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Lessons Learned from Almost Dying: A Personal Journey

Bob Livingstone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCS 11087) in private practice for 22 years in San Francisco, California. He holds a Masters Degree ...Read More

It was April 15, 2009 and I was outside running my normal five mile run. I had recently experienced several health issues that were deeply disturbing to me. During the promising time of President Obama’s inauguration, I had the H-pylori stomach virus. This illness made me feel like rats were fighting for control of my stomach lining. I later developed g.e.r.d.s which is an advanced form of heartburn from this stomach thing and the antibiotics I took to rid myself of the H-pylori.

In any case, I was feeling much better and was feeling the euphoric high of running and the return of the sense of well being that had been lost for a while. I was listening to Leela James’s version of I Want to Know What Love is when suddenly I found myself laying on the ground in front of the student union at San Francisco State.

Right before I fainted, I felt a sharp jolt around my heart. I was now lying on the grass wondering what the hell was going on now. I immediately rose up and walked back to my apartment a couple miles away. I was in a state of shock and awe. I didn’t know what to do and didn’t know if I should do anything.

I sat down in front of the computer and researched heartburn and fainting on the internet. Of course I found what I was looking for (you can always find “facts” to line up with your theories when researching the World Wide Web). I discovered that you can pass out from heartburn. I was relieved at least temporarily and I didn’t want to return to the doctor’s office. I was truly sick of the whole illness process which included waiting rooms, indifferent medical personnel and feeling like a number in a vast system of greed.

During the rest of the day, I alternated between minimizing my fears about feeling faint almost every time I stood up and moving to panic that something was really wrong with me. By the time the evening came, the near fainting feeling had completely diminished and I felt that I was out of the woods. I found myself going against the grain of my character trait of being forthright about all that was going on in my body, mind and soul by being silent about this event. I didn’t even tell my wife which was totally weird for me. I was in a state of abject denial and I used this denial to ward off all the fear that was underneath this numbness.

I tried to run the next day and couldn’t jog ten feet without feeling totally exhausted and ready to pass out. I finally went to the large HMO down the peninsula and met with the doctor who was filling in for my primary care physician. I took an immediate dislike to her, but I eventually told her the truth of my passing out a week previous.

She did a couple of heart tests and said that I was OK and should go home. She scheduled more tests for later and I told her that I was not up to doing them; that it was very difficult to walk from my car to her office.

She sent me home without any feeling of comfort or resolve. She did call me later that day to say, “By the way, I called the Department of Motor Vehicles and told them you passed out. They will be suspending your license.”

On April 29, 2009, my wife drove me to the emergency room. The nurse administered a blood pressure test and could get no reading. She thought the equipment had failed. My heart rate was 24(normal heart rate is 80-100 beats per minute). The doctor told me that if I hadn’t come to the ER that day, I may have died before May began. The cardiologist informed me that running had saved my life; that most people would die with a heart rate that low, but since I was in such good physical shape, I survived. A heart pacemaker was installed May 1 and my life continued.


It is now three years later and I am running and listening to the same song before I fainted; Leela James’s version of I Want to Know What Love is and I look at the grassy area where I had passed out and wonder, “What happened to me that day?” “Did I actually die for a fraction of time?” “Where did I go?” “Why am I still here?”

Grieving for the loss of a loved one is a very difficult challenge. Mourning the near death of yourself is a journey without any direction to follow. It can also be a lonely one no matter how much support you have because there is so much fear that comes up. I was in a relentless, frightened state which created scary, hopeless thoughts. These constant cognitions prevented me from feeling lasting connections with others. For a long time after the electrical system of my heart died, I feared that every ache or pain would lead to a chronic, unforgiving, traumatic illness.

I feel the tears falling from my eyes and they burn like hot lava. I run past the grassy area where I passed out and suddenly find the need to lie down in the wet grass and re-experience this trauma. The grass is wet and the San Francisco State student look at me with askance, but in this town, folks are used to ignoring strange behavior.

I rose up and resumed my run and recalled how powerless I felt when I passed out. Being close to death before I was ready for it; made me feel that life was totally out of control. I realize that the questions about my mortality and what actually happened to me may never be answered. How can I really know what death is and its true meaning while I am still very much alive? I am ok with this uncertainty for once.

I am running at a nice pace and listening to Bobby Womack’s If You Think You’re Lonely Now. I resonate with the stark sadness of feeling all alone and the feeling that nothing good will ever happen again. The combination of his soulful voice and his story of what it will be like to be totally isolated are experienced throughout my whole body.

The sky is clearing from the fog that we usually get in the summer and the air is warming up as Lauryn Hill’s To Zion comes through the headphones. She is celebrating the life of her son and telling the world what he means to her. I ask myself, “Why does this song make me feel so emotional, vulnerable and empowered?” I answer, “This song makes me feel like I have suddenly been reborn. I am transitioning from being in my own private, torturous hell to one of rising above my fears.”

I then ask myself as my feet are pounding the pavement at a pretty good clip, “Why has it taken so long to work through all this fear?” I breathed deeply as I answered, “Because I almost died and that frightened me to the core. It takes a long time to work through that kind of personal devastation and it is ok to take my time recovering.”

My new favorite song Garland Jeffrey’s The Beautiful Truth blasts through my ears to the place inside where the music becomes truly magical. I continue to run past the place where I fell. Garland sings about his own mortality in this song and I come up with my own beautiful truths: My number hasn’t been called yet, so I’m blessed to be here. I would have missed so much love and meaningful moments if I did die three years ago. I am a healer, but am not close to completing my work here yet. I want to reach more people with my words and want to know that I have touched them in some way. If I would have died, I would have missed out on a summer trip to Chicago with my family and friends who are really family. I would have missed the continual laughter and being in the moment.

Yes, I am in the present now and suddenly notice that right next to the spot where I fell are these gorgeous purple flowers radiated by the sun that flows through me now. Living in the present is the ultimate beautiful truth.

Lesson Learned from Almost Dying

  • If you have a health crisis, don’t allow your denial to prevent you from talking with others. I have forgiven myself for stepping into denial, but being silent was not a wise move here. If I talked with my wife or others close to me about fainting, they may have read me the riot act and I would have seen the doctor sooner.
  • While you are recovering from almost dying, remind yourself that it is normal to worry about becoming critically ill. After all, you came close to a final exit and you don’t want this to reoccur. Don’t beat yourself up about this. Tell yourself that you will eventually find a way to work through the fear and pain.
  • Ask yourself emotional pain questions and answer them. You’ll be amazed how much healing will take place.
  • Exercise regularly, eat right and get enough sleep.
  • Talk to others about your fears, but try not to have your worries be the central focus of every conversation. You will wear out your friends and loved ones if you do so.
  • If it all becomes too much, consider individual psychotherapy and if you aren’t comfortable with that therapist, keep searching until you find one that you feel safe with and offers helpful insight into your problems.
  • Try to live in the present moment. If you do so, there will be less space for worrying about the future or dwelling about the past.
Keep Reading By Author Bob Livingstone, LCSW
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