5 Ways Life Changes After a Near-Death Experience
When you get to be as old as me, you get to do a lot of things you can't do when you're younger. Like die of a heart attack.
I came back, obviously (I'm not writing this article with a Ouija board), thanks to the rapid response of medical professionals. And while I didn't come back with any secret wisdom from the spirit world, I did have an experience very few people live to talk about. And what I found was ...
Near-Death Experiences Are Overrated
"So what's it like to have a near-death experience?"
For most people who've managed to come back in some kind of non-zombie form like me, the answer is going to be "No idea." Only 10 to 20 percent of people who suffer NDEs come back with any clear memories of death.
Unless the rest have reason to hide what they saw.
Here's what I remember: Before I had the heart attack, I was in a train station in Tokyo with two friends on a business trip. They were ahead of me, and I tried to catch up. I'd had some chest pains before, but my doctor said not to worry about them. Then these pains got so bad that I couldn't stand up. So I sat down, threw up, and blacked out. And then I was dead. Briefly. I have no conscious memory of slipping away. I had no sensation of time or where I was, but at some point I started hallucinating that I was swimming under ice.
It's a memory to me now -- not like a dream at all. On the other side of the ice was a bright light. There was also something dark on the other side of the ice, like sticks. My chest started to really hurt, and I associated this pain with the sticks. I swam toward them, putting my chest against the sticks on the other side of the ice. Then I thrust my arms through the ice to push away the sticks ... and I woke up, having just pushed away the arms of the guy giving me CPR.
Or possibly the guy taking the opportunity to grope my moobs.
I had been out for about 10 minutes, and they even used a defibrillator on me. Damn. I missed that. That would have been awesome (or maybe not -- if you've ever been conscious during a defibrillation, feel free to share your story). A couple of days after my heart attack, the surgeon said I needed an operation and mentioned for the first time that I had briefly departed the world of mortals.
I saw no relatives at the end of the tunnel. I didn't float up above my body, and I definitely didn't get to feel up Demi Moore at a pottery wheel. None of that cool stuff that's supposed to happen when you die happened to me. The only thing I know for sure is that the stereotypical "white light" you hear about in NDEs didn't happen on the way out -- it happened on the way back. Make of that what you will.
All those other people who see light are facing the wrong way.
Personally, my theory is that the whole "getting electrocuted and poked and prodded by emergency workers while everyone watches" experience is so traumatizing that your brain just posits an alternate hallucination that's way less shitty than the reality. Otherwise, someday we'll all meet in the great Frozen Pond in the Sky, I guess?
Yes, There's Pain
Let's get this straight: It hurts. Not just the dying (although your experience may differ -- a death experience is one of those things that's hard to do an accurate survey about), but mainly the stuff that dying makes the doctors want to do to you. It's hard to imagine a circumstance where your health got bad enough that doctors had to drag your soul back into your body and the condition was then judged to be no big deal ("Go home and get some rest, call me if you die again"). In the case of a heart attack, you're in for one of the most brutal and invasive surgeries out there.
You'll wish your heart was on the outside of the body, in some kind of chest scrotum.
The first thing that happens is they start shoving needles into your arms. Both of them, and a lot of needles. This gets you hooked up to machines that keep your circulation going while the doctors tear open your chest, like your heart needs a set of training wheels to keep its lazy ass in gear.
Next the doc says something like, "OK, we're going to give you a local anesthetic, jab this huge honking tube into your leg, and run this camera up to your heart to see what's going on." I said that's all fine, except for the local part. See, a "local" anesthetic would just numb the bits they were cutting into. There was no way in hell I wanted some doctors putting a camera in my damn veins while I was conscious.
At least take me out to dinner first.
"Can't you just knock me out?"
"But what if we have to ask you something?"
What are you going to ask about? The weather? You're the doctor here, guy. If you have to stop and ask me what to do next, we're all screwed.
We'll talk later. Take pictures for me. That's what cameras do.
Anyway, the camera told them that I needed bypass surgery, and they do put you under for that (which is nice, since they have to crack open your rib cage). And then came the fun part: lying on my back for two weeks after, thanks to all of the tubes and wires they had me hooked up to. Try it. Lie on your back without moving. For. Two. Weeks. Finally, they pulled out some of the dozens of tubes and I could roll over on my side ... which sounded great until I remembered that, to get at my heart, they'd had to break my ribs.
Then they have to take out the staples. They staple you together so your ribs won't spontaneously fly apart, I guess. When it comes time to take out the staples, they do it with pliers. Sure, shiny silver pliers, but pliers nonetheless. That feels pretty much the way you imagine it feels.
People Never Let You Forget It
If you think people nag you about your lifestyle now, try dying in front of them sometime. Specifically, do it with a medical condition that is known to be exacerbated by lifestyle. Yes, everybody knew exactly what I was doing wrong to cause the heart attack, and they also had a helpful list of how to change my life so that I wouldn't have another one. Dying is kind of the trump card in that argument. ("What makes me an expert? Well, compared to you, I'm an expert in not dying, how about that?")
"Keep talking and I'll have your 'not dying' certification revoked."
My wife came to my bedside in the hospital with a written list of all the things I needed to change. As a footnote, I can say she is now my ex-wife.
And yes, even when you can boast that you literally died -- a great story to tell at parties, by the way -- people will still try to top you. The worst reaction is from other people who've had bypass surgery. I had a double bypass (two arteries near the heart that had to be rerouted with surgery), and you inevitably get these smartasses who say, "Yeah, well I had a quadruple bypass." Well, I guess that has me beat. Mine wasn't nearly that serious. It only killed me, asshole. You'd better stab me in my zombie brain before I eat you.
I'll absorb your fat and need a quintuple bypass.
By the way, we're a few years down the line now, and sure enough, my carotid artery is clogging up again because I have fat blood. And it's genetic. None of those things that everyone just knew were killing me actually killed me. It's my fault for coming from a fat-blooded line of people. So if it seems inevitable that it will happen again, well ...
Everyone Is Waiting for It to Happen Again
Since the day of my heart attack/death, and probably for the rest of my time on this Earth, every illness, regardless of the symptoms, makes every bystander and medical professional go diving for my heart.
Especially that creepy CPR guy, for some reason.
For example, four years after my heart attack, I was in Iquitos, Peru, the middle of the Amazon rain forest. I got really sick -- sweats, fever, chills, and an alimentary blowout from both ends (filling up a toilet and a puke bucket simultaneously). So I went to an emergency clinic where the doctor, aware that I am Previously Died from a Heart Attack Guy, took my blood pressure and ... that was it. That's all he did. "Forget the symptoms that are killing you right before my eyes, here's a prescription for blood pressure pills. Take them. Take them right now."
It turns out that once your heart has crapped out on you, that's all any doctor can see. It makes some amount of sense, but that logic doesn't make it any less of a pain in the ass when the doctor ignores your real symptoms. Vomiting and stomach pain? Let's check your blood pressure. Mauled by a goddamn cougar? We'll stop the bleeding ... then take your blood pressure.
"Measure how heavily the blood drips from the beast's jaws!"
The irony is, of course, that before I had the actual heart attack, I'd been given a clean bill of heart health by my doctor. In fact, my last words were literally, "Don't worry, my doctor says it's not my heart." I guess I'm one of the few people who will get a second chance at some last words, and I suppose I should think up something better to say for next time. Otherwise I might regret it later. But considering the odds of coming back from the dead a second time, probably not.
Yes, You Do Get Some Perspective
All of this happened five years ago. The first few months were shaky. I didn't want to climb stairs for fear of stressing my heart. I had to carry around nitroglycerin spray, intended to open up my arteries so the blood would flow better(for a while, I even wore a nitroglycerin patch). I was terrified of being in train stations and airports -- I now know from experience that trying to get someone out of a place like that and to a hospital is a pain in the ass. My "death" was all I wanted to talk about.
"Funny you should ask ..."
But there are upsides, and I mean other than having a ready excuse to not shovel snow out of the driveway or help friends move (and the fact that the story makes a great stand-up routine at the bar).
To all of you YOLO folks out there: It's true. You are going to die. That was the first time it really hit home with me (let's face it, no matter how many times you hear it, deep down we all think we're invincible). And strangely, my fear of death is gone (but trust me, I'm done with tubes).
I laugh at danger, but tremble at straws.
Don't get me wrong: My behavior did change after the attack, just not in the way people wanted me to change it.
I actually did go to the gym -- three times a week, for two years -- but more to build confidence than anything else. And I decided I was done with stress. I got out of a stressful marriage, I tried to fix my failing business, I got away from people for a while and got an apartment by myself. I have a new life rule -- whenever I start to stress out about something, I ask myself: Do I have any control here? Yes? Good, change it. No? Then forget it.
You can't fix traffic jams. Try taking a nap.
It may be stupid to get killed by your vices, but at least a vice gives you some pleasure in return for ruining your health. Getting killed by stress is just nuts -- you're paying with your health for the right to be miserable.
So sure, I'm thankful for every day when I get up in the morning -- all that stuff that people say in situations like this is true. But when it comes down to it, death is just another one of life's experiences. And for me, stressing out of over it would just make it happen sooner.
Related Reading: Interested in more Cracked articles based on personal experiences? Click here for a look into the life of a Dominatrix. We've also talked to an escapee from the Church of Scientology and a survivor of the Troubled Teen industry. And if all that isn't risque enough for you, here's the article we wrote with a legal prostitute.