Take Inventory of Your Life

How a brush with death changed my approach to life.

One morning six years ago, I crawled out of bed in so much pain I couldn’t function. I couldn’t turn my head or really bend my neck at all. My left arm felt like someone had tied 50 pound bags of sand to it. Worse still, I couldn’t feel the fingers on my left hand. In the weeks prior, I’d been to the emergency room several times complaining of pain in my neck and shoulders. Each time I was dismissed with a prescription for muscle relaxers and a diagnosis of “a sprained cervical muscle”.

This was different.

I’d lost all strength in my left arm, I couldn’t grip things, I couldn’t pour myself a glass of milk (a messy lesson to learn, by the way). No amount of Advil, muscle relaxers or hot showers eased the pain.

Another trip the the emergency room, another prescription for muscle relaxers, and a referral to a spine surgeon. A spine surgeon. Those are terrifying words, especially to a barely 30 year old in otherwise excellent health.

I’ll never forget the day I received the diagnosis. The surgeon had an in-house MRI, and I made my appointment early in the morning with plenty of time to work the rest of the day. Barely an hour after the MRI, a nurse from the doctor’s office left a frantic voicemail: “Mister Whelan, uhhh, we have uh we have your results. The doctor needs to uh see you back in the office right away. Please call us back.” This is a good time to point out, I struggle with anxiety issues and have a terrible case of “white coat syndrome”.

I panicked.

I cried actually, and nearly passed out. My mind immediately filled in the blanks. I’m going to die, that’s all it can be. The nurse couldn’t tell me anything over the phone, she said I needed to see the doctor and that’s all she could say. Of course, looking back what was she supposed to tell me?

I started making final plans. I asked friends to please help out if I didn’t make it, so my parents don’t have to suffer through the process of going through my stuff alone. I double checked beneficiaries, and insurance plans. I started coming to terms with what I believed was surely the end.

Of course all the imagined diagnoses I invented in the hours to come weren’t close to reality. My brain invented a future much darker, and more final. The reality I suffered a major spinal injury resulting from ruptured discs in my neck, and causing major nerve damage. It would require a major surgical procedure and months of recovery.

I didn’t die, but it’s as close a brush with death as I ever want to see for a very long time. I was scared, and the next few months would be filled with moments even more terrifying before things got better.

That’s the point… fear. We let fear hold us back from so much in life, fear of the unknown, fear that the unknown will be worse than the known. I wish I could tell you that I vowed to never let fear hold me back, and that it changed my life for good. That would be a lie. In fact, I still let fear alter my decisions every day. Instead, I changed my outlook on life.

I took an inventory of my life during the months of my recovery. I examined everything, my toxic and failing relationship, a job that I hated, my house, car, superficial things, my satisfaction with what I had achieved in life to that point. I took an inventory of the things that mattered most in life, the things that make my life feel full, the things I enjoy. If I was on the wrong track someplace, I changed it. And I made those changes free of fear, because surely if I could survive what I just went through, a painful breakup will be easy. If I’ve made it this far, quitting my lousy job will feel like a vacation.

This was a critical moment in my life that led me to make some decisions and some changes that in the end would drag me along to bigger and better things. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the day to day grind, just staying alive, we forget about the life-long venture of living. It isn’t until we receive a shock to the system that we stop, look around, and ask ourselves “how did I end up here?”

My challenge to you, and to myself, is to look around more often. Are you where you want to be? Or at least moving in that direction? If not, it’s time for some changes.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. If you liked what you read, please feel free to share.

I’m the Principal Engineer at RhinoDox. We’re building the next generation of document management and enterprise search tools. We’re also hiring, if you’re interested in learning more, let’s talk!

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Travis Whelan’s story.