Photo by Cosmin Gurau at Unsplash

My Two Diametrically Opposed Near-Death Experiences

What I Learned When Faced With The Prospect of Dying Sooner Rather than Later

On Aging
On Aging
Nov 16 · 9 min read

There were two times in which I was near death. Both involved hospital stays, and each brought opposing ideas about dying. The first happened when I was 31. The second was about three years later at the age of 34. Since then, I’ve had a few more debilitating and serious hospital stays but none as harrowing as those two near-death experiences in my early thirties.

All these experiences have taught me to value and appreciate life. At the same time, I still harbor anxiety knowing that life will come to a close some time in the unknowable future.

First Near-Death Experience — Acceptance
My first near-death experience started one eerie morning when I felt a sharp pain in my side so severe that I could not even get out of bed. I was living alone at the time and was able to make a call to my neighbor. He came right over and helped me into his car for a ride to the nearest emergency room. I was quickly x-rayed and placed in a waiting room. A young doctor came in and said in a gravely serious tone, “You have a mass near your lung the size of a grapefruit, and we don’t know what it is. We need to admit you for further examination.”

I was placed in a room on the oncology floor among very sick patients. I was confused and deeply worried. The nurses treating me had deep, empathetic concern on their faces and in their voices. My questions to them were met with vague answers like “the doctor will be in to see you later to explain everything.”

In those days, more than 30 years ago, nurses and doctors were not roaming around hospital rooms with computers on carts. Medical records were held in a plastic pocket folder attached to the door of a patient’s room. The nurses were pulling my records out and they were not saying anything about the contents. That troubled me greatly.

Despite all this confusion, I was slowly starting to feel better; I assume a result of the medication I may have been given. Once the coast was clear, I forced myself to get up from my hospital bed in order to check out the charts. “Cancer. Patient May Need to Vent” gazed back at me. I was shocked and dismayed. I then went out into the hallway and saw that this oncology floor was filled with sadness. A nurse spotted me and shooed me back to my room.

“So this is it,” I said to myself. “What do I do now? Should I call my parents?” I decided not to, lying there in my hospital bed waiting for what would come next, which turned out to be a painful biopsy taken with an elongated slender tube-like device that pierced into the middle of my back and removed a tiny piece of something, I don’t know what. Being the weekend, however, the biopsy results would not be ready for a few days. So, I was forced to stay in a hospital bed, ruminating about what surely seemed like a race toward my eventual demise.

Making matters seem even more foreboding, a kind priest came to visit with me, asking me if there was anything I’d like to get off my chest. Surely, my fate was sealed. The priest said some prayers over me. I sensed from my Catholic upbringing that this was a shortened version of “Extreme Unction,” a sacred sacrament given to the dying. So, there I lay, stewing in distress and utter confusion. Before long, and perhaps out of the extreme stress I was feeling, or the medication I was given, I collapsed into a very deep sleep.

When I awoke several hours later, I felt this level of extreme mental calmness and peace like I had never before experienced. A wave of complete and utter calm seem to flow over my entire being. “No worries, everything is okay, there is no need to be fearful or anxious, just relax and live in this moment of peace that has engulfed you.” Those were my thoughts — a complete turnaround from what I was feeling earlier.

I felt that the prospect of death was one in which all the suffering would disappear. How great is that?

I was alone. There really wasn’t anyone in my life at the time who would have made the trip to sit by my side. That calming voice inside me, however, made me feel that I was actually not alone — that there was some guardian angel outside of myself helping me deal with this. In short, I was ready to die with dignity, accepting of my fate and with my spirituality at ease. I was not afraid.

By now, the pain had subsided considerably. I was feeling pretty good, watching Sunday football. The next morning, the results of my biopsy came back. “You’re healed,” said the doctor under my care. “You have what is known as ‘eosinophilic granuloma.’ You’re not gonna die.”

Another name for this strange and rare disease is Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH), which has various levels of severity, and I had a fairly mild case. I won’t go into the complex medical details of this other than to say that the doctor told me I was a “zebra case.” It means that you hear a herd of horses stampeding in the distance, but when they arrive within view, they are zebras instead of horses.

I was released from the hospital and given regularly scheduled radiation treatments and medication over a period of a month or two (can’t remember exactly how long), resulting in a complete recovery. Indeed, it truly felt as if a guardian angel had come to my aid.

Second Near-Death Experience — Fear and Loathing
The second brush with death came three years later, shortly after meeting the woman who would become my wife. This one was more dramatic, painful, and scary. We were living in Las Vegas at the time, and we took a drive to the California coast for the weekend to attend the Sawdust Art Festival in Newport Beach. This was my first serious weekend date in many years, and we both could not be happier.

Again, it was a sudden, unexpected pain in my side, but on the opposite side from the first near-death experience. It happened as we were enjoying a stroll through the sawdust paths, and it nearly knocked me to the ground completely out of nowhere.

The pain grew increasingly worse, and we decided to take the 5-hour drive back home, straight away to a hospital emergency room in Las Vegas. “Now, God! This ain’t fair,” I said to myself crumpled in the passenger seat, thinking “Jeez, I finally meet someone, and this is how it ends up.” A dark force enveloped me in frustration, anger, and deep sadness.

So, we make it to the hospital, and here I am once again waiting for an x-ray result. The doctor comes in and tells me that I have a broken rib. “This ain’t no broken rib, Doc,” I say to him with disdain in my voice and on my face. “Get someone else in here who can read an x-ray please.” Not more than 30 minutes goes by and another doctor comes in and says very factually, “Mr. Lorenzo, your lung has collapsed. We are admitting you to a room immediately.”

How could an emergency-room doctor diagnose a collapsed lung as a broken rib? I never found this out.

For the next major step in this horrific event, two tubes attached to what’s called a Pleur-evac (or chest drainage system) were inserted into my chest, and I’m sitting upright in a hospital bed feeling utterly distressed and in enormous pain. Lightly colored red fluids were draining out of my body for what seemed like forever. Much of this entire experience is a blur in my mind, lacking in specifics except for the following:

I’m wheeled into surgery. A nurse inserts a tube down my throat and puts a mask over my face. I’m anesthetized for what seemed like a blink of an eye, but the surgery was six hours long. This was very disturbing to me. That period of six hours essentially did not exist in my mind. It felt much different than sleeping. It felt more like my existence was turned off and then miraculously turned back on.

I had a lobectomy in which my middle lobe lung was removed. The doctor told me later that it was “ratted out” and therefore had to be excised.

I am rolled into an Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Lying there in an utter haze, I’m given various instructions. I’m catheterized for bladder control, and I’m lying there thinking, “okay, this is really it.” This time, however, very much unlike the first near-death experience, I’m not in the least bit feeling any sort of calmness or acceptance.

Then, out of nowhere, I am stricken by this enormous shooting nerve pain emanating across the entire right side of my body. It was without a doubt the most severe pain I have ever experienced in my life, so debilitating that it had me screaming at the top of my lungs. To this day, more than 30 years later, I can still remember that pain. It shot through me without any warning for about 30 seconds and then subsided until the next wave came. This happened about a dozen times, and I nearly fainted each time. To make matters even more frustrating, my hospital caretakers were at a loss as to how to help me.

Eventually, thank God, the nerve pain disappeared. After two days, I was rolled back to my hospital room for recovery, with a morphine pump and a hand-held button I could press for a self-administered shot when pain feels unbearable. I remember hitting that button frequently.

Perhaps it was due to the morphine, but again, very much unlike the first near-death experience, this time, when I fell into a deep sleep, I had a vivid dream of falling and spiraling out of control into a black tunnel-like hole of complete darkness. There was no sense of calm this time, only a foreboding feeling that I was entering a hellish black void. That dream was just about as scary and menacing as everything else that had happened. I was, to say it in two words, “completely distraught.” I never forgot that dream.

The other significant difference this time around was my wife-to-be. She was there for me, monitoring my progress. As I started to pull out of this experience over the next several weeks, she became my loving support and primary go-to for hospital vending-machine snacks.

What I Learned
So, what did these two diametrically opposed near-death experiences teach me?

First, even though I’m agnostic, the calming experience I felt during the first experience has stuck with me and given me a stronger leaning toward belief in an inexplicable spiritual presence — an affirmation that we have a consciousness outside of our physical brains, instead of feeling completely atheistic. An old friend of mine used to frequently say, “I’m protected.” I believe that. But, of course, I cannot prove that. The first near-death experience, however, gave me more anticipatory hope for an afterlife.

I also came to the realization that being alone during a trying time does not have to be incapacitating. You can get through debilitating events though a mental effort to remain calm. By not getting overly caught up in negativity or pessimism, you can heal yourself.

The big takeaway that came from the second near-death experience deals with the existence of pure evil. Yes, evil does exist, and it is powerful, bringing with it hopelessness and a darkness that has no logical explanation. I think once you realize this in a profound way, you come to the conclusion that life is full of suffering. If you are healthy, be thankful. If you can help someone, do so. I wrote about this in my Faith and Tragedy post.

Last, and probably most important of all, coming close to death taught me that being your authentic self makes feeling more joyful about life easier to attain — not more money or things, and not any kind of social acceptance that may be driven by society’s so-called norms. When death knocked on my door and I survived it, my first order of business entailed a stronger focus on being myself and striving to live honorably and honestly before my time on Earth ends, and not what the social milieu of my relatively short time may dictate. That kind of thinking can also make life more difficult at times, because you typically say what you feel and believe instead of holding back, but it’s all worth it as the journey continues.

Thanks for stopping by,

George

On Aging

Written by

On Aging

Posts from George Lorenzo, writer and curator of Old Anima. http://www.oldanima.com

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