As a survivor of a sudden cardiac arrest, I’m a member of a group of people whose uniqueness is defined by beating the odds of surviving such an event. Since that heart-stopping day, I’ve adopted the cute conceit of telling people that I died.
Here’s my confession:
I know that I didn’t die.
Not quite dead
Although I was pronounced vital signs absent because I had no detectable heartbeat or respiration, or any discernible response to external stimuli, it’s clear my brain continued to function with the limited oxygen in its cells and was sustained by the oxygenated blood pushed through my arteries by the CPR of bystanders and the medical personnel who arrived shortly thereafter.
Dying I was, yes, but not quite dead, and then resuscitated.
I didn’t die but it did make for a compelling headline and dramatic tale. And yet no one has yet challenged the assertion that I died. That’s no surprise I suppose; after hearing the traumatic story of how my heart stopped pumping during a half-marathon and the valiant efforts taken to save my life, who’s going to say:
“Nah, you weren’t really dead, were you because you were able to be revived!”
No one has ever said it, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about it.
Or wondering if others are.
This story I told of my death started to bother me. It felt like an untruth or exaggeration. I justified it by believing it was easier to simply say I died rather than explaining the complicated history of how the medical and legal communities struggled for decades over a practical definition of what constitutes the determination of death.
It was just shorthand, after all, for what really happened.
Besides, for many people, when the heart stops pumping and the lungs respiring, that’s death. Perhaps my claiming that I died was a harmless affectation or just a little white lie, but I wondered if maybe it was my attempt at self-aggrandizement. Like my ego had become so needy that I needed to have died as if avoiding death with the meagre 5% probability of surviving an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest just wasn’t enough.
After a few years, I began to wonder how I got from being embarrassed to have had a sudden cardiac arrest to this need to embellish the story to compensate for my feelings of failure and shame.
Compounding the discomfort, my spouse once suggested we should celebrate my re-birth or, as it’s called, re-birthday — the day I was re-born after dying from the arrest. I understand that she wants to celebrate, in a thanksgiving way, and not mark my literal re-birth but I’m frankly very sheepish about acknowledging this re-birthday idea.
My reluctance is based not only because it would serve to rub my nose in my own tall tale, but also because it would diminish the most revered resurrection in Western culture, celebrated around the world on Easter. I’m not even remotely in that category of worthiness. But mostly I eschew the re-birthday idea because what happened on that day in November still doesn’t feel to me like it’s anything to celebrate.
It was awful for my family.
I didn’t die that day but something did.
The passing of time
I survived, yet the person who awoke in hospital from a coma wasn’t the same person who collapsed and lost consciousness two days earlier. As I discover more about who I now am, I’m forgetting what he was like.
I’ve become a memory.
I’ve noticed that something else is slowly passing away.
I’m spending less time trying to figure out what exactly was lost that November day and whether, and how, I can resuscitate it. Whether a consequence of oxygen deprivation on the brain or simply a part of being alive in this fast-paced world, I get distracted when ruminating about the past.
Life is distracting me and, with the passage of time, the once-strong emotional grip of the cardiac arrest is ebbing. More often now, I can go days without thinking about the event and the impact it had.
I look forward to when that November day passes unnoticed.
I’ll celebrate the following morning… if I remember.
As for my story about how I died and lived to talk about it, it’s just a story.
Whether I died or not doesn’t matter anymore to me.
It’s not important.
It’s not going to be my last, or only, story.