I’m now a member of the flat-line club.
On Tuesday I went for my annual physical. I was feeling pretty good. I even told my doctor that I had been feeling better this year than I could remember for a long time.
After I got done with the doctor, the nurse came in to draw a vile of blood. They do that every year. Cholesterol check. She got me leaned back on the exam table and poked me once inside my elbow. She said she got the vein, but nothing was coming. So she tried again on the back of my hand.
“How ya doing?” she asked.
“Ok, I guess,” I said. I don’t like needles. Never have.
“Well, you can get a cup of coffee in the waiting room after we’re done here,” she said.
That’s the last thing I remember. The next thing I know I open my eyes and the doctor is leaning over me shouting, “Come back, Caspar. Come back.” I had a little ringing in my ears. I felt as if I’d had a really great power nap.
“What?” I said. “Did you get any blood?”
“Never mind about that,” she said. And she put an oxygen mask over my face.
“What?” I said.
“You just bought yourself a ride to the hospital,” she said. “The ambulance is on its way.”
As it turns out, I’d stopped breathing. They couldn’t get a pulse for some 30 seconds. The doctor had been doing CPR on me the whole while I thought I was taking a nap.
The paramedics came and hooked me up to an EKG. One of them poked my finger to get a blood sugar reading.
“You know,” I said to her, “this whole thing started when they tried to get blood out of me.”
My heart rhythm was a little out of whack. “High S-T wave,” they said. They put me in the ambulance and took me to a hospital in Schenectady.
On the way the paramedic tried to start an IV line, but couldn’t get the needle into a vein. After two attempts, he quit trying.
“I’d better not stick you too many times, or they won’t have anything to work with when we get to the hospital,” he said.
It was fine by me.
When we got to the hospital they took another EKG and then hooked me up to a heart monitor in the ER and watched me for three hours. The EKG showed no damage and a perfectly healthy sinus rhythm.
“How do you feel?” the ER doctor said.
“Hungry,” I said. I’d been fasting since the night before for the blood test.
“Okay,” he said. “You seem to be doing alright, so we won’t poke any more needles in you unless we have to.”
The RN brought me a chicken salad sandwich, a cup of macaroni salad and a cup of sliced peaches. Best hospital lunch I ever ate.
After three hours wired to the heart monitor, they decided I was going to be alright. They released me. Brooke and Silas picked me up and drove me back to the doctor’s office in Saratoga where I’d left my car. I drove the rest of the way home. I’ve been fine ever since.
On the one hand, depending on how you define being dead, I’d been dead earlier that afternoon. On the other hand, I was perfectly fine. And except for a sore arm where they’d done all their needling, and a sore chest where the doctor had been doing chest compressions, I’ve been fine since. It was like I went to a hospital three hours from home to have a chicken salad sandwich.
Dying was easier than I thought it would be. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I didn’t see any bright light at the end of a tunnel. Nor did I see the flames of hell. I felt no pain. I bring no great wisdom back from beyond the grave.
Only, having been through it, I don’t feel any fear of death any more. Not that I ever did dwell on it very much, but when I did I always thought how bad and painful an ordeal it would be to die. I suppose there are plenty of more painful ways to go. But the actual being gone part of it wasn’t anything at all. So, bring it! I don’t care. I’m not afraid to die.
At the same time, at least for the moment, I’m much more aware of how randomly we live and that death really can come any moment when you’re not expecting it. I never thought when I left the house on Tuesday morning that I might not ever come home. But there it was. Even if I did come home. Had I not still been in the doctor’s exam room when it happened, I probably wouldn’t have. So I’m not taking life for granted. Not for now.
Not being afraid to die, strangely enough, makes one much more free to live. If there’s anything I’ve gotten out of being a member of the flat-line club (besides a $3,500 copay for a chicken salad sandwich) that’s it.
I sent my doctor a bouquet of flowers yesterday with a note: “Thanks for saving my life. And for the flu shot.”