Left and Returned

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It was September 1998 at around midnight. I had just turned 45 about a month prior. I was home writing DOS basic computer programs on a 486 running Win95 and smoking heavily as usual, approximately two packs a day. I had recently quit driving a taxi and in the process of getting my "Taxi Directory" printed and sold. It was just dawning on me that I would make next to nothing on the venture after all my work, since the purchase price was barely covering the materials and expenses. Before that, my Japanese translation business had also bombed, and I had no other readily available options. I was very depressed about this for some time.

My girlfriend had already gone to bed. For some time I had been suffering occasional shortness of breath and dizzy spells. Usually when these occurred I would step outside for a minute or so to breath deeply in the fresh night air. This always caused the spells to pass without fail -- except this time.

The episode started as usual with a sudden dizzy spell, shortness of breath, and a bit of chest pain accompanied by intestinal discomfort and indigestion. I stepped outside on the ground-level porch. It was a cool evening with a clear sky. I remember this because Venus was visible and I had recently been looking at online photos of the planet. The air seemed fresh, but the hyperventilating didn't help. In fact, I was rapidly feeling much worse.

Sharp pains began to radiate down my left arm and I felt crushing pain in my chest. It was probably the worst pain I've ever experienced or so it seemed. Whether from the pain alone or more complex reasons I remember suddenly breaking into an intense sweat and my legs turned to rubber. Partially collapsing outside the door, I could barely drag myself up to re-enter the kitchen. By this time I was in quite a panic, realizing it may be a heart attack. Even so, I kept telling myself it was something else related to my stomach troubles, but I knew I needed help soon. I grabbed the phone, punched 911, and somehow called out my address correctly into the receiver. Then I made my way into the bedroom to wake up my girlfriend and tell her that I'd phoned an ambulance.

I waited on a chair in the kitchen, and within minutes a fire engine arrived with paramedics to look me over. I began to feel nauseous and about to pass out from the pain in my chest and lack of oxygen. For some reason they felt the need to get a needle in my arm, but my veins were collapsed. The young fellow attempting to do so was having trouble. The jabbing was making me feel worse. I distinctly remember feeling that I may be about to die. I called out to my girlfriend and directed her gaze over to my dog. I had a black lab for several years and become very attached to her. By this time she was hunkered under the kitchen table looking on with increasing agitation. I wanted to know if my girlfriend would look after my dog for me. I remember the look on her face; she grimaced and nodded. The paramedic guys were asking me questions, but I was telling them I felt as if I might pass out. I could feel it coming, and said something like, "I'm sorry guys" and felt myself slipping to the kitchen floor.

A couple of times in my younger years I had experienced fainting from several different causes. Once while having my inner ear probed with a metal instrument during one of many examinations into my anosmia (lack of sense of smell), and several other times just after either giving a blood donation or simply having blood samples taken while sitting upright. Those situations were followed by a very rapid recovery of consciousness. It's a strange feeling and quite distinct from sleeping. That night was utterly unlike fainting.

Attempting to describe this experience to anyone, or obtaining a crystal memory of the event itself has consistently frustrated me. Unlike many of the documented NDEs you hear about, I cannot claim vivid visuals -- no tunnels of bright light, no conversations with extra-corporeal entities or the like. But, what was immediately clear from the moment I hit the kitchen floor was a distinct feeling of separating from my body. Not that I was "looking at my body" as so many others claim. Staying within my body was simply no longer an option, as if it had become a poisonous vessel. It was as if I had to get out of there. There was no pain; it was very peaceful.

I was distinctly not comfortable with the idea of dying, definitely didn't feel as if my life was completed even if it was over. And, there was a floating sensation, as if I was somewhere around the ceiling light bulb or over by the door. The reason I say this is more a result of the "return event" which is very clear indeed. This was a rotating descent, where the ceiling tiles were spinning round and round until they very suddenly were still and I was staring up at one of the paramedics.

The very first thing that came out of my mouth was, "Something very strange just happened..." and I remember him immediately giving me a look that said, "Yeah right, I don't want to hear it." Then the pain was back and I remember feeling fear that I might slip away again, this time for good. They were bundling me quickly onto a stretcher and into the ambulance that would haul me away to emergency care. My partner followed in her own vehicle.

Apparently what had happened after I fell to the floor was a flatline event, which sent the paramedics scurrying to get my girlfriend and dog outside quickly while they attempted to get my vitals back. I have no idea what they did to get me temporarily stabilized, and never did get an opportunity to thank them. It may have been 20 seconds to a minute that my heart was fibrillating uselessly as I lay there. I was not overweight but rather the opposite, a very thin 130 pounds. For several years I had been experiencing both stomach and intestinal problems, palpitations, occasional panic attacks related to stress at work, worry over money, and other issues. I had worked nights as a taxi driver for over 16 years.

It turns out my heart attack was not caused by coronary artery blockage at all but rather by a severe electrolyte imbalance, specifically a sharp drop in my blood potassium levels. According to the emergency doctor, my blood K was very low and nearly off the scale. An IV drip plus a stomach mixture they called "the pink lady" soon got things back to normal and I was actually able to return home that very night with no permanent damage to my heart. That was the good news; however, it didn't mean I was okay by a long shot...

Physically, immediately following my coronary incident I had several medical issues, all of which appeared to manifest a sudden acceleration of aging. For one thing my hair color went from a salt-and-pepper mix of brown and gray to a full blown gray-white mixture in less than a year. Also within six months my near vision, which had been deteriorating over previous years, suddenly required prescription bifocals for either reading or computer work. In addition, the condition of my teeth suddenly deteriorated, requiring several expensive trips to the dentist. Also within a year I began to have back problems, including one protruding disc, which caused pressure on nerves to my left leg, leading to limping and muscle atrophy. Surgery was recommended but I decided not to subject myself unless it was a last resort. I viewed it a permanent alteration that would make it impossible for any natural reversal toward healing. Patience and determination have now restored my back's health. I can and do mountain trail hiking, and with care lift the same kinds of objects and perform similar tasks as in earlier years.

Psychologically, after the NDE I began to lose interest in sex. This partly resulted from fear of triggering a recurrence from over-exertion, partly from feelings of extreme fatigue and partly from severe depression that overcame me. Depression took the form of a strong sense that I was now very near the end of my life. My father had died of prostate cancer two years prior. Suddenly I was stripped of the vitality that I felt necessary to alter my course sufficiently and save me from the poverty and toil in which I seemed trapped. Needless to say these feelings did nothing to improve an already faltering relationship, and the sort of arguments we had only aggravated my ill health. In retrospect, had I been capable of more quickly absorbing the altered life views afforded by the NDE, perhaps an amended sense of priorities may have saved that relationship. Though I was not solely responsible for its failure, I certainly contributed my share.

On the positive side, I was impressed with the absolute necessity to regain a handle on both my finances and health with the two inextricably linked. One of my first decisions was to quit smoking. The NDE was a catalyst to impress upon me what had failed in the past must now succeed. As of this writing February 2008, it has been over nine years since I lit up a cigarette. The craving has completely left me, my stamina has returned to normal, and ever so gradually there has been a noticeable improvement in my immune system so that what used to be a seasonal norm of two to three colds or flu per winter has reduced to perhaps one in three years.

Finances have proven more difficult to rectify. Borrowing money to return to school for a vocational course in electronics and communication technology proved in the end to gain me little. One of the physical aftereffects of the incident manifested itself in obvious short-term memory impairment. Apart from embarrassing incidents stemming from forgotten names etc., this hampered my ability to study complicated material and retain details. Although I did reasonably well in that course, I failed to land a job with its certificate and was saddled in addition with a hefty student loan requiring repayment with interest. It was with regret that I was forced to fall back on taxi driving for a living.

However, that decision was only taken in combination with another one: to move from the city to a smaller place. So from what was once a night shift job on often-rainy nights in Vancouver's crazy traffic and seedy downtown core, I upgraded to driving strictly days in Kelowna -- the heart of B.C.'s beautiful Okanagan district. Within one week I had a steady car. Seven years later I continue to work full time for the same company. Though other forms of income would still be desirable, my immediate needs are being met and security has steadily improved.

Spiritually, however, it has been nearly 10 years since the NDE. Its effects are still with me every day in ways that have taken some time for me to appreciate. Raised in a rigidly scientific upbringing, I always firmly believed that we are strictly a product of biology and that our consciousness derives only from the complexities of the human brain, itself a physical organ. Despite doubts to the contrary (independent thought seems unlikely to result from the firings of neurons and transfer of neurotransmitters across synapses...), I could not bring myself to believe in the concept of a soul separate from the physical body. Still too much a questioner to belong to any organized religion (notwithstanding diligent pursuit by Jehovah Witnesses...), nevertheless that one night utterly shattered my complacency concerning the soul-body connection. The overpowering impression of having "left and returned" was not to be rationalized away so easily.

Like most NDErs, I soon learned to be circumspect about speaking too freely on the subject. It receives about the same level of open-mindedness as UFO abduction. Having said that, I must admit that had somebody approached me with an NDE tale prior to my own, most likely I would have suggested it was the result of hypoxia in the dying brain. But it is obvious that those documented cases of inexplicable "observations" made by patients who were clinically dead have been, if not covered up, then not taken seriously. And this is something odd: the very people who propose to conduct research into NDEs are invariably 1) scientifically trained and 2) under scrutiny of their scientist peers. That is to say, those with the best resources to pursue the nature of these events have, paradoxically, the most to lose in a career sense by venturing out on a limb.

In lieu of a "rational" explanation for these happenings they are simply shelved as "inexplicable". That designation itself denotes that no one beside NDErs actually believe it is possible to see/hear objects/events in the absence of our corporeal sense organs. But the quandary is, if objective (related to real events) repeatable (that have happened more than once) empirical (i.e. in your face) evidence to that effect exists, then what is stopping "scientists" from tearing asunder their precious dogma to reach the truth? Isn't that what it's supposed to be all about? Simply too many established concepts of reality are threatened by the possibility that such a thing can be. But to be fair, perhaps we simply don't have the necessary tools for the job. (Yet)

They say that NDEs often confer upon the survivor some form of enhanced perceptive or empathic powers. Perceptiveness not so much; I'm still fairly gullible to the experienced scam artist. But empathy has definitely enhanced. In the past people often gravitated toward me as a sounding board, usually with a negative draining effect on my energy level so that I tried to avoid too much of it. One noticeable change is what appears as a deeper reserve of 'calm' in the face of others' distress. I can openly empathize with them without becoming overwhelmed by it myself. Often it seems people neither need nor want you to offer a solution to their dilemma, rather they simply want someone to listen. Cab drivers, like barkeeps, get more than our share of these encounters it seems.

As far as the fear of death, I’m not nearly so apprehensive about the actual process of dying. It’s true that NDEs eliminate or at least reduce this fear. (Not to say I'd want to experience the pain of another fibrillation event any time soon.) However, the unknown still remains. I hesitate to presuppose what lies beyond the light, but since all human beings must eventually go there you'd expect it couldn’t be lonely!

Physically, I sometimes feel as if my control center, if you will, has shifted. As if I'm operating my body from somewhere on the periphery -- almost via a tether -- rather than from a core location. Emotionally there is an intense awareness of the ticking clock: not so much in fear of it running out, as in the desire to make something good happen. In lieu of that, to at least avoid doing any harm. There is also a frustration in witnessing so much of our daily lives devoted to nothing but (largely wasteful) survival. This is especially difficult when the precious nature of time has been revealed. But the antidote seems to lie in attempting to savor all moments rather than simply those of so-called leisure time. Admittedly this is an art form pursued with varying degrees of success.

I fervently hope my small story can be of benefit to some, and that it gives more credence to the memories of other NDErs, as theirs have done for me.

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