I never once thought that as a healthy, athletic 19 year old, I’d even have to think about death. But life doesn’t give you warnings, and nothing could have prepared me for the journey I was about to go on.
I woke up in the LDS Mission Training Center in Provo, Utah on a Friday morning in September, 2003 feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. I had my favorite breakfast of two hard-boiled eggs, a bowl of grape nuts, and yoghurt and got through my scripture studies and prayers with a breeze. I was in a good mood that morning because I knew I’d get to play basketball, my first true love.
I felt like I was in my prime. I worked out all summer and gained 10 pounds of muscle, played basketball 3-4 times a week and could dunk any time I wanted. So as I walked into the gym that morning I had plenty of confidence that I’d play a great game – and that I did. I crossed one guy up, pass to my teammate, splash. 2 points, us. I stepped in, pulled back, and popped the jumper. Another 2 points us, and before long it was game over, and the end of our gym time. As I walked back to our dorm style rooms I thought, “Dang, I got my arm above the rim to my elbow, I easily could have dunked if they let us do that here.”
After lunch we had the afternoon to ourselves to study, read, relax, or talk with our companions. I felt a little behind on studying, so I decided to put in a solid couple of hours at my built-in desk by the window. It was a warm late summer day, and I’d look up occasionally to see missionaries walking across the courtyard, a squirrel running up the tree, the wind blowing the branches. My chair I was sitting on was made of hard plastic. It wasn’t comfortable at all but I thought nothing of it as I was deep into my book and thoughts. After about 2 hours I hadn’t moved much and the feeling of having to go to the bathroom was nagging at me. “10 more minutes,” I thought. But before too long I couldn’t hold it any longer and when I stood up quickly I heard an audible “pop” and a pain in my left butt cheek quickly followed. “Wow, that was weird”. I sped walked to the bathroom, took care of business, and as I made my way back to the room the pain suddenly became noticeable again – really noticeable.
I tried stretching out the muscle 4 or 5 different ways and for a solid 20 minutes. Nothing seemed to work and the pain didn’t want to go away. In fact, the pain intensified with every stretch. I stood up carefully and tried to walk around the room. Ouch, I was limping now but was still managing to get around fine. Since the medical office was right down the courtyard, I figured I’d go see if I could get some advice on what could be going on.
It wasn’t like I was trying to joke around when I told the doctor, “I think I pulled a butt muscle standing up from my chair.” He and my companion laughed anyways and after examining me for 5 minutes told me to take a couple of ibuprofen and a muscle relaxer, go back to my room and it should get better on its own in a few days. I would have believed him if every step back to my room didn’t cause a shooting bolt of pain down my left leg and up my lower back. By the time I made it up the stairs and down the hall towards my bed I needed two guys to carry me, I just physically couldn’t walk anymore.
It felt like a cruel joke, one that I actually laughed about myself as I was getting ready to sleep, feeling exhausted from the pain and equally tired from the meds. But it quickly turned serious as I realized the pain wasn’t going anywhere and I was in for a really long night. 5 minutes passed, and a wave of pain hits me making my body clench, grind my teeth, and sweat like I just ran a mile. After a few minutes of relief, boom, it hits me again but this time it’s even worse. Hour after hour passes with these waves of pain and I hadn’t had an ounce of sleep. I wondered if it was ever going to end and prayed constantly for relief. It didn’t come.
It wasn’t until 5am that I decided to wake up my companion and told him he needed to help me get to the ER, ASAP. They only had a couple health clinics at the training center, so I’d have to be transported over to the nearest hospital and get special permission to do so. I was confident after they saw my condition I’d be taken right away. After a surprise debate with an ornery staff member on the phone, they finally agreed that I could see the on-call doctor. They asked me to walk up to the front office for an evaluation, but I told them I couldn’t. They said to get over there any way I could, so I got 4 guys to carry me in a blanket as if they were rescuing a small beached whale. Making our way down the stairs I hear a loud voice say, “What the freakin’ heck Elder, get out of that blanket and stand up now!” I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Was this staff member really yelling at me right now?
I made it to the front desk where they discussed whether my pain warranted a special permission hospital visit. I overheard him say “Yeh, this Elder claims to have torn a muscle in his behind and is in some ‘serious’ pain”. I could tell they had a good chuckle because before I knew it, I was heading back to my room with nothing more than a muffled, “get better”.
Feeling completely defeated and knowing it was a mistake, I crawled back into my bed. It wasn’t more than an hour later when I started vomiting and it came hard and often. I couldn’t keep anything down, my temperature started to rise by the afternoon, and by evening my body was a shaking, pale, feverish, and sweaty mess. I wasn’t able to move much now and noticed that the pain center was travelling down my leg. I knew this could be bad news, but when I asked again for help, I was told to take more ibuprofen.
It wasn’t until 10pm that night that my roommates were able to convince a senior leader to come by to check on me. I barely noticed him coming into the room and sitting next to the bed asking questions. He must have been keen because then next thing I knew I was on the phone with the doctor and found myself in a van on the way to the hospital. Thank God. I could only see faint street lights moving above me on the way there and a thought cross my mind, “I’m making it here just in time.” I blacked out walking into the triage and woke up in a bed getting examined by 2-3 doctors and nurses. One said, “We’re giving you morphine to help with the pain as well as antibiotics because of the infection.” I didn’t have time to think about “infection” before the pain disappeared and I fell asleep for the night.
I woke up to the doctor’s prodding me with instruments, with her strangely focusing on my heart. “We’ve discovered that you have blood infection. We’re not sure how you contracted it, but you are very lucky to have come in when you did. The infection is bacterial and started to spread to your organs. The heart is one of the first places that can be affected and you have symptoms of endocarditis which is an infection of the heart valves.” She said it nonchalantly as many doctors do, but it wasn’t registering in my mind. “Was it pretty serious?” I asked, wondering if the feeling in my gut the night before was right. Hesitantly she said, “I believe that with the rate the infection was going, you likely would have suffered septic shock within a few hours and wouldn’t have survived the night.”
Wow. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “I wouldn’t have survived the night?” My mind raced and my heart hurt as it pounded. I wasn’t sure how I went from being this healthy, athletic 19 year old two days ago to lying in a hospital bed, infection still not fully under control, doctors checking for permanent organ damage, all while I was also suffering from what turned out to be a torn piriformis muscle which was triggering pain in my sciatic nerve. It was the first time in my life that I seriously contemplated death.
The next night was particularly lonely. My Mom was making the drive from Colorado to Utah and wouldn’t be there until the morning. Around 8pm after my body began to shake uncontrollably causing spasms in my torn muscle. Even two doses of morphine couldn’t dull the lightning pain shooting throughout my body. I begged the nurses to help me, but they told me there’s nothing they could do. Again it was a long night of suffering where every minute felt like an accomplishment. I couldn’t sleep, so between the bouts of pain my mind wandered. “This could be it,” I thought. Even though I was hoping the doctors would save my life if needed, I certainly would have been ok if it was my time, just to make the pain go away. That thought flooded me for what felt like hours. Please take me, please take me. Then in one particularly dark moment, I prayed and asked God for help. Whether it was an answer from above, I’m still not sure, but the feeling was distinct. “I’ll be OK. This is a learning experience. One day I’ll be able to help someone who’s going through similar pain.” Not long after this I was able to sleep.
I ended up spending the next 2 months with a pic line in my arm following a strict antibiotics and physical therapy regimen. I wasn’t able to walk on my own for 4 weeks following the initial muscle tear, and it took me 2 months before I gained back the 35 pounds I lost in 5 days during the worst of the infection. My heart valves were left with no permanent damage and luckily no other organs were affected. The doctors weren’t able to officially determine what caused the muscle tear and the subsequent infection, even labeling my case a medical mystery in their journals. One theory was that three months prior I may have been infected from dirty tools at a dentist office, the bacteria lodging itself into my muscle weakening it over time, and was released when the muscle eventually teared.
However it happened I didn’t care too much because I knew that I experienced something special. An experience that I could hold on to for the rest of my life and use for good, not only for myself as a reminder every time I look at my left arm and see the scar from the pic line, but for others. It gave me an opportunity to feel the preciousness of life, something that I think about every single day, and try to share with others.
My heart was pounding, I was covered in chills and sweat, and I couldn’t stop grabbing my shirt around my chest. I had to make sure my heart was actually beating and that my consciousness was still in the world I was most familiar with.
I immediately wrote down what happened, my wife sound asleep next to me.
Nov 23, 2007
“I have never had a dream like this before in my life. It never felt more real and I never felt more ready. I experienced death.
I went to the doctor and discovered that I had a disease. I’m not sure if it was cancer or something else. Either way I knew I wouldn’t live much longer. They told me to prepare myself and when the time came I had to take a metallic drug solution that would first take out my consciousness, then my breathing, and last my heartbeat. Knowing the date and what I needed to do, I went to visit my family members. I visited Rob, my Dad, and for whatever reason Susie and Spencer weren’t there. Sarah was at my side.
I never felt sadder in my life while at the same time feeling hopeful for what was coming. I knew I’d see grandpa again. As I waited in the hospital room, ready and willing to take the solution that would end my life in around 1 ½ hours, I asked myself if I was ready. I had a peaceful feeling come over me, and I knew what needed to be done. They told me I would first experience a strong burst of energy, like I was kind of the world, which would last only until the slowdown. This is where my body would feel tired, I would feel relaxed and I would go to sleep. After that they couldn’t tell me what happens.
Going into it I had a pretty good idea. I imagined feeling horribly sad to leave everyone I love here on earth, but excited to meet people from history like Ben Franklin, Jesus Christ, and others.
The time came. I was with people I didn’t necessarily know, but whoever they were they were comforting me. I lay on the bed and told them I knew I would die within minutes. I started to feel my body relax, and my breathing got noticeably deeper. I decided to close my eyes for the last time and in doing so I could still hear their voices fading away in the background, “He’s gone.”
I felt my breathing come to an end and when it did everything went from black to bright white. I heard other voices welcoming me, telling me all about my new home, and giving me encouragement on a job well done. They told me I could choose how long my days are, I could explore anywhere and do whatever I liked. I remember feeling happy and calmed because it felt familiar and reminded me of home.
Then I started breathing again. The white faded quickly back to black, and I opened my eyes and was laying in the same position I was in when I died in my dream.”
This dream left a mark on me immediately. I soon came to realize that death isn’t as anxiety inducing as I’ve always imagined, especially during my semi-hypochondriac, post sickness daze of the past several years. I experienced something that is as natural as breathing, sleeping, or being born.
The idea of dying no longer scared me. When the time comes, whether it be quick and out of nowhere or prolonged and torturous, all I have to do is close my eyes and go to sleep. I will instinctively know what to do. Passing will be easy.
The idea of death and all it brings to the loved ones left behind is what scares me now.
I don’t know what’s on the other side. No one does. It doesn’t exist in reality; it’s a figment of many clever people’s imaginations and is the basis for religions since the dawn of human thinking. Fear of death and the unknown is the ultimate tool to control people, and it worked on me for the first 24 years of my life until I decided to leave the Mormon Church in 2009.
Being told exactly how to live, die, and live again in the afterlife had its benefits. Everything was planned, no thinking involved, just obey and I’d receive my reward. It was a comforting thought that I’d get to spend an eternity of bliss with God and my loved ones. Who wouldn’t want that?
But I never bought into it. An estimated 100 Billion people have already passed through life. They’ve felt the joys of the birth of a child, excitement of discovery, falling in love, happiness – and the pains of sickness, hunger, and the death of a loved one wondering if they’ll ever see them again. The human experience is what drew me out of the church. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea that a “chosen” people were privileged enough to be born into God’s one and only true church, leading to a lifetime of blessings and eternal happiness, while the rest were left to fend for themselves. It just couldn’t be.
Seeing that we all struggle with the same things is comforting to me. It makes me feel connected to others and gives me a sense of belonging. A young father in Sri Lanka, Poland, or Colorado likely has the same feelings of insecurity and worry to provide for his family as I do. The elderly of the world all look back fondly, or with regret, on their memories as they near the end. The horrible pain of losing someone that you love is the same for anyone.
To me, it no longer matters what happens after we die. Whether it’s a state of unconsciousness and non-existence or some form of paradise, we’ll all go through it the same. It’s our natural process. What’s important is what we choose to do during the here and now.
When I was in high school, my best friend’s dad passed away in his sleep at age 48. He and his family were devastated and took months to recover. I knew that he was a good man, but I was shocked to see nearly 1,000 people filled in an auditorium paying their respects at his funeral. People throughout the crowd were crying and laughing during the stories about the good deeds, the jokes, the love and compassion this man showed them, and I could see clearly how much he meant to each person. This man left a positive mark on the world.
You may or may not live on past death, but it is certain that your memory and example will in those that you influenced. This is what scares me about my own death. Did I provide enough for my family? Did I try to love and understand others, helping them when I was able? Was I grateful for and learn from all of life’s ups and downs? The only thing I can hope for is that I leave a good memory, a positive mark on those I’ve influenced.
But the truth is that I haven’t figured it out yet. My relationship with death is evolving and will continue to change throughout my life. I’m scared about the death of my family, especially my kids. It gives me anxiety as a parent every single day, as I’m sure I’ve given my parents over the years. I can’t stand the thought of losing someone I love so much. To not be able to hug them, see and hear them anymore. It makes me absolutely sick. But I try to use this feeling every day as a motivation to take advantage of the time I have with them now. Life is precious, and I’m grateful for it, for the good and the bad experiences it brings, and for the people I love and love me back. We’re all in this together.