I have just had both the privilege and the pain of a unique experience. Well, maybe not unique, but really, really, unusual. And I’d like something good to come out of it.
A couple of weeks ago, I died three times.
You heard correctly. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
On April 30th I was playing pickleball with a group of friends (no jokes, please—it really is a great sport). In between games, I suddenly felt very lightheaded and knew I had to sit. I got to a chair and then—lights out.
The next thing I remember was a bunch of out-of-focus people hovering over me trying, oddly, to hurt me. I thought it was just an unpleasant dream, but as I gained lucidity I recognized some to be my friends—but also EMTs. The question was, why were they here and why was everyone just standing around? They carried me off to their van. Okay, fine, I guess that's the protocol if you faint. But why were people clapping? This was embarrassing. No applause for fainting, please.
Little did I know.
This is what happened during my "interlude," as told to me later...
I sat down while my friend Daryl continued to talk. I then turned my head away and appeared to be snoring. Daryl thought I was not-so-subtly indicating my lack of interest in the conversation. While that certainly may have been the case under other circumstances, he and others were alert enough to know something was wrong, and they got me on the ground.
Our pickle group had about twenty people. Incredibly, three knew CPR. They went to work, giving compressions and mouth-to-mouth. Also incredibly, there was a defibrillator (AED) nearby and someone knew where to find it.
They got it quickly and used it. It worked. My heart and lungs started functioning again. I owe a lifetime of thanks to those friends.
It wasn't a heart attack; it was full cardiac arrest. I don't know how long I flatlined, perhaps a minute or two. (Sad to report no tunnels of light or dead relatives—I suspect they were dismissive of me arriving so soon.) It took the EMTs fifteen minutes to arrive and my pickleball buddies kept me alive until they did.
There were others kind enough to ride with me to the hospital or to grab stuff from my house. By the time I was in the ambulance I was completely coherent. The team at UVA Hospital said they'd never seen anyone's numbers look so good after an “external arrest” like that.
My wife was on a girls' trip to Jordan. I knew that just then she was boarding a twelve-hour flight home. I didn't want her to be miserable and helpless for all that, but someone, someone perhaps thinking more clearly than I, let the cat out of the bag.
But this was far from over. Always inclined towards overachievement (many would differ), and in spite my awesome oxygen numbers, etc., I decided to flatline twice more at the hospital. CPR was administered, twice more. The image at the top is from one of those episodes, not sure which.
The thing about CPR is, if you're doing it right, you're likely to break ribs. If you're doing it three times, you're really breaking ribs. That has turned out to be the most painful part of this for me but I'm grateful for each and every one of them. Thirteen, to be precise.
In between flatlines 2 and 3, a nurse told me that out-of-hospital cardiac arrests have a one percent survival rate. My wife thinks this should freak me out and, sure, if you'd told me at the beginning of the day that I had a one percent chance of making it to midnight, I'd lay some full Rick James on you. But I was on the far side of the gauntlet.
A doctor the next day said, "You know, you died three times last night."
Funny guy. You can catch him evenings at the Paramount. He'll be there all week.
On May 3rd, I had a triple bypass, in which I added a sawed-open sternum to my skeletal travails, but I didn't know that till the 4th, when I finally woke up. Surely, the date on my white board was wrong! This fact, combined with a vague memory of fighting off the surgeons and being restrained, left me lying there thinking something had gone terribly wrong.
In fact, the surgery had gone off without a hitch. I guess they'd been intubating me, I sort of woke up, and I wasn't pleased. Seems like they could have left a sticky, though. Went well, get some sleep.
The 4th was my birthday, and despite the fact it was bereft of margaritas, or even those waiters at Appleby's that come out and sing, I can unequivocally say it was my best birthday ever.
The days following were not awesome. There were the pharmaceuticals: oxy, ketamine, fentanyl, even an epidural. All the bad boys. While this might seem like a potentially fun ride through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it wasn't. It felt like Honey Boo Boo had taken up residence squarely on my chest. With every breath my ribs clicked like a broken marimba. I ate nothing but gained 20 pounds of IV fluid. Sometimes I would stare at the wall, hoping that the ICU cacophony of beeps and buzzers would meld into a susurrus of white noise that might bring sleep. Other times I’d stare at the inside of my eyelids as pain would come and go. My wife was there all the time and a rock. Pretty sure I wasn’t great company.
One thing to know if you spend some time in an ICU is that you will climb a long ladder of indignities. Icky stuff. (We will now pause to acknowledge your gratitude for sparing you these details, however tempting that might be.)
The staff was amazing, particularly the nurses. It's amazing what percentage of your healthcare they deliver. It's a tough job with the worst customers in the world. I am awed how they go about their work with such grace and cheer.
A permanent defibrillator was implanted in my chest. It's an amazing device, about the size of a half dollar. It can sit there for ten years, doing nothing, and then go off when needed. I'm also feeling better, better enough to write.
So, to the main point: I was saved by friends who knew CPR. Go take a CPR class. Seriously, GO TAKE A CPR CLASS. You don't want to be fumbling around like an idiot if you face a situation like this.
Coincidentally, my wife and I took one less than a month ago.
One last thing, and I debated whether to share this as maybe it’s a bit macabre, but I think some will find reassurance in it. While there are many painful things that can lead up to one’s death, the actual act itself is painless, a whisper.
I speak from experience.