On almost dying and realizing you're alive

This post is about a post-surgical (sinus) complication I had 10 days ago which landed me in the ER with a lot of blood loss and an emergency surgery.  I'm safe now and mostly recovered. I hope this story helps you in your life.

"I will not fear death when it comes." Have you ever thought that? Logically it makes sense. What is the point of fearing the inevitable? I will not mourn my own loss of life, nor will my consciousness exist to feel sadness for the gap I’ve left behind.

But fear is contagious.

I’d already been bleeding on and off for 4 hours. When I started bleeding again in the ER, I was gagging on blood, there was blood running down my chin from my nose, but I wasn’t afraid. I was frustrated my surgeon hadn’t come, but I knew I’d be alright. I was getting cold and shaking a little, but I knew that one can lose a lot of blood and survive. A junior doctor was there telling me I was safe because “I’m in the hospital” (Isn’t the hospital where most people die?).

When the nose pack overflowed for the 2nd time and the doc started yelling at her colleagues like a medical TV show, I saw in her eyes and heard in her voice a small doubt. “Relax, you will be fine” was partially said to me, but partially said to herself. When she spoke to the surgeon on the phone in Hindi assuming I couldn’t understand: “Aap aana padega abhi, artery se bleed ho rahi hai, bahut, rok nahi sakti hun” (You have to come, it’s a big arterial bleed, I can’t stop it), I knew there was a small, but non-zero chance this could be my last hour.

This is a very strange feeling, and one I’ve never had before. I’ve almost died because of car or motorcycle accident, a near fall, etc. but there was no time to think about the experience until after the fact.

What if you had an hour to live? What would you do with it?

Mostly I thought about my daughter, and the devastation of losing both her parents in a 2 year span at age 14. I worried about how it would mess her up psychologically. I then decided I had to believe she’d persevere - she had people. I thought about the practicalities of her life after me. I texted my laptop password to our close friends. I sent quick notes to my best friends and family. I asked my basketball friends who are well connected to try and get a senior doctor to see me faster at the hospital.

Practicalities completed, I waited, and I cried. I was afraid...

I was angry at myself for going back to work right after the last surgery, for being stressed, for staying up late, for meeting friends, for being careless. When the doctor arrived 30 min later, and they wheeled me towards the OT, all of the anxiety left my body. It had no use anymore, the doc was here, whatever happened now was up to his skill and my luck.

Suddenly, the fear went away... I did not pray or grasp to being alive. I was okay if I died. My daughter would be okay. Everyone would be okay, and I would have no regrets.

I realized for those 15min, that I have in fact lived a great life. For all the worrying, complaining and ruminating I do (and I do a lot of all 3)… my great life was right in front of me all the while: The people I’ve loved, the ones who loved me, the songs I sang, the dumb jokes, all the times I wrecked my kitchen making a feast, my cats knocking things off of tables, and coming to sit with me when I’m sick. All the times I made the game winner, the more times I blew it. But mostly the inside jokes with my daughter, seeing her enjoy a meal, learn a new lick on guitar, playing video games with me, watching people on the street, thinking the same thing and smiling at each other, the mutual feeling that someone in the world fully sees you and has got you.

All of that, is my life.

And I let it just happen, fixating on a botched project, a nasty colleague, an insecure boss, a souring relationship, a difficult family member, a betrayal of a friend, a bum knee, a little belly fat… I was “almost there” or “could have done better” or “nobody likes me” or “why am I such a fuck up”, “why can’t I just go to bed on time or do yoga”, “why haven’t I lived up to my potential?!”

That great life. It was right in front of me the whole time. And it shone a million times brighter than all the other stuff. And in that moment, it was so obvious. And maybe, it’s in front of you too.

Jacob Singh
CTO in residence at Sequoia Capital. Independent product and Engineering Coach Mediocre guitarist, singer, rock climber, point guard and baker Dedicated dad. American in New Delhi.
New Delhi