When we die, where do we go?
“You need open heart surgery, during which your heart will be stopped, and you’ll be put on life support.” Those were the words I heard just 2 weeks before my 52nd birthday.
Needless to say, I was shocked.
Four months earlier, with no symptoms of heart disease, I had gotten a calcium score test (because of high cholesterol) which indicated possible blockage in my arteries. While my doctor wasn’t too concerned, she did refer me to a cardiologist who ordered a stress echocardiogram. Even though I got through the full 20 minutes on the treadmill without any symptoms, the test showed an area of my heart that wasn’t moving much. So, I was referred for an angiogram.
Much to our surprise, the angiogram showed almost total blockage of my Left Anterior Descending artery, as well as 2 other arteries. Triple bypass was really the only option.
But, life support?
Without even considering the 2% chance that I would not survive the surgery, and even if everything went according to plan, I was still going to be as close to death as one could be. No heartbeat. Not breathing on my own. Not conscious.
How do you prepare for an experience like that?
I decided to put my complete trust in the medical team, and did not worry at all about the outcome. This was in someone else’s hands now.
Rather than worry, I thought about where I would “go” during the surgery. I thought about my whole life, and remembered those few times when I felt a deep sense of “knowing”. Like the time I looked up in the sky at age 15, and felt a deep sense of joy and gratitude. Or the time that I stood in a grove of trees, marveling at the golden sun streaming through the leaves. Or the time that I ran up a hill to meet a flock of swifts that darted around my head in the afternoon sun. Beautiful moments from a beautiful life. I felt gratitude and peace. And as much as I really didn’t want to go through this, I was ready.
On the day of surgery, I was excited, but calm. I had one last photo taken of me right before I went into the OR, and you can see the joy on my face. I was excited about this journey. I walked into the Operating Room, lay down on the operating table, put in my earbuds with some calming music, and fell asleep. Soon, under general anesthesia, my chest was opened and my heart clamped off. With no heartbeat, my blood was pumped out of my body through a machine that pumped it back in. I was also no longer breathing on my own. I had left on my journey.
17 hours later, I woke up in the ICU, at first thinking that I was back home. The room looked all white, and out of focus. I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. As I continued to regain consciousness, I remembered that I was in the hospital, and that I had had surgery.
I was back! I had survived!
The surgery had gone very smoothly, and my initial recovery was so good that I was released from the hospital after only 4 days.
During the first 12 weeks of recovery, I gradually got back my mobility and my independence, eventually taking walks through the park near my home, and feeling grateful for having survived all this.
Being a lifelong musician and composer, I also felt inspired to start writing music about this experience. About the “beacon” of light that guided me through the dark. About the “forgotten places” of my early childhood that I suddenly remembered in vivid detail. And about all of those beautiful moments of “knowing”. The music poured out of me, effortlessly.
A year later, I’ve been given a second chance at life, and I’ve finished a full-length album of instrumental music. So, where did I go?
I call it “the front porch of heaven” – a safe, comfortable place where you can view your life from a distance before returning to it. It’s more of a spiritual place than a physical one, and I’m really happy that I got to visit.
But I’m even happier to be back.
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