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Human ashes as seen under a high-powered microscope. (credit: Gabriela Reyes Fuchs)

Everything changed for Gabriela Reyes Fuchs the day she got that phone call from her Father. A physician who saved many lives during his long and successful career, now his own life was at stake. He had been diagnosed with Leukemia, and things didn’t look good. Gabriela hung up, and caught a flight to Mexico where he lived.

Six days later, her Father died.

She watched the scene before her as he lay on a black bag, ready to be zipped up. She was perplexed. How could this be it? How could life be so…final?

What did dead even mean?

A photographer who’d always understood the world visually, she couldn’t shake a thought that she knew was crazy, yet didn’t question once — she needed to see his ashes under a microscope. …


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The O’Briens pose for our high school yearbook photo

In my high school class, I was the only white O’Brien. My Aunt Judy had adopted seven children from Brazil many years earlier, two of whom were black Afro-Brazilians. When the teacher took attendance, she struggled to pronounce their names correctly. In our yearbook photos, they’re pictured surrounded by a sea of white people. When they dated whites, they often faced disapproving parents and racial slurs. And when we walked into church each Sunday, the scowls on the faces of our fellow Catholic parishioners were anything but subtle.

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My cousins, the only non-whites on their soccer team.

And yet, despite their dark skin and nappy hair and everything I witnessed, it never occurred to me that they were any different from me. …


Lived Through This

She helped me survive with a new understanding of the world around us

A black and white photo of the author’s shadow along with her dog’s shadow.
A black and white photo of the author’s shadow along with her dog’s shadow.
Photos courtesy of the author.

The day I almost died, my dog was at my side. Now in her final stage of life, I pay tribute to her by sharing what she did as I lay dying, in hopes it helps others find meaning through these, and all, difficult times.

Virginia changed my life. She woke me each morning, just past dawn, and brought me into the woods, among the trees. She taught me to rise early when the world was silent and my head was silent and my heart was open.

Every day, little by little, my dog woke me from the sleepwalk that I’d mistaken for life. At first, while she investigated the forest floor, my mind was elsewhere. Staring down at my phone. …


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“This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m steppin’ through the door
And I’m floating in the most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today.

For here am I sittin’ in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet earth is blue
And there’s nothin’ I can do…

- David Bowie, Space Oddity

Life in a spaceship is upon us. Here, hermetically sealed away from existence as we knew it, we sit in our square wooden boxes, passing through time. We are living through glass panes. Peering out windows at the dangerously beautiful universe out there. …


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It wasn’t until I almost died that I began to understand death. After surviving a massive pulmonary embolism that the E.R. physician described as “a miracle I’ll be talking about for the rest of my medical career”, an inexplicable switch flipped in my consciousness. I didn’t cross to the other side, but I did get a glimpse of something over that fence that rendered me unafraid of “the end”.

What I experienced when I almost died was just the opposite of “the end”. I’m neither religious nor righteous, but almost dying felt like a continuity of my truest self where the only physical force, the only energy, was love. It’s unimaginable to nearly everyone but those who‘ve had near-death experiences to know what it is to feel only love and nothing else. …


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Today Show appearance, August 16th 2019.

On January 1, 2019, I was lost.

Over the year prior, though I kept it quiet, I’d been losing a lot.

I was losing several people I loved deeply.
I was losing my dog.
I was losing the everyday life I cherished.
I was losing the future I’d planned on.
I was losing my cover.
I was losing my security.
I was losing my equilibrium.

I was losing my way.

Loss — great loss — is a powerful force. It is a wave that crashes over you, tossing and turning you as it pleases, disorienting any sense of place and purpose and control. It is everything the world steers you not to be — frightened, insecure, vulnerable, messy. …


This is the complete version of my recent essay, How It Felt to Come Back to Life. After I first shared the story of my near death experience (What It Felt Like to Almost Die), it went viral, was made into a short documentary due 2020, I was featured as a guest on The Today Show, and it continues to be read by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. You can read more at christenobrien.com.

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Sit up, the voice said. And so I did.
Now you can stand, it said.
And so I did. …


Coming back from near-death was a gracious endeavor, but it was also deeply heartbreaking

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Photo: Bernd Friedel/EyeEm/Getty Images

“Thank God you’re alive,” my mother said to me with tears in her eyes. I lay on a hospital gurney, hooked up to machines that whirred and beeped rhythmically, the acoustic proof that life hadn’t given up on me yet.

In her eyes, I saw the pain she’d been pushing down for days. A mother who gets a phone call that her young daughter is in the ICU and might not make it. A mother who haphazardly throws clothes into a suitcase, who reaches out for the boarding pass as the airline attendant catches the terror in her face, who sits on a crowded plane for five hours staring out the window at the clouds, a full 300 disconnected minutes of not knowing if her little girl is alive or dead. …


My near-death experience taught me not to fear those final moments

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Illustration: Dadu Shin

I remember the very instant the blood clot careened into my heart.

The palpitations were like nothing I’d ever felt, and the taste of blood filled my mouth. Milliseconds later, like a ricochet of bullets, the clot exploded in my lungs. I fell to the ground, gasping for air, each breath more shallow and pained than the one before. I am dying, I thought with a clear certainty that I’ll never be able to explain. My systems were shutting down, one after the other, and my body instantly knew what my mind could not refute.

I did not feel fear or panic as one might imagine. Instead, I became laser focused on survival. As I lay sprawled out on the pavement with my dog by my side, my attention became fully devoted to reading the symptoms overcoming my body and figuring out what to do next. …


As I’m nearing the end of my 30s, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how ridiculously fortunate I am to have learned from some of our generation’s greatest minds. But the more I considered it, the more I realized something odd — some of these people taught me invaluable lessons that changed me…yet they didn’t actually do much for me. It was a simple gesture or conversation that permanently altered my life, without their ever knowing it.

Consider how profound this could be. Over the years I’ve listened to hundreds of people — friends, family, job candidates — say they ache to do something that makes a difference in the world, so they focus on the “do something” part. “I should work for a different company.” / “I should volunteer for community service.” …

About

Christen O'Brien

I write about serious tech stuff for work. But here, I tell true tales from my wacky, wonderful life. (read more: www.christenobrien.com)

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