I Nearly Died Last Week. Here’s What I Learned

Nobody ever says on their deathbed: “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

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BY Geoffrey James - 06 Aug 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

As I mentioned in my most recent column, I had a "cardiac incident" while camping with my 12-year-old son.

It started as a burning in the center of my chest and a drenching cold sweat. At first, I told myself it was a panic attack or severe indigestion, but as it continued, I realized that something was seriously wrong.

I woke my son, told him: "Get your clothes on. We're going to the hospital." By the time we got into the car, the symptoms were subsiding, but I have since been told that trying to drive myself, rather than calling 911, was an act of startling stupidity, especially with my son in the car.

After a 45-minute drive, we arrived at the Emergency Room, where I got a blood test confirming I'd had a heart attack.

Heart attacks happen when the "muscle" of your heart isn't getting enough blood because one or more of the arteries has become blocked with plaque, which is a deposit that your blood leaves as it courses through your arteries.

I soon received an angioplasty, a procedure usually conducted under sedation, where the cardiologist runs a tube with a camera up a vein in your arm or groin, to peek around, assess damage and, if possible, make minor corrections.

Because I had neither genetic history of heart problems nor any of the risk factors (no smoking, not diabetic, not overweight, etc.), the expectation was that the cardiologist would find a minor blockage and then fix it with a little piece of tubing called a stent. If so, I'd go home in a couple of days.

No such luck. Six of the seven arteries were blocked, from 60% to 100%. My heart was on the verge of total system failure.

Two days later, I had open heart surgery.

Warning: what comes next is a bit graphic, so if you're easily queasy, you might want to skip past this list.

Here's what the cardiologists did:

  1. 1. Cut open my sternum lengthwise with a jig saw.
  2. 2. Pried my rib cage apart to expose my heart.
  3. 3. Pulled a major vein from my leg.
  4. 4. Grafted pieces of the vein to replace the blocked arteries.
  5. 5. Connected a large non-heart artery to my heart.
  6. 6. Closed my rib cage, fastening it shut with titanium bolts.

Obviously, this was all done while I was under deep anesthesia, and while I wasn't officially dead, I was in a condition resembling it so closely as never-no-mind.

The next thing I remember is the doctors pulling the breathing tube out of my windpipe.

For the next few days, I laid pretty much immobile on a hospital bed, with three tubes stuck in my chest, draining out blood and fluid that otherwise would have drowned me. On Sunday, the cardiologists yanked the tubes out of my chest and sent me home.

In movies and TV, when people have major surgery (or a gunshot wound or a head injury), they're usually up and around by the next scene.

Well, turns out it's not that easy in real life, especially when they've been tinkering with your innards. I had about 5% of the energy I normally had. On top of that I caught some kind of bug in the hospital.

Even so, as the week progressed, I slowly began to feel better.

Then I had another heart attack.

Back to the hospital I went, where I got another angioplasty. The cardiologist determined that one of the grafts had failed--an event that occurs in 2% of these cases. Everything else, however, was working fine, so after a few days of observation, they send me home, where I am now, writing this column.

I'm not out of the woods yet. It takes up to a year to fully recover from open heart surgery and there's ongoing danger of another heart attack. Even with medicine and diet and exercise, my life expectancy has dropped 10 years or so.

I'm now trying to make sense of, and take meaning from, this truly traumatic experience. Here are my observations:

1. Put your health first

Like many people (and most entrepreneurs, I suspect), my priorities were 1) work, 2) family, 3) health. I struggled to "find the time" to work out, for instance. I put off regular checkups because I was "too busy."

In the wake of recent events, my priorities are now 1) health, 2) family, 3) work. I may sometimes struggle to "find the time" to get work done. So be it. I'll set expectations and avoid over-committing. What's the point of being successful if I'm dead?

2. Get health insurance

If the only reason you don't have health insurance is because you're think you're "healthy," you are a five-star idiot. I've been "healthy" my entire life and never been hospitalized... until now. I'm also an optimist--the typical profile, in other words, of a person who lacks health insurance by choice.

Fortunately, I'm not an idiot and I did have health insurance. Believe me, this experience has been wretched enough without having to worry about coming up with an extra quarter of a million dollars (the high end of what this brouhaha might eventually end up costing).

3. Be here now

Like many people (especially writers), I tend to live "in my head" more than "in my body." My internal dialog is so LOUD that it frequently tunes out people and experiences that could greatly enhance my life.

Never again. I intend to live my life according to the following dictum:

"While we are alive we should sit among colored lights and taste good wines, and discuss our adventures in far places; when we are dead, the opportunity is past." (Jack Vance)

Maybe these aren't the most profound observations, but they're mine, for what they're worth.

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