…my heart stopped pumping not once, but at least four separate times. No pulse, no blood pressure, vital organs (kidneys, liver, etc…) failing – a dying brain starved of precious oxygen.
In retrospect, I had not been feeling well for the better part of the last 6 months. I had a great deal of progressively worsening upper abdominal pain that escalated from mild discomfort to a searing, stabbing agony penetrating my entire core. In addition, my limbs felt like lead appendages – weak and tired. However, since the distress would subside at times, I chose to ignore what was happening.
On Sunday, September 23, I awoke feeling worse than usual. I chalked it up to the previous night’s late celebration in honor of my wife’s birthday and, after a few hours awake, I decided that what I needed was more rest.
My sleep was filled with ghostly images of shadowy figures, cold winds, dark places and the echoes of deep moans. When I awoke, I was covered in sweat and my body was quivering – pain consumed my entire being. I tried to move, but there was no strength left to raise my arms or legs. I was completely immobile.
I tried to call out for help, but my lungs lacked the strength to pass enough air across my vocal cords for an audible sound – I only managed a wheeze. Suddenly, my thoughts became disconnected, uncontrollable, disjointed, without sense. At the same time I was wrestling against an overwhelming feeling of falling: No – not just falling – but the sense of being pulled away. I remember thinking through the chaos that I had to find myself, pull my essence back to reality. I felt raw fear like never before.
For a brief moment, I seemed to step outside of my vessel, and watched as my body seized on the bed. Then, in an instant, I was back. My thoughts began to converge. I had made it back to reality.
This time – inspired by terror – my lungs served me well. I called out for help again and again until Karen (my wife) came to my aid. I managed to whisper “something is wrong, call 911 … get help”.
Most of what happened the next few minutes I cannot remember. Those that were present – Karen and Paul (my friend, Doctor and neighbor from across the street) – have helped to fill in the blanks.
After Karen called 911, I had another seizure and she sent my daughter, Haydin, to run across the street and get Dr. Paul. When Paul arrived, my blood pressure was so low he could not get a reading and he found my pulse to be dangerously weak, and very slow – less than 30 precious beats a minute.
I was in and out of consciousness until EMS arrived. They lifted me out of my bed and into a chair; my legs had no strength – it was like they were not there. Next, they lifted me to a stretcher. As I was being carried out of the house, I began to feel that falling “pull” towards some-where or some-thing else. Indescribable pain began to rush from my thorax to the top of my head. Chaos overtook cognition. Everything went dark.
Memories of a feeling of weightlessness are slowly starting to come back. I remember hearing the occasional voice of the EMS technicians calling my name, shaking me, asking me to stay awake. I had no desire to respond: I felt no pain and no fear – only peace. But, for some unknown reason, I did answer back. “I’m still here”, I would reply. And then I would get pulled back to that weightless, peaceful place once more.
My next recollection is one of the Emergency Room: More interruptions of my serenity. Voices without form were now pulling me away from the place that I felt still and calm to a place filled with agony, confusion and chaos. I would stir back to reality only to be overcome; writhing against the pain, I would retreat back to tranquility.
Suddenly, I felt the searing burn of electricity surging through my body as they jolted my heart back to life. I could hear the voices of doctors in the background discussing what to do. I felt compelled to withdraw once again.
I vaguely recall hovering in the ether, swaddled by a pink and orange tinted fog, devoid of pain and of form – awestruck at how I was feeling. I was experiencing an all-embracing sense of peace and oneness; in unity with the cosmos, with everything that ever was and ever will be. Words pale in comparison to the sensation. I wanted to stay.
The shock came again, this time more intense than the last. Instinctively, I responded “I’m here” when I heard the call of my name. I could sense the immense pain rising from my abdomen again. This time, before trying another retreat to my paradise, I called out, “help me, it’s happening again”.
What happened next I can only describe as going to the “in-between”: Not here on this plane, but assuredly not in the place of tranquility I had entered into before. Despite my best effort, this time my escape didn’t take me back to the wondrous ether. Instead, I found myself in a place of almost complete darkness. There were murky silhouettes of malevolent figures surrounding me. I felt what I can only describe as evil. I remember trying to fight them off as they seemed to close in and grasp for my essence.
For what seemed to me to be several hours I fought my way back and forth from the “in-between” to this reality. I remember begging the nurses and doctors with the words, “please don’t let me go.” In particular, I remember one older nurse – who bore a striking resemblance to the late Mother Teresa – sitting at my side, tightly holding my hand and repeating, “Don’t worry child, we won’t let you go”. Finally, they were able to thread the wires for an external pacemaker through the veins in my neck to my heart. With the help of some regular shocks, my condition began to stabilize.
Next, I was moved upstairs to the ICU. As they were moving me from the transport gurney to the bed, I started to crash again – I felt the rush of pain in my core and the “demons” from the “in-between” dragging me back into darkness. I let out an inaudible scream of terror.
As I was fighting my way back from the void, I could hear panicked voices trying to sort out what to do next. As I sunk back into the emptiness, I heard someone yell, “Call a code…”
Once again, the fight seemed to last for hours. Darkness then light then darkness again. And each time I surfaced I pled – “don’t let me go.” As I was pulled back into the void my thoughts would turn to Karen and my kids. No longer was I trying to return to the serenity of the ether: I had to keep fighting.
When I awoke they were bringing my family in to visit. I can’t recall what I said to them, (if anything), but I do clearly remember hearing the wonderful sounds of their voices, their words of hope, the touch of their hands. The imprint of their presence remained with me as I slipped off into sleep.
Throughout the night my companion was the same nurse that had held my hand and comforted me in the Emergency Room. She sat at the left side of my bed, held my hand and soothed me through the nightmares and the pain. She kept repeating the same words, “Don’t worry child, we won’t let you go”.
Unknown to me at the time, my condition had been even grimmer than I could perceive. Before I had ever reached the hospital, I flat-lined, and needed to be jolted back to life with the portable defibrillator. When I reached the hospital, my body temperature had dropped to 90° Fahrenheit. The upper chambers of my heart were not functioning. I was suffering from cardiogenic shock and acute renal (kidney) failure. Twice the hospital’s patient advocate recommended to Karen that she bring in a priest to administer last rights. They told her I had less than a 20% chance of survival.
The next morning my “Mother Teresa” was gone. I could immediately tell the worst was behind me. They were pumping me full of antibiotics and, while I felt like hell, I had a sense of hope like never before. As my recovery progressed and I regained my strength, I also recognized a fresh appreciation for all that I have in my life – especially my family.
I am still trying to come to terms with my experience. I haven’t slept well since and I still have nightmares reliving the terror of the battles with the “in-between”. In spite of having had two prior near-death experiences, I have never faced the stark reality of my own mortality in such a powerful way. Sometimes I shudder with fear at the thought.
I have always been a person who has turned to science for answers. I know that what I described can be explained to have come about as a result of lack of oxygen to the neocortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language). But part of me still wonders if it could have been something more…