Socrates said that a philosopher is someone who spends his life preparing for death. 10 years ago I found myself in the ER about to undergo an operation that I likely wouldn't survive. The operation was to commence in 5 minutes.
Tell me, if I gave you five minutes to live, would that be enough time? Would all your affairs be in order? Would you be ready to go? If not, read on...
AT FIRST, IT WAS JUST REALLY HARD TO BREATHE
So 10 years ago, I was 30 years old, living in NYC. Screenwriting (or trying to), engaged to a beautiful Russian woman (my best friend, my "soulmate", the woman I was convinced I was going to spend the rest of my life with, etc etc--suffice to say, that one didn't work out...), and generally living it up. I wasn't a huge party guy at the time, I went out and drank a few times a week, smoked cigarettes every now and then (I didn't usually smoke during my non-party days, I was one of those guys who only started smoking after the second martini, and then, I'd smoke like half a pack over the course of one night of drinking). Was a little overweight but nothing major, all in all, my health was pretty good.
And then one day I noticed: it was becoming a little hard to breathe.
At first I thought it was a cold, some sort of "virus" I'd picked up somewhere... Living in NYC you get used to getting sick a lot (particularly if you're out partying a few nights a week), it's such a densely populated city that it's like: one person gets sick, and 10 seconds later everyone else has it. So for me this was nothing new, figured my shortness of breath was nothing to worry about, and it would eventually go away. No biggie.
A month later: and I still have it. And it's getting bad. Like now it's getting tough to walk down the street. I walk a block, and then I have to rest for a moment, get my breath back. Another block, another rest. Breathing deeply is difficult, painful. It feels like there's some kind of blockage in my chest. But still, I think, how bad could this be? I'm 30, I can't be SICK. "SICK" is for old people, not young guys like me who've never been seriously ill a day in their lives.
Still, I splurge and see a few doctors. Didn't have health insurance at the time (another huge no-no, I'll get to that in a bit), couldn't afford it. Wasn't working full time (I was a freelance writer, or at least I was trying to be, trying to get a script sold, and a movie made), and buying off-the-shelf health insurance was an expensive proposition: $900 a month was the cheapest I could find, $1,100 a month if I wanted prescription meds tossed into the deal. Couldn't afford the $900 a month, was reasonably healthy anyway so figured I didn't need it, crossed my fingers that I wouldn't end up in the ER one day (something else I'll get to in a sec), and that was that.
So no health insurance, went to visit a few doctors, asked about my difficulty in breathing, every single doctor I saw said "Don't know, sorry, nothing to tell you, all our tests say you're fine, that'll be a few hundred bucks, thanks." (Or, "That'll be two grand, thanks.") All in all I probably saw half a dozen doctors over the course of a few weeks, paid them all out of pocket (several thousand dollars total, might have been more actually, maybe $10K+?), all for them to run a few tests, take a few EKGs, and tell me "Nah, you're fine, it's all in your head, walk it off, don't worry about it." Hell, I had the top pulmonologist in NYC tell me (no joke): "You have Adult Onset Asthma." "What's that?" I asked. "It kinda sounds like you're making that up. Like right now." "Nope" he said, "It's a VIRUS." (I later learned "virus" is doctor speak for "We don't know...") He told me: "Just grit your teeth and get through it, it's all in your head. You'll be fine."
Meanwhile my breathing continued to get worse. Getting up and crossing the room became difficult. And then, one day, I woke up, got out of bed, and immediately collapsed. My airway had shut off completely. I couldn't breathe. AT ALL. There was just no way to get air in.
I was going to die.
The room blacked out, I lost consciousness--and came to maybe a minute later. Still alive, lying on the floor, wheezing ever so slightly. (The real kicker: I'd set my laptop alarm to play a random song from my iTunes to wake me up, the song that was currently playing was from the soundtrack to the movie THE FOUNTAIN--this particular track was actually the "death" song in the movie, so I thought, when I collapsed, how hilarious, how totally apropos: I was actually gonna fucking die with THE FOUNTAIN soundtrack playing in the background...)
So a few minutes later I somehow, extremely carefully, dragged myself off the floor. Made it to the front room. Sat on the couch. Flipped on the TV. Wondered what to do. Doctors were out (they couldn't do anything anyway), should I go to the hospital? No health insurance, ER visit would be $30K, $40K, maybe $50K easy. Just to walk in the door. Didn't exactly have $50,000 dollars lying around--what should I do? Just sit here and wait? Was I going to collapse again? Was I going to die without even realizing it?
A few hours later (and with no real movement on my part, I was still on the couch), my doorbell rang and one of my neighbors stood there, a publicist who reps a lot of celebrity clients and makes it her business to be loud, in charge, and MAKE SURE SHE IS HEARD. She took one look at me and said "We're going to the ER. Now. NOW." I asked her what was going on, she said her sister was a doctor, she'd described my symptoms to her, and sis had told her I had a blood clot. A bad one. Somehow all the doctors had missed it. Her sister told her: "If you don't get him to the ER IMMEDIATELY he's going to die. And it's gonna be your fault. You're gonna have blood on your hands."
I sighed. Well damn, I guess we were going to the ER. And I was about to be a whole lot poorer.
FIVE MINUTES TO LIVE
So we skip the ambulance (since that would have actually taken longer), my friend hails a cab, we get one right away, and she proceeds to scream at the poor cabbie "GET THIS MAN TO A HOSPITAL!! NOW!!! NOWNOWNOW!!!!" (I, for my part, was half sitting half lying in the back seat, kind of dazed and in and out of consciousness.) We have the cabbie pull up to the little parking lot / loading bay the ambulances use, of course everyone there is like What the fuck do you think you're doing, and then my friend, God bless her, gets out, and proceeds to scream her way through the crowd and right up to the front of the line, where she makes it clear that if they don't see me RIGHT NOW, I might not make it.
I still wasn't too sure about all this, but to the hospital's credit (I was at NYU), one of the doctors took one look at me and was like "Yeah, we need to get him back here right away." So back I went, clothes off, hospital gown on, into the hospital bed, and there I sat in my little curtained cubicle in the ER while a few tests were run. This time, specifically looking at my blood clot situation.
This is where it gets interesting.
A team of doctors descends upon me then, maybe like 5 docs, men and women, all surgeons. They can't believe what they're seeing: they've never seen a case of blood clotting this advanced in the sum total of all their medical careers. They can't believe I'm still alive, still breathing. But one thing is clear, they need to operate. NOW. (The mood is very grim.) I tell them I don't have health insurance, what kind of operation are they talking about? How much will it cost? One of the female docs looks at me and says "We're cracking your chest open. I don't know how much it'll cost. $3 million? $5 million? I have no idea. Does it matter?" I'm a little shocked to hear these numbers but of course at that point I'm also feeling kind of unshockable, so I say (half joking) "You know I don't know if I have that much money on me..." She looks me dead in the eyes and says "Well you don't have to have the operation, you don't have to pay. You can just die instead."
Let it not be said they didn't offer me a choice...
So the doctors are looking over my tests, and talking / muttering amongst themselves, when suddenly the head guy pulls the "team" away to the far side of the ER (well out of earshot). I figure they're just talking about their gameplan for the surgery (which I'm sure they were), my friend (the one who brought me in) goes with them (kind of hovering nearby), and then a few minutes later, she comes back and stands near my bed. Pulls the curtain shut, we're alone. (Doctors still talking amongst themselves on the other side of the very large room.)
My friend says, quietly (and this is the first time I'd ever heard her say anything quietly in the entire time I'd known her): "Is there anyone you need to call?"
I'm a little slow on the uptake, so I say: "Call? What do you mean, call? Why? Who should I call?"
She looks at me a long moment and then says, again (slowly, clearly): "IS THERE ANYONE YOU NEED TO CALL. IN YOUR LIFE. IS THERE ANYONE YOU NEED TO CALL."
Me (still not getting it): "Well, I mean, I guess I should let some people know I'm here, at some p--"
She cuts me off: "I heard the doctors talking. They're gonna operate, but they don't think you're gonna make it." (pause) "They're gonna start in like five minutes. So anything you wanna do for the rest of your life, you have five minutes to do it." And then she hands me her phone.
NOT THE FIRST TIME I'VE BEEN CLOSE TO DEATH
You know, "five minutes to live" is an interesting situation to find yourself in, particularly when it's not GUARANTEED you're going to die, just likely. What do you? What CAN you do, from a hospital bed? Make a few calls? Who do you call? What do you say?
It's funny too because this actually wasn't the first time that I'd been close to the death process. When I was 16, and a freshman in college (I went off to college 2 years early), we had a school shooting (one of the first, I believe, pre-Columbine): a sophomore armed with an assault rifle ran through campus and shot at everything and everyone in his path. He killed a few people, critically wounded several more. One of the people he shot (but did not kill) was a good friend of mine, who took a bullet right in front of me (and lost much of his legs in the process). I'd never been shot at before, and it's quite a surreal, out of body experience: you actually feel like you're in a movie. Even though you're technically close to death, even though you see your friend get hit right in front of you, you still think, in the back of your mind, "I can't get shot, I'm the star of this movie, the hero, and the hero never dies." Thankfully I didn't get shot, and the shooter was eventually apprehended (though another friend of ours elsewhere on campus was shot in the chest and, unfortunately, didn't make it).
Another time: riding in the passenger seat of a car, a friend of mine is driving--he, unbeknownst to me, has gobbled all sorts of hallucinogens for the journey. We're on a winding mountain road. He starts accelerating: 70mph. 80. 90. It takes me a moment to realize what's going on (he's having some kind of terrible reaction to whatever he took), and then, looking forward, I see a sharp turn up ahead, like a 90 degree turn to the left, and a steep drop off directly in front of us. A cliff. We're screaming towards a cliff, and I realize: oh my God, we can't possibly make that turn at this speed. We're going off the cliff. We're going to die. I knew, KNEW, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I had about 2 seconds to live and that was it.
And you know what, it was the biggest RELIEF, the greatest peace, the greatest HAPPINESS, I've ever known (I was 20 when this happened). All that angst, all those tough moments in my life, all that struggle, and suddenly faced with death, I was like "That's it?? All that fuss, and that's it...??!! That wasn't so bad!!" I almost wanted to laugh. And then off the cliff we went, and the rest is blackness.
Woke up in the ER a little while later: broken neck. And I gotta say, when I came to, I was actually a little disappointed. A LOT disappointed, in fact. Like: damn, I was all ready to go, ready to spring into the void, ready to see what's next. Instead: I was dragged back down to this fucking place. The real world. Oh well. Sometimes God / spirit / the universe / pure random chance has other plans...
WHAT TO DO WITH THOSE FIVE MINUTES
So yeah, the whole "death" thing wasn't totally unknown to me, what was new, and what was really fucking with my head there, in the ER, at 30, with 5 minutes to go (tick ticking away), was: OK, I probably have just a little bit of life left here, how do I spend the few remaining minutes I have left? It's not like the shooting thing, where I didn't really believe I was gonna got shot and killed (even though others around me did). And it wasn't like the car accident, where I "knew" I was absolutely going to die (even though I didn't), and I only had 2 seconds. This was like the universe was telling me: OK bro, this is it, THIS IS WHERE WE SEE WHO YOU REALLY ARE, WHAT YOU'RE REALLY MADE OF. WHAT ARE YOUR PRIORITIES? WHO OR WHAT DO YOU HOLD MOST DEAR? 5 minutes. And then we put you under for a surgery that all the best doctors at NYU seem to think you probably won't survive.
By this time a second friend had come by, so now I had two people, the publicist and another girl (my on again off again fuck buddy, actually), a teacher and opera singer I'd known for a little while and who'd been trying to boyfriend me up, I wasn't really feeling her in quite that way but I still thought of her as one of my closest friends (who I had sex with occasionally...).
So here's what I did:
I mentioned I was a screenwriter, yes? Well, for about the previous 4 years I'd been working on ONE script, my big masterpiece, my "supreme work of art", that one piece of writing that said everything I'd wanted to say in the world... I probably killed about 5,000 hours putting it together, it was THE single thing in the world that I was most proud of, by far, I had only recently just finished it and we were right then in the process of trying to raise money to get the thing made, and I'll be damned if I was gonna die without my baby going out into the world and at least getting read, if not financed and ultimately produced (only a few friends had it read by then, the industry by and large didn't know about it yet).
So, two things:
I told both friends, right there by my bedside, everything I could about the script: where it was located on my computer's hard drive, any passwords they'd need to get to it, and then, most importantly, WHO TO GIVE IT TO IF ANYTHING HAPPENED TO ME. A number of industry contacts of mine needed to read this thing, and it was EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to me that I not die and just have it lost on my hard drive forever.
And then, secondly:
I called (and then texted) my then fiancee (who was currently over in Russia) and told her what was up (she knew I'd been having trouble breathing, so this wasn't all totally new to her): that I was about to be wheeled into surgery, that I might not make it, and that she should call me immediately, we needed to talk ASAP. (She DID call me, in fact, almost a week later... Like I said: didn't work out with that one...)
And that was it, I was out of time. With five minutes to go, I had my script, my big work of art, all taken care of. If I died, at least the work wouldn't be lost, and all the important people, the people necessary to getting the thing made (or at least looked at), they'd all be notified, they'd all get a copy. The work would have a shot at continuing on, living on, past my lifespan.
And I thought: huh, of all things I could have done, and all the people I could have called, and all the things I could have said, in five minutes, how interesting, for me, that the bulk of that time got spent taking care of the first and only screenplay I'd ever written.
OF COURSE I DIDN'T DIE, BUT...
So yeah, it was touch and go for a while there. No operation happened (thank God), right as they were wheeling me in another guy came down, a lab tech with a monitor (think it was an Ultrasound), they ran some more tests, and the lab tech guy was like "Look, let's see how much stress there is on the heart before we crack this guy's chest open." Head doctor: "If there's moderate to high stress, we're operating." Lab tech: "Hold on..." (checks results) "Looks like moderate stress." Head doctor (getting pissed, obviously wants to operate): "Well is it MODERATE STRESS or MODERATE TO HIGH STRESS??" Lab tech: "I'd say moderate."
And then the "team" was like well shit, maybe we have to wait a few hours then. The docs confer again. Half of them still want to operate anyway, even though, hilariously, they still don't think I'll make it. (Remember gents, doctors are like athletes, they get pumped up, and THEY ALL WANT TIME ON THE PLAYING FIELD. I can actually smell the adrenaline coming off them from like 10 feet away. They're anxious, ready to go. Like, let's crack this guy open already. I wanna try out this new procedure etc.)
After some more conferring they come back: they're going to put me on Heparin (a blood thinner) for a few hours, see if that does anything. If I improve, they'll re-evaluate. If I stay the same or get worse (most likely scenario), they're operating whether I like it or not. So I've been granted a reprieve. For now.
INTO INTENSIVE CARE
So I'm wheeled into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), where I stay for 10 days. In and out of consciousness. On the second day, my mother shows up, materializes next to my bed. "What are you doing here?" I ask. "I told them not call you." (We're not terribly close, and the truth is I didn't want them to bother her if I WAS going to make it, and if I wasn't, I figured they'd contact her anyway.) My mother: "Yes, well, they called me. Said I had to come and collect the body." Me: "Well, I'm still here." Her: "Yep. I guess you are." And that was the extent of our conversation. (Like I said: not a close family, mine.)
Friends visited, other patients came and left. A rabbi was next to me for a bit, he heard my story and said "God loves you!! God must have big plans for you!!" I smiled and said "Yeah, I guess so..."
So here's the big question (or at least the beginning thereof, and I want you all to really think about this): what are you working on right now? A novel? Screenplay? Short story collection? Song? Album? Video game? App?
Think about how much of your life, right now, is physical, versus how much is digital.
All those photos you've taken over the years.
All that writing you've done.
All your emails (most of which probably aren't important, but maybe some are).
That app you're coding.
That business plan you're sketching out.
All that digital STUFF, your entire digital life (which, let's face it, is almost certainly everything IMPORTANT in your life, far more important than the few physical knick knacks you've accumulated over the years), what's going to happen to it all when you die? If I gave you five minutes, or hell, if I gave you 2 seconds, would you be ready to go? Are all your affairs in order? Or would you need more time to work things out? Make sure that all your digital stuff, your unfinished novel etc, was all set to go to the right people when you die?
Many of us--in fact, no, let's face it, ALL OF US--we all think we're gonna die at some distant point in the far future. If you're a guy and you're reading this, and if you're around my age (40), then you're probably thinking you're going to die at 86, in bed, surrounded by friends and loved ones, with PLENTY OF ADVANCE NOTICE. "I got 1 year to live! I got 6 months to live!" Whatever. Terminal cancer, you have a little time to get things together, put your house in order, etc.
Well sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings here everyone, BUT THIS IS NOT HOW IT WORKS. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE MUCH SOONER THAN YOU THINK, AND CHANCES ARE, THERE WILL BE NO FOREWARNING AT ALL, YOU WILL SIMPLY DIE INSTANTLY, BEFORE YOU EVEN REALIZE WHAT HAS HAPPENED, AND THAT WILL BE THAT.
And then: either you were smart, planned ahead, and made provisions, such that your finished but unpublished novel (or whatever) gets taken off your hard drive and passed onto your best friend, or you were NOT smart, did NOT make provisions, and all that beautiful work you created over the course of your life will be lost forever. Hard drive wiped, computer dumped.
As I said up above: a philosopher is someone who spends his life preparing for death. Let me amend that now: A MAN IS SOMEONE WHO SPENDS HIS LIFE PREPARING FOR DEATH. I've had a number of near death experiences now, I even spent 10 years looking into the phenomenon, traveling the world, visiting various thinktanks and research centers etc, talking with other people who've had NDEs (near death experiences). And you know who they all were? Soldiers who were shot in the field (and then, miraculously, recovered), and random middle-aged men who had heart attacks from out of nowhere. One guy almost drowned. Another had complications from what was supposed to be a routine surgery. BUT IN EVERY CASE: THERE WAS NO WARNING AT ALL. Just: "OhmyGodFUCKI'mdying!!" And then that was it. And the final thought everyone has is always, ALWAYS: "Wait! I'm not ready!! WAITWAITWAIT!! I'M NOT READY!!!!!!"
Gentlemen, you must see to your "house", to your digital life, to your art, to everything you've made and everything you hold dear. So that you ARE ready. Set up a system so that, if and when the time comes (and it will), you know that your works are taken care of, and will be passed onto your best friend (or whomever). That novel, that album, whatever it is, don't let it get lost should anything happen to you.
And for the love of God and all that is holy: if you live in America, GET FUCKING HEALTH INSURANCE. My hospital bill: $85,000. (Just for renting the bed and a little Heparin.) And I consider that a bargain. If they'd operated, it would have been millions. Take care of your health (obviously), but even if you are young and healthy GET HEALTH INSURANCE ANYWAY. It could very well save you a fortune down the line.
Any similar experiences, I'd love to hear about them in the comments. Share away.