The first time I ever died was nothing spectacular. After I came home from work, I put together an IKEA diaper changing table, sat down to a pizza dinner, leaned back in my chair, and died. When I found out about it I was pretty disappointed… it was at the dinner table. In a chair.
Of course that didn’t mean it was any less traumatic for my pregnant wife, who watched her husband sit back in his chair and simply stop breathing. What woman wouldn’t start screaming after verifying her husband wasn’t making another distasteful joke? But she kept her nerve and immediately called the right people.
My brother-in-law began CPR on me within two minutes while my wife and her sister prayed together in the corner of the kitchen. When the paramedics finally arrived they sicced the defibrillators on me, blasting my torso until a heartbeat was detected again.
“Wir haben ihn wieder… für’s erste,” the German paramedics told my wife as they rolled me away on the stretcher.
We’ve got him back… for now.
Of course I don’t remember any of this. I was ‘clinically dead’ for twelve minutes, the doctors would tell me later.
It began with a spark, so to speak, deep inside one of my ventricles. A buckshot of electrical bullets fired through my heart, causing it to shudder, stunned, like a vibrating gong. This ringtone is called ventricular fibrillation. When the heart flutters like this, it’s too busy to pump blood into the cardiovascular system. This is called cardiac arrest.
That much any doctor could explain. But like all other big bang theories, the question was, what gave birth to that spark?
The mysterious lethal arrhythmia dubbed my heart untrustworthy, so the doctors implanted an ICD (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator) inside my chest. This little battery-powered gizmo would now monitor my heart for the rest of my life, and if ever it detected irregular heart activity, Ka-POW! I would be reanimated.
I have nothing against medicines, and even particularly appreciate the extra strength throat lozenge most Januaries, but under circumstances less drastic than those involving human life, I tend to lean toward the approach of natural selection, campaigning for Darwin and the shrug of the shoulder for those Nature leaves behind. Hurricanes, typhoons, forest fires – whatever casualties are collected in a natural catastrophe, they were in the name of the balance of nature. It was time for that plot of nature to be de-cluttered, along with any of the squirrels who couldn’t scamper away fast enough.
If you can’t crack it, drop the acorn and get out of the tree.
However, applied to my personal circumstance then, I shouldn’t be alive. Medicine and a brother-in-law intervened in the natural selection of my extermination. It wasn’t like I stepped into the wrong shadow when the rope snapped on an ascending grand piano. My “accident” was natural.
Maybe even intentional.
My heart, an organ of nature, stopped playing.
I was now part of the clutter, a walking contribution to the over-population of the world.
You were clinically dead, the doctor had told me.
Nature decided to take me out. Me! I thought I was a strong, healthy young buck in the midst of his prime years of conquering the world, leaving his mark and sowing his seeds.
But I was wrong. I was really just a lemon, broken down less than half way through its warrantee. How shameful. In one month I was supposed to be the father of a baby girl, and already she was starting life disadvantaged with a broken-down father.
Already I had let her down. She wasn’t even here yet.
Then came the questions. Why me? Why us? We were decent people. We recycled, yielded to pedestrians, swept our section of the sidewalk every Saturday morning. What did we do to deserve this?
You are darn lucky, they all said.
It could have been so much worse. And I recognized that.
But it also could have never been.
Brugada, the doctors started saying.
A big bang theory eventually began to solidify. One of my thirty thousand genes had mutated. This could have occurred five grandpas ago or for the first time in me. That gene was the father of the spark that stopped my heart, the seed of a syndrome called Brugada, also known as Sudden Adult Death Syndrome.
Fourteen days till due date. Everything was running smoothly until I had to go and die again. And the second time was again nothing spectacular. If anything I was demoted to degradation – it happened on the toilet.
As I sat there, toilet paper in hand, my torso quietly imploded. My ribs, organs and breath were swallowed up into a tiny black hole somewhere behind my sternum. I was instantly hollow and inside out. And then came the detonation, a colossal ka-POW! that blew me back up again. Like a Clydesdale kick to the ticker – my teeth cracked together, my ears rang with raging cicadas.
And as soon as it came, it was gone. I remained upright on the toilet as if nothing had happened – a little too close for comfort to my worst fear, dying of an aneurism on the toilet, found lying on the bathroom floor with my pants around my ankles.
I looked down at the toilet paper in my hand and thought, “Shit, I suppose I have to tell a doctor about this.”
I was back in the hospital before noon.
“Die Kabel sind verrutscht,” the doctor explained.
No problem. They would simply go back in and anchor the cables back down correctly. Go back in = with knives. Anchor = with little grappling hooks. He showed me one.
Yeah, no problem. The staples were just taken out of my first incision, so it would be easier to cut it back open again now.
When you’re rolled down a hallway in a hospital bed, there isn’t much to see but the ceiling. You’d think they’d at least arrange a series of mirrors so you could stare back at all the people you pass who shamelessly stare at you, but they don’t. There are just AC vents and smoke detectors. All the same color.
And yet they’re better than looking up at the head that suddenly appears from beyond your forehead, upside down, extending an arm that holds something long, sharp and shiny. The last thing you want to hear is:
Achtung, ziss vill be a bit painfool….
I had an urge for chocolate when we left the hospital the next day, so we stopped at the grocery store on the way home. I came back exhausted. My ribs throbbed after unloading the water and milk with one hand. I fell asleep early on the couch, lying on my recently operated left side, as my right side hurt even more than my heart from the pulled muscles.
I woke up around eleven in a mild sweat. My ribs were still sore from lifting the groceries. What I didn’t want to tell my wife was that something fishy was going on with my breathing. It seemed like I had to do it myself, consciously inhaling and consciously exhaling, otherwise my lungs would just sit there and wait for instructions.
I gave it a hundred breaths, and then decided to mention it to my wife.
I was back in the hospital before midnight.
I had warned my wife that if she took me to the hospital, they’d keep me there. A hospital is a business. They want customers.
“They don’t want people to be sick,” she answered. “We’re just going to have you checked.”
When the nurse said it looked like pneumonia, I had the impression she enjoyed it. When she said they’d like to keep me until Monday to check the numbers, I wondered if nurses worked on commission.
“No!” I snapped. “It’s not pneumonia! I’m not staying here! My wife is having a baby!”
The nurse observed me curiously, as if I really thought I had a say in the matter.
I was ready to filibuster, but what happened next brought me quickly to cloture.
Florida fire ants: when you stand barefoot on one of their mounds, they don’t attack single-antedly. They anesthetically infiltrate your foot somehow until a significant army has grouped all the way up your ankle. Then, together on cue, they all bite and release their venom at once, which feels much like setting your foot on fire, hence the aptly named title, fire ants.
The bacteria that settled in the warm swamp in the bottom of my right lung employed such tactics. At one moment everything was fine. I was exercising my freedom of speech, no matter how useless. The next moment, an inferno surged within my right lung, as if a cherufe’s hands wrapped its flaming fingers around my ribs and wrung them out like a dishrag, splintering my bones like bamboo.
Whatever pirate captain I had been centuries earlier came back full sail and blasted from within me a growling Yaaarrr!!! as I capsized onto my side in a fetal position. Each desperate breath added fuel to the fire. Never before in my life had I experienced such blinding pain. Not even when they cut open my heart.
The nurse would eventually inject me with something that reduced me to wheezing, and she wheeled me away down a dark hallway.
Eleven days I dangled in a bed of barbed wire. My arms were tracked with needle holes and bruises. Daily blood samples tallied an average of five pokes per morning; my veins were deep and the nurses could never penetrate them with accuracy. And somehow my intravenous catheter became blocked almost daily, so the doctors had to replant it nearly every afternoon. After the first week they ran out of hand and arm. Feet came next.
Eventually my wife’s due date passed. I was going to miss it. The very first opportunity, and I wasn’t going to be there for my daughter.
I hated God for it. Grandfathers for it. Nature for it. Me for it. Somewhere, somehow, it was something’s fault. And my daughter would have to pay the price for it.
But then they released me. A Tuesday, not yet a father. And though it was a release, my wife and I walked out of the hospital that afternoon a defeated team. The physical pain had taken a toll on our facial features. The emotional stress left us speechless.
That evening my wife and I took a walk through the vineyards of Rheinland-Pfalz. We didn’t speak much, just contemplated the colors of a coming summer, which seemed to arrive peacefully, as if nothing had happened the last two months. For the rest of the world life was business as usual.I needed to cry, wanted to cry, but couldn’t. Tears stormed down my wife’s cheeks in fear of entertaining relief. Anything could happen again. Her husband could die for good next time. She couldn’t take another episode in the hospital on my account. She needed me to be the strong one now.
And I wanted to be. More than anything I wanted to be able to stand up on my own again. That I had been so easily knocked down three times in a row in the last six weeks was unbearable for me to accept. No matter how tough I wanted to be, my body was no longer mine to control. There was no choice. It was humiliating. Terrifying.
Because of your heart! The words echoed over the vineyards.
Enough about my heart already! I wanted to snarl, wanting to smash something. We had bigger things to worry about. Like if the birth would go smoothly. Would our daughter be healthy?Would my wife be all right? In the last six weeks we hadn’t had the opportunity to ponder and process such questions. We hadn’t had the opportunity to prepare, to wash the floor, knit a blanket. Choose a name.
So this was how it was going to be. Not what I had planned.
Life was turning out to be not at all what I had planned.
Two nights later I woke up in the middle of the night from an acute pain.
My wife had pinched my arm.
We were back in the hospital before breakfast.
Five hours later, my heart stood still. I met my baby girl for the first time, and welcomed her into the world with a tearful cradle. She had blue eyes, my wife’s lips, and a scream fit to wake the dead. It was the sweetest song I’d ever heard.
Eventually we caught up with the peaceful colors of a first summer for our baby girl, and people slowly stopped asking about how we coped with all the pain and fear.
You just do.