in my arms. I lost about 20 pounds (and I was already a slim 172 pounds at 6’3”) and took months to eventually fully recuperate.
To top it off, the doctors put me on a drug called propofol, which is the drug that Michael Jackson OD’d on. My reaction to the drug caused intense, vivid, nightmarish hallucinations for about a week straight.
I was convinced that I was transported underground to a secret location in Chinatown and later in the hull of an ocean vessel headed for South America. I was terrified that the doctors, nurses, and even my own wife were selling me to a radical group of activists who were using chronically ill patients to protest animal rights. I know how crazy it sounds now, but at the time there was no doubt in mind this was happening.
My Near Death Experience
In order to insert the breathing tube, they had to paralyze my body. At one point, they moved me onto my side, and I couldn’t breathe. Not only could I not breathe, but I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk, so I had no way to tell anyone what was happening.
After some time not being able to breathe, I started seeing the proverbial “white light” and images and flashes from my life were going through my mind. At this point, I felt that it was over and that my life was finished.
After what seemed like an eternity they managed to get me back upright and breathing again before it was too late. Although I made it through that moment, there would be several additional times over the next two weeks where I was so weak and sickly that I didn’t expect to pull through.
Life Lessons Learned
While this experience was unbelievably grueling, intense, and painful, it provided me with a whole new appreciation of life. Little things really don’t bother me much anymore, and every single day I’m alive feels like a blessing.
Here are the 11 life lessons I learned from nearly dying:
1. Your health can never be taken for granted
I’ve always been one of the healthiest people I know, and yet I still came down with a devastating illness that could’ve killed me. I was doing yoga, biking, walking, and eating loads of vegetables each day.
"It is a shame to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which our body is capable.”
Once I got out of the hospital and got better, I got right back to doing all these things - even adding swimming to my regimen. The key is to cherish your health and take care of your body as best you can. Yes, you could still have a health scare or accident, but I’d rather have my body in as good as shape as possible while I’m still alive.
2. Breath is life
There’s nothing scarier than not being able to breathe, especially for someone who’s really into physical activity and exercise. It took me months to get my lungs back to normal, but now that I have, I’ll never take them for granted again. Without your lungs and your breath you literally have no life.
"Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God."
--Krishnamacharya (The Father of Modern Yoga)
3. Losing your mind is seriously scary
Probably the scariest part of my whole ordeal were the hallucinations from the drugs. I had experimented with drugs in my youth, even some hallucinogens, but they were nothing like this. I thought I was in a different reality the entire time - a reality that was dark and nightmarish.
It helps me to better appreciate what those with mental illnesses and severe substance abuse problems go through on a daily basis. The mind is so incredibly powerful that if it’s altered, whether by drugs or illness, you lose all sense of self and reality.
This recent piece on Huffington Post details what it's like for a young woman with cystic fibrosis who spent two weeks in a medically induced coma:
Wineland described feeling like she was in Alaska -- only to find out that's when doctors were applying ice packs to her body while she was in a coma.
“I remember sitting there and staring at the most beautiful scenery ever for hours and hours … and it would be freezing cold but I didn’t care,” she explained in the video. “Turns out I was being ice-packed the whole time ... so I guess I thought somewhere in my brain I though, like, 'Ice, Alaska. Totally makes sense!'”
4. Death is actually peaceful near the end
When I experienced the white light and my life flashing by, I got to a point where I was no longer feeling pain or discomfort. It felt warm, inviting, and peaceful.
While it’s scary that I came so close to death, it’s also somewhat comforting to know that in the very end, your mind and body ease into a place of supreme rest.
I could’ve easily succumbed to it and given up, but that leads me to the next thing I learned...
5. The will to live is powerful
Despite the feeling of death being peaceful, there’s an even much more powerful force inside you that wants to stay alive. I remember thinking that I was only 38 years old and there was still so much more I wanted to do with my life. There was no way I was willing to let go and give up.
“To live. To live would be an awfully big adventure.”
-- Robin Williams (Hook)
As I slowly turned the corner, this will to live became more and more powerful. I knew it was going to be a long recovery, but once I started feeling some improvement, I had no doubt I was going to make it.
6. People are the most important thing in the world
I was extremely lucky to have my wife by my side during the entire ordeal. Even when the drugs made me think she was out to get me, I still felt better having her there. Another thing that got me by was having family members on the phone - I couldn’t talk but I could listen. Just hearing their voices made me stronger.
I also knew that so many people were pulling for me and sending love and good vibes and prayers. There’s something about the “energy” that people put out into the universe that really does have an impact.
Make sure you appreciate the people in your life and make sure you tell them how much you love them every day.
7. Daily problems and fears are inconsequential
When you go through a prolonged near death experience and pull through it, you gain so much perspective on life’s little issues that everyone freaks out about. It’s so easy to get upset, afraid, or frustrated about things people do or events that happen in your life.
Your spouse leaves the cap off the toothpaste, your kids or pets make a mess in the living room, the IRS decides they want to audit your taxes from five years ago -- so what! The small stuff isn’t worth your concern and the bigger stuff you just figure out as you go.
For more about Fear, read our blog post "4 Simple Steps to Overcome Fear & Live a Fuller Life"
In the grand scheme of life, death, the world, the universe, all those things are just blips on the radar.
8. Your body’s ability to recuperate is extraordinary
As I mentioned, I lost about 20 pounds on an already slim 172-pound 6’3” body. When I left the hospital, I weighed about 150 pounds and could barely move, stand, or walk more than a few feet. Just imagine what lying in a bed for two weeks will do to your muscles.
I felt like a weak 85-year old man the day I left the hospital, but each day I felt like I was getting one year younger. About 4 weeks after I got out of the hospital, I went back to my old yoga class. Before the pneumonia, I was able to do full backbends, headstands, and myriads of arm and leg balances, and now I could barely hold myself in a push-up position for more than a few seconds.
But after 2 months, I got back to about 90%, and a few months after that, I felt as strong or stronger than before the pneumonia. It’s unbelievable looking back how quickly my body healed and strengthened once it was on the right track.
9. Small vices are a good thing
About two weeks after I got out of the hospital, I had a decision to make -- should I start drinking coffee again? I had been off my daily caffeine consumption for long enough to no longer get that little annoying caffeine headache. Although I had such a renewed desire to live, eat, and be healthy, I also wanted a few of my little vices that make life just a little sweeter.
So I went back to my daily coffee habit and happily never regretted it. I also went back to some other fun little vices -- beer, wine, watching TV, wasting time on the Internet, etc. You can’t really enjoy life if you overly restrict yourself.
10. Health insurance is an absolute must
If there’s one logistical thing I learned it’s to never be without health insurance. Fortunately I was covered under my work’s health insurance plan at the time. Had I not been, I’d probably still be paying off my bills. The total of all my hospital bills was right around $200,000. With insurance, my total out of pocket was about $3,000.
11. Life is fragile and precious, so live it up!
No matter how careful or healthy your are, your life could be snuffed out in an instant. It’s a scary thought, but it’s true. Does this mean you should worry about dying and hide in the house? Of course not - quite the opposite in fact. Because life is precarious, you need to cherish it and not waste it or take it for granted.
One of the reasons I started Experiencify is that I wanted to inspire people to get out and do amazing and interesting things. It’s not about checking off a huge bucket list just to say you did those things. It’s about enjoying life and everything it has to offer, and not being afraid to try new things, see new places, and meet new people and cultures. The world is an amazing place - go out and explore it!
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”
— Mark Twain
While I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone else, I actually feel like it was a gift bestowed upon me. I got to see what it was like at the very edge of our life's existence, and I was given an opportunity to come back to my health and my life.