NOTE: Today is the 25th year anniversary of my near-death experience, an event that ended one phase of my life and began another, like the period at the end of this sentence ends it. And then a new sentence begins. This post from my book Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas describes that experience and its aftermath.
On February 21, 1993, at about 7:45pm, I was granted a form of grace that has shaped the rest of my life. On that evening I came within minutes of bleeding to death.
Grace is tough, sometimes.
The initial warning sign was moderate gastrointestinal bleeding which, on the second day, brought me into the emergency room of St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, NY. The tentative diagnosis was lower bowel ulcers induced by a month on Motrin I’d taken for a shoulder injury. I allowed them to admit me only because the ER doctor warned that, although they couldn’t run any tests till the following Monday, “Sometimes these things really let loose. You may not be able to get back here in time.”
At first I was merely irritated by the inconvenience. It was a crisp Saturday afternoon, I had things to do, and I’d expected to have a few tests and go home. I became concerned only when the gastroenterologist they assigned to me said she didn’t think they’d have to transfuse, but she was ordering blood of my type “just in case.” She also said she didn’t think they’d have to operate. Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that they might transfuse, or operate, or that there was anything seriously wrong. Except for a little weakness, I felt fine.
I remained at St. Peter’s all of Saturday and Sunday, drinking clear liquids and receiving IV fluids. By Sunday night, the bleeding stopped. The doctor ordered a colonoscopy prep. Her hope, and by then mine, was that they would find superficial ulcers, inject them with something to prevent further bleeding, and send me home in a couple of days with medications and a bland diet. I told her that I wanted to wait, that it seemed like a bad idea to stir up tissues that had only just stopped bleeding. But she insisted that short of exploratory surgery, this was the only way to find out what was wrong. Reluctantly, I consented.
An hour later, on my way back from my fourth trip to the bathroom, I blacked out before I could reach the nurse’s call button. I remember weakly crying out “Help” and collapsing to my knees, fearing that my call would go unheard.
This fear was not groundless. A hospital is never quiet. Around the corner were two geriatric patients who moaned all day and late into the night. A nearby monitor’s periodic beeps seemed to trigger their moans and cries, much as a siren might excite the neighborhood dogs. Even with ear plugs, I had been unable to screen them out.
“I’d rather be dead than end up like that,” I said to my girlfriend earlier that day.
“You shouldn’t say that!” she scolded. “God will hear!”
As I lost consciousness, I realized that my own call for help would sound no different from theirs, and I feared that, like the boy who cried wolf, nobody would distinguish the real emergency from the false alarm, perhaps not even God.
The next thing I remember is two nurses crouching beside me as I lay on my back in a pool of blood. I later learned they had found me only because my 83-year-old roommate, a stroke victim, had heard me fall and stumbled into the hallway for help. “David’s on the floor!” he tried to say, but the nurses couldn’t understand him. Luckily, his bed was by the window and when they guided him back there, they had to pass me on the way.
When they roused me, my blood pressure was 70/30, and I felt very cold. The nurses put a sheet under me, got a couple of nurse’s aides from the hallway, and with their help hoisted me onto the bed, where they inserted a second IV. At first they thought they could stabilize me with fluids, and I did feel a little stronger, but as my blood pressure began to rise, more blood poured out, bathing me in its sudden warmth.
The gastroenterologist arrived and started a transfusion, and that, too, seemed to help at first, but again, as my blood pressure rose, the rate of bleeding increased, this time pumping blood out faster than they could push it back in. They kept saying, “You’re not going to die, don’t worry, you’re not going to die.” “I’m cold,” I kept telling them, reminding myself of the Snowden character in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
They attempted to start another unit of blood, but they couldn’t find an entry point – my pressure was so low that the veins in my arms had collapsed. Then they stopped telling me I was going to be all right and started calling for things stat.
Until that moment, I had been curiously detached from my situation, as if I were at home watching TV and all this fuss was happening to someone else. But when I saw that the doctor and nurses no longer seemed to be in control, it became clear to me that I might have only a couple of minutes to live.
I was completely unafraid. As the room began to fade out, I stopped paying attention to the frantic medical staff surrounding me. Instead, my focus shifted onto an interior landscape. In my mind’s eye, I saw a series of line graphs, one laid on top of another like the maps of the human body’s systems in anatomy textbooks. Each graph represented how close I had come to following my path. The top one tracked my vocation; it dipped down in the bad times – the longest being my recent decade as a technical writer – and up again after I quit the corporate world and returned to graduate school. Lower charts showed similar patterns in other aspects of my life: family, romantic relationships, spirituality, creativity, others I no longer recall. There was a break in each of the charts at what I took to be the present moment, and then suddenly all the lines extended sharply upward, into my uncertain future.
As I lost all bodily sensation, I felt a surge of regret not so much for the things I had done as for what I might never get the chance to do. The graphs vanished. In their place, hanging in the darkness, the Scales of Justice appeared, on which were equally balanced the pluses and minuses of my life. This image also passed, and with it my regret. I felt ready to face, with equanimity, whatever was to come.
Yet I didn’t want to die. So with my last conscious thought, I made a request: “If there is a God, and you’re listening, I think I know what to do with my life now, and I’d like a chance to complete it.” Then the room and my body faded out and “I” went into another space entirely.
I was in a black, amorphous cave whose surfaces glinted like moonlight on choppy seas. In the distance was a vague, greenish pool of light. I had no sense of a body or of ever having had one, or of my own identity, or even of being a human being. I was simply awareness. I felt no anxiety, heard no sounds, had no memories, thought no thoughts. I was more alone than I’d ever been, but it didn’t bother me at all. I was unaware of the passage of time and felt a calmness more pervasive than any I have experienced, before or since.
Then my consciousness leaped forward and I saw that the illumination came from a figure seated at a small, square table made of fuzzy tubes of yellow-green light. From my vantage point, this figure, also made of the same tubes of fuzzy light, looked like a child’s sketch of a man, with a circle for a head, an oval for a body, and stick-like arms and legs. He seemed to be leaning on the table with his left elbow, chin in his left hand, while his right hand rested on the tabletop, holding what may have been a pen, as if he were poised in thought.
My sense was that this creature was me, the me I was born with, the me I would die with, my essential Self; that it was waiting; and that it could wait indefinitely. I did not wonder what would happen next. I, too, was content to wait, being him and watching him at the same time.
My consciousness zoomed forward again, and as it did, the figure at the table turned his head toward me. I could see the outline of his face, the sharp angle of his chin. His nose seemed pointed and elongated and his mouth was frozen in a half smile that felt oddly chilling.
A moment later I was back in my hospital bed, someone else’s blood flowing into both arms from three IV needles. A nurse was reading off my blood pressure: “70/30. 80/50. 90/60….” The doctor’s narrow face loomed over me, a nervous smile. “There, that’s better,” she said, flushed and sweaty. “Isn’t that better?”
The last 20-plus years of recovery, reintegration, and reorientation have been a good news, bad news affair. The bad news is that coming back was far more difficult than I could have imagined that cold night in 1993. The good news is that it has also been a gift, a form of grace that has extended far beyond getting what I think of as “extra time.”
First the bad news.
There were many physical changes. Early that Monday morning, I bled again, briefly, and surgery was performed that my medical malpractice attorneys would later prove was drastic and unnecessary. After surgery, I experienced pain I didn’t know a person could feel without losing consciousness. Subsequently, I have required many medical treatments and two additional surgeries to partially correct the damages done. From the bleeding incident itself, my vision and my hearing were damaged, and the way my mind works has been subtly altered. Left-brain functions such as math, logic, and spelling became more difficult, though right-brain functions seem to have compensated, over time.
Then there were the life changes. The St. Peter’s Hospital incident devastated my finances, destroyed a relationship that likely would have led to marriage and a family, and derailed my English PhD. Initially uplifting, the near-death experience itself produced a sense of profound disorientation. For a decade, I felt as if I were floating between two worlds, not quite who I had been, not yet who I was becoming. I had returned to a child-like innocence that allowed dangerous people to enter my life. The experience also fostered the naïve belief that, because I had beaten death, none of the rules I’d lived by necessarily applied, and I made decisions that, in retrospect, were incredibly reckless and had substantial negative impact, though they made complete sense to me at the time.
The good news is a shorter but more potent list.
This second time around, I have been able, finally, to forgive my parents and to overcome the limitations my childhood defenses and resentments had propagated. Creativity and intuition blossomed, and I became an artist and then a therapist, activities that have given me a purposeful way to live. Though I am in no hurry to get there, I am no longer afraid of death.
And then there is the question, Why am I still here? Given the amount of blood I lost and the rapidity with which I lost it, I should have died. The bleeding stopped only because my blood pressure was so low – 50/0, “the blood pressure of a corpse,” as the chief resident involved in my case later put it – that clotting finally occurred. Answering this question has been the impetus for most of the positive changes I have made. I’ve often returned to the vision I had just before entering the near-death space and have tried to keep the lines of the graphs moving in an upward direction. It has been crucially important to complete the life I then imagined.
Now, I am startled, daily, by grace: by the miraculousness of everything that is, all of which seems as improbable as my own second coming. I no longer take anything for granted. I seem, still, to be evolving, refining, and recombining. I don’t know what the future will bring.
But then, nobody else does, either.
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