A Friend’s Brush with Death

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Preface from Tim: from 1992 through 2008, I worked at the company which I founded, Prophet. A couple of days ago, my star engineer from those days wrote me out of the blue. Since I hadn’t heard from him in many years, he wrote me of a relatively recent experience which I considered amazing. I asked his permission to share it, which I have done below. The only changes I have made are deleting, for instance, the actual name of the hospital. Here we go:

Back in March, 2019, I went on a ten day vacation to Panama. While there, I caught a virus, not a coronavirus, it was an adenovirus. But think of the worst case scenario Covid patient, short of actually dying, that you’ve heard about during the pandemic, and that’s essentially what happened to me.

I was feeling unwell my last few days in Panama. Once I got back home, things only got worse. I got home March 27th, 2019. By March 31st, having already gone to an urgent care and visited my doctor, I had a friend drive me to the ER of the hospital closest to my house [redacted]. Within a few hours, they told me they were transferring me into the ICU. They asked me who should make medical decisions for me if I got to a point where I could not make such decisions. This is when I realized something really bad was happening.

I immediately thought of my mom. But hell no. She was nearly 80 at the time and living on the east coast. I wasn’t going to bother her with this. I gave them the contact information of one of my best friends who happens to be a doctor. That decision saved my life. That’s also the last thing I remember until waking up about two weeks later.

This is what happened.

Once I’d been moved into the ICU, they had to put me on a ventilator and then intubate me and place me in a coma. I had severe, multi-focal pneumonia. Even at 100% O2, I was crashing. I had gone into what’s called ARDS, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. I found out later, everyone was pretty sure I was going to die.

My doctor friend, [redacted], consulted with the head of the ICU at [redacted] and she convinced him that I needed to transferred to UCLA and placed on ECMO. The ICU doctor had trained under [redacted] at Cedars several years earlier and had a lot of respect for her, so this is one reason why she saved my life. ECMO is the last possible option for someone in my condition (see video links below). At the time, almost no one in the general public had ever heard of ECMO. I certainly had not. Now with Covid, many more people have at least heard of it.

Because of the ARDS and ECMO, I also developed renal failure, so was placed on dialysis, and sepsis. Since they still didn’t know the cause of my pneumonia and subsequent ARDS, I was placed on multiple broad-spectrum antibiotics, antivirals, and anti-fungal medications, along with a crazy amount of powerful pain medications and, of course, the medications that kept me in a coma.

I remember literally none of this.

I did have extremely vivid hallucinations and delusions. To this day, some of them still feel like real memories. When you’re in a medically-induced coma, they wake you up fairly frequently to make sure you still can wake up, and to see if maybe you can stay awake. They will often do this when someone is visiting so a familiar face is there for you. I remember none of that, but I did incorporate many of my friends, who I later found out had visited me, into my hallucinations. These hallucinations were uniformly horrifying. During one hallucination, I remember distinctly making the conscious (I thought at the time I was conscious) decision that I needed to die because I was not going to get out of the hell I was apparently in. I won’t describe the specific hallucinations/delusions as it would take much too long, but I will never forget them.

I was eventually woken up and was able to remain “awake,” or at least not in a coma. Other than the hallucinations, this is the part I remember and it really sucked. I could not walk. I could not get up out of the bed. I had been given a tracheostomy so I could not talk. I could not eat, and had an NG tube (feeding tube) down my nose, which I apparently removed myself at least once. I lost about 25% of my body weight. I had to be given dialysis every couple days, and it was not clear if my kidneys would ever recover. [Note from Tim: the writer has always been very trim and very healthy, so losing 25% of his body weight is shocking for me to read]

The “cool” part, if anything about such an experience can be considered cool, is that once I was woken up, I began to recover incredibly quickly. It didn’t feel quick to me at all, but all the doctors and nurses and [redacted] were telling me that I recovered to the point of being able to go home more quickly than anyone they’d seen who had gone through what I did. At one point, I had less than a 20% chance of survival, but having gone into the hospital on March 31st, I was released on April 25th. Unfortunately, I had a bad reaction to a blood thinner I had to take, Warfarin (aka Coumadin), and started coughing up blood that night at home and had to be re-admitted and came pretty close to dying yet again. Ended up getting five units of whole blood to replace what had mostly aspirated into my already damaged lungs, and it took several days to clear that, finally going home for good on May 1st.

I took the next 6 weeks off, just recovering at home, with different friends coming and staying with me to help with everything I couldn’t do, which was almost everything. I went back to work on June 10th, but probably should have taken another two weeks off. I promised myself I’d get back to yoga before my birthday, and took my first (very easy) class on June 30th. But it took me until October/November to “fully” recover. Even then, I was left with a cough that lingered for well over a year. I still have it today, but oddly only after I shower and it’s not debilitating or anything, just mildly annoying.

I say that yoga saved my life because I am fairly confident that if I didn’t have that 6+ years of yoga behind me at that time, and the stamina and lung health that it gave me, I would be dead for sure.

If you’re interested, here’s a couple videos that are all too relevant to my experience:

So there you have it! That’s my real update.

Tim Again: I was so shocked and shaken by all of this, I asked my friend how the experience changed him, if at all. Back in the days of Prophet, he and I would occasionally talk about religion (him being an atheist, and me being a good suburban Protestant), so I was somewhat curious if he had any kind of conversion experience. He wrote me back:

It’s funny you ask, as I was just thinking about this in light of a recent Sam Harris podcast where they touch on this subject.

I had thought that it would have some kind of profound impact on me and maybe I’d change careers or join an ashram or found a new religion (not!). But nope! It really did not change me in any fundamental way. And I was glad to hear in Sam’s podcast that this is the norm. These kinds of experiences don’t really change people. Even people who think it changed them or that this thing happened to them “for a reason,” objective analysis shows it usually isn’t the case.

However, it did give me new information, as any significant experience will.

  • I have a much better understanding of what it’s like to be really, really sick and in an ICU. If someone gave me the choice of going through that again, or dying, I would have to give it some thought before choosing.
  • I have even more respect for the work medical professionals do. But more people need to understand that medicine is not an exact science. I knew this before, but this experience only made that fact more clear, and I wish more people understood that.
  • If you ever have someone you care about in the hospital, if they are conscious, GO AND VISIT THEM AS OFTEN AS YOU CAN. The boredom of lying in bed 24×7 is horrible. For me, even though I was awake, I didn’t have the mental capacity to read or even watch movies on my phone. I had great difficulty trying to write down what I was thinking or wanting to ask. But when someone visited me, it was the best feeling in the world, even if I was unable to actually carry on much of a conversation.
  • Although I had great insurance, I am even more convinced we need universal health care. My total bill was $1.65M. Because I was insured, the negotiated total bill was $535K. I had to pay about $7K out of pocket. I had well over 200 individual EOBs ranging from a couple of dollars to well over $100K each. I’m a pretty smart guy, but being as sick as I was, even while I was recovering, these things were a fucking nightmare to deal with. This is lunacy of the highest order. It shouldn’t be like this, for anyone.
  • ICU Hallucination Syndrome is a real thing and it is terrifying. Although not the same thing, I more fully understand how people with medical conditions like schizophrenia can “hear” voices or see things that simply aren’t there, even while interacting with the real world. Having experienced what I can only assume are similar hallucinations, I can have real empathy for people who suffer from these kinds of diseases.

Since this all happened before the pandemic, and being the very healthy person I was (and am again today), I look at people who know they’re healthy and therefore believe they don’t need to be concerned about Covid and choose not to get vaccinated, and I shake my head and think, “You have no fucking idea the dice you are rolling.”