The Three Lessons You Learn When You Think You’re Going To Die

About a year and a half ago, I had to be hospitalized due to acute pain following an injury. The day I was admitted, my hip bones jutted out from my lower belly, and my legs were like toothpicks.

The pain was so severe I had lost the ability to eat, leading to rapid weight loss and dehydration. We’d tried to get help from doctor after doctor, but they offered nothing. I was falling through the cracks.

The hospital saved my life. They gave me IV fluids, and enough pain relief I was able to sit up and eat. I was grateful beyond words.

But then, a week into my stay, things got weird. The doctors started dropping hints that I wasn’t gaining enough weight, and they needed to consider a feeding tube.

If you don’t know what a feeding tube is, well…you don’t want to know. In brief, it’s for people who can’t eat the normal way due to serious conditions or advanced age. The “food,” if you can call it that, is a nasty brew of high fructose corn syrup and trans fats.

As someone who eats an organic, whole food diet, the idea disgusted me. And there was a bigger reason I didn’t want it. Feeding tubes require surgery, and surgery causes pain. They were finally getting the pain somewhat under control, but it was still agony. This could send me over the edge. Why risk it, especially since I could eat the normal way?

A week into my hospital stay, things got weird.

One afternoon, a new doctor showed up in my room. She had a grave look on her face.

If I didn’t get the procedure right away, she told me, I would die. The emergency was due to a mysterious-sounding medical term, “refeeding syndrome.” The more she talked, the more dire the situation looked.

I didn’t want to die. I had just come back from the brink, and it was the most frightening thing I’d been through in my life.

But somehow, I heard myself telling the doctor I had to think about it. She gave me twenty-four hours, because, as she put it, we couldn’t afford wait any longer than that.

I saw myself as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” with the hourglass counting down the sands of her life. That scene terrified me as a kid.

My stepmother had just arrived from the East Coast to help us out. She was there for that meeting with the doctor, and couldn’t believe what I’d done. When a doctor tells you’re going to die if you don’t get an operation, you get it.

She gave me twenty-four hours, because, as she put it, we couldn’t afford wait any longer than that.

I tried to explain my reasoning, but now that the situation was life-and-death, it didn’t sound as convincing. And truth be told, I was feeling a little bit crazy. The doctor seemed sincerely concerned about my health. I didn’t know what to do. Mainly, I was scared.

My stepmom put her hand over mine on the railing of my hospital bed.

Your life is the most important thing,” she said, her voice shaking. “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I can’t let you die.”

Being British, she was raised to have a stiff upper lip. But as she spoke, her eyes grew red, and a tear slipped down her cheek. Then another, and another. It was the first time in the 25 years I’d known her that I’d seen her cry. Pretty soon, I was crying too.

I thought about my husband’s eyes. Looking into them made me feel safe and whole. I tried to imagine never being able to do that again.

When a doctor tells you’re going to die if you don’t get an operation, you get it.

That night, My husband and I talked and talked. I couldn’t see my way through it. But finally, something in me cracked. It seemed like my body was taking over the situation and dictating the terms.

I told my husband I wanted to discharge myself if they refused to honor my choice to decline the operation. He said he understood. We lay side by side, me in my hospital bed, him on the narrow guest bed. We held hands and sobbed together.

The next day, the doctor was a different person. She was all smiles, and informed us that I was now out of danger. She didn’t explain why, although there was a lot of talk about the insurance company, and how it wouldn’t pay for my stay if I didn’t submit to the operation.

“I’ve never had a patient who was so resistant to getting a procedure,” she said.

It was over. My stepmother was furious that she lied. I was mainly just relieved.

I learned more in that 24-hour ordeal than I ever have in my life.

  1. I learned that the body is wise. It knows things no doctors do. It was hard to listen to its still, small voice when all around me were much louder voices telling me the opposite. Some of those voices were in my own head. I now know to trust it. After I left the hospital, it guided me towards an excellent chiropractor, who has been successfully treating the problem with no need for any kind of surgery.
  2. I learned that facing your biggest fear changes you. I used to be afraid of lots of stuff. I was afraid people were talking about me behind my back. I was afraid I wasn’t a good enough writer to make it. I was afraid everyone would realize I was a fake. I’m not afraid of those things anymore. None of that matters now. It never did.
  3. Most of all, I learned that you can always make your own choice, even if all you can choose is to keep your mind fixed on the things that truly matter — those you love, your trust that wisdom will somehow find a way. This quote from psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl says it best:

The choices we make may seem small sometimes. But even the smallest decisions can be life changing. In the moment, it might seem as if your decision doesn’t make sense.

Your fear will sound rational. Your bravery, crazy.

But sometimes you have to take the scary, unknowable road anyway. You may have to risk everything — your livelihood, your identity, even your life.

But what you get in return is worth all of that. Freedom. Dignity. Peace.

Sunshine Mugrabi’s memoir, “When My Boyfriend Was a Girl,” called a “Must Read” by The Advocate Magazine, is available on Amazon.

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