My Personal Journey

The unexpected lessons I learned from my cardiac arrest

In the early morning of Nov 7, 2020, walking alone on a beach in Maui, my heart stopped. It didn’t beat for about 4 minutes before I had the incredible luck of being found by a doctor who did CPR and saved my life. Obviously, a lot more drama happened after that, including being put into a therapeutic hypothermia coma for a couple of days and a long stay in hospital with a beautiful view of the West Maui mountains but the definitive moment of luck/grace/lightning was being found by someone who knew CPR. And because he knew CPR I not only live, I live without brain damage.

Of the people who have a cardiac arrest outside of the hospital only 1 in 10 live. That’s a 90% chance of dying. And then, if you live, a serious chance of cognitive impairment. This is such a shocking statistic it took me some time to absorb it and gave me a great deal to think about.

Because of the nature of my cardiac arrest I remember nothing. Nothing from the event itself, nothing from a week before (I don’t even remember flying to Maui) and certainly little for the week after I woke up. I can’t report on a near-death experience. I didn’t see a light, feel my soul above my body, or any of the other mystical experiences people report. A shame because that would certainly have been interesting.

No, all I can report is the huge shock I felt when I realized I had died without a plan!

I had lots of time in hospital to think about this—there wasn’t much else to do. I didn’t have the energy to watch TV or read and because of Covid couldn’t have any visitors. I was stuck in bed because I was weak from the cardiac arrest and beaten up (CPR does a number on your ribs). As I tried to make sense of what happened I realized that I try to plan everything, but I cannot plan for what I cannot predict. I didn’t predict strokes in my 40s and so did not learn how to manage stress until it was too late. I’d thought about a global pandemic only because of the books my husband loves to read but certainly never predicted it would shut down all my travel. And I didn’t predict my heart would stop without warning.

So my first tough lesson: I can’t assume I can plan what happens around me when I die. This never occurred to me! I had always assumed I would die from cancer like my Mum, or flu, or at least something where I would have a few days or months to get my business in order and give direction. I used to think about “what if” and “would I have time to visit Rome one last time once I know I am dying?” kind of thoughts, not how to take care of the family if I drop dead.

I had written a letter to my family 6 months before my heart failure because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I figured at 60 I had some chance of dying if I got it so I wrote a letter thanking them for their wonderful love and giving direction on the party to throw should I die (the important things like which champagne and red wine to serve and to play U2 all night). But in that letter I didn’t give them my passwords, how to get into our budgets and bank accounts and which professional calls need to be made in the event – which was exactly what my husband Bret actually had to deal with.

However, I did get to observe how hyper-organized my family is in a crisis and how they care for one another. Bret was with me in Maui and my 89 year old father was living in a community in Cupertino when I had my adventure on the beach. The police found Bret from a note in my pocket with our condo address on it (my Covid test form for the state of Hawaii) and the news went out across the phone lines. Within 24 hours the family had reconfigured. My sister flew from the UK to be with my father (in case the worst happened), our son flew to Maui to support his father, our daughter moved into our home to help her cousin with the dog and cat sitting since our stay would be extended. Rapid reconfiguration to make sure everyone, two-footed and four-footed, had support. I was impressed.

A clear difference from what happens on the professional front where I learned (for a second time) that I am not indispensable in any professional capacity. Yes, I knew this, but ego leads us to believe we’re valuable and would be missed. It’s very clear to me now that the people I work with who like and respect me would miss me (the person) but my wisdom/advice/experience is replaceable. My husband sent the professionally required emails since I would miss a number of board meetings; I watched the reactions colleagues had and value those which were about our relationship. But most wouldn’t miss me at all after the initial shock.

My father taught me that lesson. A colleague of his died unexpectedly one day (I must have been about 13) and my father went to the funeral. When he came home he was depressed and as he talked about the funeral the aspect that had upset him the most was not the sadness of the family, or the grief for a friend, but that as soon as the service was over his peers talked about who would replace the teammate who had died. Their focus was on themselves, and who would benefit from the change. Unless you are Steve Jobs or Elon Musk we are all professionally immediately replaceable. Makes me wonder why we work so hard.

When Bret called family and close friends to tell them what had happened (and many of these calls were before he knew what the final outcome would be) there were three types of reaction. One group’s immediate concern was for me— what did he know of my status, what was the treatment, what was the prognosis etc.? One group was concerned for him and our (adult) children—what could s/he do to help Bret, what did he need? And the third group was concern for themselves—what did it mean for them? All are very fair reactions. I do not judge that one is better than another but it is a humbling lesson to see and process why people react differently. 

And so to Freddie Mercury’s lesson: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see. Nothing really matters – nothing really matters to me.” 

Everything I think, or say, or do is unimportant and trivial in the grand scheme of the cosmos. The philosopher Epicurus had it right in ~300BC. Life is to be enjoyed with our friends, death is not to be feared and the Gods have no interest in humans at all. We are simply made up of atoms and once we die we are gone so what matters is how we live. 

I am a deist and don’t believe in life after death and so all I have, anything of importance is right now with the people whom I love and who love me, in the places I love and continuing to do what I can to improve the lives of the people around me. Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy my work. I thrive on the intellectual challenge and want to serve my community; I want to continue to support my family. But work has to be seen in context, as a necessary part of life to make a living; I am finally learning my job is not my purpose.

But maybe the biggest surprise for me is that I have discovered I can be happy simply being quiet. I have spent my whole life on the move. Working, traveling, parenting, gardening, housekeeping but now that I need to stay still for a few months I am learning a new way of being. My heart has an electrical problem not a plumbing problem so the cure is rest and a defibrillator in my chest. I now relish the pleasure of dogs sitting at my feet in front of the fire who are happy to have me home all day, walking them a little further every day. Reading, and reading some more. Cooking. Becoming at peace with the silence, although I do miss being with my friends. The pandemic makes it easier to accept because there is nothing else I can do but instead of stressing against it I am learning how to relax into it for the very first time.

Not that I am not longing to travel and be on the go again. I am. I am desperately longing to get back on a plane, put on my Birkenstocks and walked the ancient streets. I will see Rome again before I die.

Photo: Orvieto cathedral © 2019 Penny Herscher