This past summer I had my first brush with death. In the past, I have crashed my road bike going 40 MPH, fallen from Macalester campus buildings while scaling them with friends, and narrowly avoided piling up on an icy highway, but never did I really feel that I was close to death. In fact, pretty much my whole life I’ve felt invincible. Last summer I experienced something that changed my whole life perspective.
During a stage race last summer at the peak of my cycling fitness, I got a headache that wouldn’t go away. I gave it a few days before I saw a doctor, because I didn’t want to be that webMD surfing hypochondriac who thinks they might have something serious. Eventually I could no longer concentrate at work and was dosing myself with ibuprofen and coffee, thinking I must be going through some sort of caffeine withdrawal (I went from a cup a day to almost no coffee cold turkey!) After my headache still did not go away, I ended up getting an MRI. It turned out that I had a giant blood clot in my brain. Holy shit.
The odds of dying during the first 24 hours after detection are 25%. I think that since I hadn’t died already, I was probably pretty safe given that I had the headache for over a week. Since you can’t feel pain in the brain, it actually was the swelling of the clogged vein that I was feeling against the outside of my brain. Now that I describe it, the whole things feels surreal. It is much easier for me to think about it clinically and matter of fact than to recall the array of emotions I felt. Emotions mostly consisted of denial (I’m healthy dammit!) and fear. But there was a really strange sense of calm that came when I accepted the diagnosis and started thinking about how to get better.
This is the first time I have written about or shared publicly my blood clot experience. I like to give the impression of myself that I am in control and good at my life. This whole event came out of left field (less than one in a million occurrence) and I was shown that sometimes, you just aren’t in control. I still don’t really know how to talk about it. Should I play the strong willed tough guy or the vulnerable, afraid, confused guy?
I thought that almost dying would make me live my life differently. I try to think about decisions sometimes as if I might die tomorrow. Is this really what I want to be doing today? Amazingly, the answer is largely yes. I spend my days searching for new forms of life, learning, playing outside, laughing with my beautiful fiance, and socializing with my good friends. Perhaps the only thing missing from this dream life I lead is the ability and power to give others a dream. Somehow I ended up doing what I want to with my life, even though I have no clue what the hell I am doing anyway.
Having the “I could die at any moment card” means I frame risk differently in my mind. You think something is kinda scary or uncomfortable? At least you won’t die, so who really cares if you stumble over your words during a talk, or get turned down for a job interview. If I lose my money, at least I still have my life and my mind, and I can come back from anything, again and again. It is weird, but this whole event has convinced me that the only thing holding me back is my own self-imposed limitations. Maybe this is just my mind trying to protect my psyche and turn this whole thing into a positive. Maybe I’ll end up giving advice when I’m older “get yourself a blood clot in your brain, I couldn’t have been successful without the perspective it gave me”. Who knows.
I’m not really sure what the moral of the story is here. It annoys the hell of me that I can’t race my bike because I have to be on blood thinners. I don’t like looking at myself differently like my body is no longer perfect and invincible. Sometimes it does scare the hell out of me that I will get another clot and this time I really will die or become a vegetable. But on the other hand, I still get to go play outside every day. I haven’t lost any of my brain function and I still get to enjoy making puns and reading the comics and trying to figure out what makes people tick. I have to remind myself to give a damn sometimes because I slip back into moving through life being a busy bee without realizing how special the whole thing is.
If I could have you take away one thing from reading this story, it would be for you to be free from fear. You are not going to die from challenging yourself or making big life decisions, so you might as well get on with living and stop worrying that you are doing it right.