What I learned when I almost died

Exactly one year ago today, to the hour, an axe hit me in the head.

A brain aneurysm ruptured and flooded my head with blood. The extreme pain, dizziness and nausea cut a dividing line through my life – one second I was fine, the next I was on the verge of death.

I can never take my health for granted again.

No one should assume that having good numbers in their blood panel at an annual physical guarantees another year of life.

I learned, slowly, often reluctantly, other lessons during this year of recovery.

Major lesson 1: Modern medicine is miraculous.

The sophistication and quality of neurosurgery and ICU care after brain surgery still astonishes me, even though it traumatized me to read about it a few weeks after the fact.

A team of doctors cut open my skull and dug through my brain and put a titanium clip on an artery, and they did it without killing me or turning me into a vegetable. The lead surgeon’s bill was a mere $19,200 for those five hours, which seems like quite a bargain – especially since I had insurance to pay for it.

I spent almost two weeks in ICU, where they monitored everything that could be monitored, including the color of my brain fluid. Because of this, and administering the right drugs, I didn’t have a stroke or infection or other complications – which were common for patients with aneurysms just 10 years ago.

Our medical system has many problems, but its capacity to advance in saving lives is miraculous. I owe my life to decades of devotion to research and science by doctors who will never be celebrities.

Major lesson 2: When the brain is injured, recovery takes a long time.

It’s not like breaking an arm. Your brain runs everything.

You might think that you already know this.

But that knowledge isn’t complete until your brain malfunctions. Until you burst into tears in the middle of day and can’t stop sobbing. Until you try to read a sentence, over and over, and you can’t understand it.

Until you are on a phone call, listening carefully, and the words make no sense. Until you become afraid of the mantel on your fireplace, and can’t get past it without covering your head.

At the end of June, I was still suffering major panic attacks. And that was before any of the major stresses of 2016 had happened – before Tom had a stroke, before an oak tree demolished half my home, before our country was assaulted with a presidential campaign filled with misinformation and hatred, before wildfires were consuming the Appalachians.

I’ll never know how long it would have taken my brain to recover completely, because long before I was finished, that cascade of stressful events hit me.

My brain had to absorb this stress, cope with it, and continue to function, without falling into an abyss of dementia or depression.

Another miracle.

Major lesson 3: I want to live.

Long ago, I regularly had spells of depression that made me suicidal. I could tell you the name of the street and bridge in my hometown where I thought about swerving the steering wheel of the car. I could tell you the address of the house where I laid in bed and thought about how it would be to never get up again. I could tell you the name of the doctor who correctly diagnosed my sudden attack of “flu” and referred me to a psychiatrist.

At some point, in that long line of years, I realized that there is only one decision you ever make in life: Live or die?

The rest is just details. All decisions follow from that one decision.

I chose life. Again and again and again. And with that decision came other decisions: Get out of bed. Take a walk. Eat broccoli. Make a phone call.

One year ago, I made a series of¬†decisions that were more important than I realized at the time: Lay down before you fall down. Crawl, don’t walk. Go outside and breathe the fresh air. Don’t let the medics tell you that you are OK when you know that you are not OK. Don’t stop telling the ER nurses that something is seriously wrong until you see a doctor who knows.

I wanted to live, and I lived.

Major lesson 4: Take it easy.

I already knew that I need to chill more. The aneurysm pushed me to the floor and smacked me, saying, “CHILL OUT!”

I had to re-establish the habits that give me perspective and ease: good sleep, naps, meditation, “never hurry and never worry,” walks in nature, herbs, holding hands with people I love, taking time to do nothing, doing art as therapy, see beauty.

I had to fight to keep practicing these habits.  I fought and fought and fought. I still have to push, every day, to make room for those essentials.

I will have to keep working on this the rest of my life.

Major lesson 5: Be grateful.

Every blessed moment is sacred. Every single one.

Every time you pick yourself off the floor, congratulate yourself.

Every time a friend or family member says, “I love you,” kiss them.

Every time you see a flower, take it inside you.

Every time it rains, love the drops. Every drop.

Every time you wake up and see the sun has risen, get up and stretch and take it in.

Every time you can lay down and take a nap, be grateful to have a surface to lie on.

Every time you see someone who might be having a rough day, ask them “How you doing?” And listen like you really want to know the answer.

Every time you hear a bird sing, say, “Hello little bird!”

Every time you finish a book or an article and understand what it said, close your eyes and say “Thank you.”

Every time you take a step, feel the muscles in your leg and praise the brain that propelled it.

Every time you think you cannot take another step, do it anyhow.

Every day. Every breath. Every smile. Every touch. Every second.

Every life.

Today’s penny is a 2015.

I’ve written about each of these lessons, some more than once. I have linked above to select posts, but if you want to know more, use the search box. Or just ask me.

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