When I Almost Died
Paul Cook: You’d like to think you get some kind of enlightenment out of it. But not really, not for me anyway.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Six years ago, when Paul Cook was 44, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He went through chemo…and his cancer went into remission. Then it came back.
PC: I thought I was gonna die. And I’ve thought about it every day since.
This time, it was in his lungs. Paul went through chemo...again. He had surgery to remove the tumors in his lungs. That was four years ago, and since then, his scans have been clean.
PC: You asked, if it changes you. And for me, it definitely did. And not always for the better. I’d say for me, it’s made me more impatient. Every moment has to matter, but then it doesn’t.
I asked you to tell me about when you almost died.
The car hit me.
I was run over by an 18-wheel truck.
I came very close to slipping 9000 feet.
At that very instant I saw a handgun pointed at me.
You would think that the prospect of dying in that way would be terrifying.
It was like I had visited the most beautiful place...
And I truly believe I felt the feeling of what it is to die.
For a lot of you, these near death experiences have had a profound impact. On the way you see the world…on your bodies...and on your relationships.
Ellen: Now, all these years later, I really see what it became, which was kind of defining moment in my marriage more than anything else.
Ellen is 67 years old…she lives in Rochester, New York. Her near-death experience happened almost 30 years ago. She was flying with her husband, David, in a small chartered plane. Their two children were at home.
Ellen: I said to my husband, the plane sounds funny, and he kind of shook his head and frowned and said, "You always think the plane sounds funny." Because I was really nervous flier. And then I noticed he must have heard something, because he started staring into the cockpit. And he said to the pilot, can you see the airport? And the pilot said, we’re not going to make it to the airport.
Anna: What did you think about?
Ellen: The thing I kept thinking and saying was "Who’s gonna take care of my babies?" Those were my words, over and over. I probably said it four times.
AS: You said it out loud.
Ellen: Yeah. I just couldn’t imagine what was gonna happen to our kids.
The plane went down in a field. The bottom was ripped out by the impact. But everyone on board survived. Ellen walked away with only a run in her stocking. They found out later that the pilot had failed to refuel. They just ran out of gas.
Ellen: I was kind of in la la land the next morning. I remember waking up and feeling like, oh, look at this beautiful sunny day and it was the end of May, it was gorgeous. My kids practically had halos over their heads, I was so glad to see them. I was grateful for everything, including my marriage. You know, we were high school sweethearts, we’d been together a long, long time. I know that there were problems in the marriage, but I think I was a little bit in denial about how unhappy my husband was.
AS: In what way?
Ellen: Well, my husband told me later that that day, that next morning when he woke up was a new day for him and he knew he wanted to be happier than he was. So our marriage was really over by the end of that year.
AS: So you had this overwhelming wave of gratefulness, and your husband was having the opposite emotional response.
AS: If you could go back and have that pilot refuel the plane before you took off, would you do that?
Ellen: No. No, I’m glad it all happened the way it happened. I’m glad I'm where I am. David would have left anyway, at some point. And it happened exactly the way it needed to. I survived.
Ellen remarried a few years after the crash. She and her second husband will celebrate 25 years together this fall.
The chances of dying in a plane crash are incredibly slim. According to the National Safety Council, you're almost 900 times more likely to die in a car accident.
Jeff: I was making a left turn and turned in front of another vehicle.
Kelsey: My car went off the road, drove through two of those concrete dividers.
Jeff: Flipped the car on its side, knocked me unconscious…
Kelsey: Slammed into a parked van, in a parking lot. No one was in it.
Both Kelsey and Jeff were in car accidents when they were 23 years old. Kelsey careened off the road as she was driving alone in the middle of the night in Texas. She's 26 now.
AS: When did you realize that you could’ve died?
Kelsey: That’s hard, because for about, I don’t know, almost a year after my accident I wished that I had. Because it was just so much work.
AS: When did you learn that you were paralyzed?
Kelsey: I couldn’t talk for like, months after my accident. Because I had a tracheostomy. So I couldn’t ask the question, but I knew, because nothing was working. I didn’t really know that it was going to be that way forever, I guess.
Kelsey eventually regained the use of her upper body, but is still paralyzed from her chest down. She says she has no memory of the accident…or even the days leading up to it.
But Jeff, whose car crash happened more than a decade ago, had vivid memories from that day. He was on a road trip with two friends.
Jeff: The friend in the passenger seat. He died instantly. When I became conscious again, he was on top of me and I knew right away that he was dead. So, you know, imagine going from great time having fun to, opening your eyes and you’re in pain, there’s smoke in the car, it’s on its side. It’s such a strange - I mean, like, the past is just so close that you feel like if you just do the right thing you can be back there.
AS: You can undo it.
Both Jeff and Kelsey’s near death experiences dramatically changed their lives. Kelsey lives at home now, with her parents, and she uses a wheelchair to get around. But at the time of her accident, Kelsey was living on her own, working hard and partying hard.
Kelsey: I was a pretty huge alcoholic. But I had quit a few months before my accident, and then, according to notes in my phone, about a week before my accident, fallen off the wagon and gone a little crazy.
AS: Do you drink now?
Kelsey: I don’t, because when sobriety is kind of forced on you by a hospital you start to think, well why would I want to mess up that scorecard? But really the biggest reason why I don’t drink now is because I want to so bad. I want a Jack and Coke more than anything, really, I know exactly what it tastes like. And because I want those things so bad, I know that I shouldn’t do it.
Jeff’s car accident also left him with serious injuries. And with criminal charges. But worse than that…was the guilt.
Jeff: I did something stupid. It was my fault. I felt like, killed my friend. I felt as horrible as a person can feel. But one of the most important things that happened was a doctor from another department came down to see me, and she took time out of her day to tell me that when she was younger, she’d actually killed three of her friends in a car accident. That was such a powerful thing to me, because I thought my life is over. I thought, you know, I’m never gonna recover from this. And, um. That message meant so much to me, that hey, you know, you didn’t do it on purpose. It’ll work out ok.
AS: How did you change, after having this car accident?
Jeff: I changed in a lot of ways. What changed me the most was how kindly people treated me. Before the car accident, a lot of my worldview was based on fear. I remember looking forward to the Iraq War. You know, as terrible as that is to say, being excited about us bombing people and destroying a country. And you know, I remember, the old me was very anti-gay, and anti-gay marriage. And I just learned that life is precious and there’s no need to hate. To this day, I think my parents would blame that change on the head injury.
AS: So your parents’ politics did not change.
Jeff: Correct, they did not change, no. I’m definitely the black sheep of the family.
Beth: I thought I had time to cross the street, but a car came over this little hill and I didn't have the visibility that I thought I did.
This voice memo came in from a listener named Beth. A few years ago, she was hit by a car in San Francisco while trying to cross against the light.
Beth: When I came to again, there was a man kneeling next to me and he was just saying, "Help is on the way, help is on the way." I don't know how long I was out, but waking up from it was the most incredible experience. I was completely blissful, I felt no pain, I felt this sense of complete unity and I just kept saying, "Oh, we're never alone, we're never alone." It was like I had been reminded of something I had forgotten.
A listener named Abbey had the opposite experience.
Abbey: I felt the big, gaping meaninglessness of life so much more acutely.
Abbey sent in this voice memo about when she was in a car accident. She walked away without a scratch. But...
Abbey: The experience gave me the feeling that death was just breathing down my neck every minute of every day. And standing behind every other person I knew who was alive. You know, I'd just look around at my friends and family and just be like, "Bye!" I could just...it was almost like I could see a cloaked figure of death just reaching its bony hand out to grab anybody it wanted at any moment and it made me really depressed.
Coming up, more of your stories about how getting up close and personal with death has impacted your life.
Rachel: Cancer patients make very, very bad boyfriends. They don’t ask you how you are. They have no room for your feelings in the experience at all. And that was really hard cause it made me feel like, um, very alone.
A few months ago, when I asked for your stories about almost dying, you sent in emails and voice memos and we also gave you the option of writing a post on Medium, with the hashtag #whenIalmostdied. Nick Garcia wrote about the years he spent not sleeping much, while he was going to school and working more than 60 hours a week to try to get out of debt. He ended up with life-threatening pneumonia.
Angela S. wrote about when her appendix burst. "I knew I was dying in the E.R.. When your body's in mayday mode, you just know," she wrote. "Shockingly, I had very few regrets. And sure, I never got to experience the torrid romance of my dreams, but I felt I had had a good run."
And Sarah Joyce wrote about crossing the finish line three years ago at the Boston Marathon and hearing an explosion about 30 seconds later.
SJ: You have to wrap your head around that, you think a bomb went off. And then you have to wrap your head around the fact that two went off. And that you're not quite sure what's going to happen next.
Sarah titled her Medium post, "Why I Don't Run Anymore."
SJ: The biggest way that it's affected me is my relationship with running. 'Cause it...running would clear my head. And that is something that, after Boston, I just do not have the same association with it anymore.
We have a link to all of your Medium posts on our website at deathsexmoney.org.
On the next episode, actor Diane Guerrero. She's 29 and in two break-out television shows: "Orange is the New Black," and "Jane the Virgin." She tells me about the day when she was 14 and came home to discover that immigration authorities had picked up her Colombian parents.
Diane Guerrero: I walk in and—and I open the door and it's dark and—and there's my mother's dinner started, but she wasn't there. So I called out, "Mom, Mom, Dad, Dad, Mom!" Nothing. And then I went out and the neighbor told me that they had been taken away.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
When I asked you to tell me about your near death experiences, some of you shared stories that weren't about your own brushes with death.
When I say near death, I don’t mean that I myself was close to dying. I mean it in terms of proximity.
When I was 17, my best friend died.
He hadn't worn his helmet.
I just watched her crumple underneath the trailer.
I have the distinct honor, I guess, of holding his hand at the moment that he died.
That’s my near death experience, as in being near my sister’s death.
And even though you didn't almost die, the experience of being so close to death changed you.
Rachel is 22...that’s not her real name. Two years ago, when she was 20 and still in college, her boyfriend was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Rachel: I remember lying in bed one night with him and I said, something like, "Don’t leave me." And he said, "I’m not gonna die." That was the only time I can remember us talking about death.
But Rachel was scared her boyfriend was going to die. He’d had cancer before she knew him...it had come back. When he was diagnosed the second time, they’d only been dating for about six months.
Rachel: It was like I had to kind of use the memories that we had made in that short period of time to get me through the darkness and like the relentless treatment. And it got really hard.
AS: What were the things you missed, when he was sick?
Rachel: I couldn’t touch him for a long period of time. Before you go into the room you have to wash your hands, put on a mask, a gown and gloves, um, you can't touch him at all. I would go—I would get like a manicure or something and I would feel so amazing cause I hadn't been touched in so long.
Rachel: Cause he's so—he's not himself, like, in pain, in discomfort, and very, very closed off emotionally, too, so he wasn't really talking about anything that was going on. And I remember like, a lot of people reached out to me specifically and said we know this must be hard for you too. And what I couldn't say was, his happiness…I feel so terrible saying this…his happiness is not the most important thing to me. I wanna be happy, too. And I’m not.
AS: Did you want to break up?
Rachel: No, I didn't want to break up. I definitely thought, why am I still here? And, is it worth it? I definitely had the thought of, is it worth this much? Which is not what you think going in, when you get the call that your boyfriend has cancer, you go into survival mode and you say, I'm gonna do whatever it takes. But he didn't miss me the way that I missed our closeness, because he was so preoccupied with the disease taking over him and that really, really hurt me.
AS: Do you think in some ways he was pulling away from you because he thought he might die?
Rachel: I mean, that would make sense to me, why someone would just sort of remove themselves from the situation and not be present in a relationship that they thought might end.
But their relationship didn't end. The treatment worked. Rachel's boyfriend survived.
Rachel: Once he got out, he was ready to start his life again. And he—what he missed was golfing. Was being with his friends. And what I missed was him. I thought that I had earned him back at that point, that I had stuck out the hardest part so that we could continue our relationship, and it was like, nope. Not yet.
AS: He wants to go golfing.
Rachel: I wanna go golf. Exactly.
AS: Does he know now, how you felt when he was at his sickest?
Rachel: We had some conversations about it, but I've never said to him what I've just said, really outlined what it felt like.
AS: You've never said this to him.
Climber: Talking about it doesn't change it.
This listener, from North Carolina, felt the same kind of relationship strain...from the other side. Just a few weeks before she was set to graduate from college, she fell 30 feet off of a climbing wall. She broke her back, hip, pelvis and femur. She had a concussion...
Climber: ...And I got a boyfriend out of it. When I was in the ICU, this tall, handsome, pony-tailed coworker of mine showed up to visit, and he just kind of never left. Many parts of our story and our relationship are capital "R", Nicholas Sparks romantic. But being in a new relationship when one of the people had become suddenly disabled at a young age is tough. Him being the knight in shining armor and me being the broken one. And it's been hard letting someone help me through this whole process, when they’re so physically whole and it can be really tough to explain it to them. Sometimes you just don’t want to talk about it. And it’s hard to explain that to him sometimes.
For Bex Montz, who lives in San Francisco, his brush with death happened after he'd made some big changes in his life. Ones that he thought would make him happier.
Bex Montz: I had been sober for a couple of months and sort of all the other freshly sober people who I knew were doing, like, a lot better and I was just miserable. Like I was thinking about throwing myself in front of a bus.
Bex is trans, and had recently gotten top surgery.
BM: I felt really good about that, but I also still hated myself. So it sort of like, turns out, that when you transition, beforehand you hate yourself and you're in somebody else's body and then afterwards, you hate yourself, but you hate yourself in your own body, which is, you know, good and bad. And, yeah, I guess I was expecting—I guess I was expecting certain things to be a little bit better.
AS: And, what's your near death story, Bex?
BM: I was still, really suicidal. And I decided that I would take all my sleeping medication and all my SSRIs and slit my wrists and sit, back, relax, and slip into oblivion. So I sort of set everything out, and just downed it all. My heart was racing and I started thinking about my mom, and it just felt so shitty to think about my mom finding my body. And when I’m in a really depressed place I can convince myself that, you know, the world would be better off without me. But in that moment I wasn’t able to actually do that. And that's not what I was expecting.
AS: Did you feel like you wanted to live?
BM: I didn’t really want to live. I really wanted to go into oblivion. But in that moment I realized that I wasn't gonna be able to go through with it. So I had to keep living.
Bex called 911. He lost consciousness in the ambulance and slipped into a coma. But his phone call saved his life…he woke up several hours later with his mom sitting in the corner of his hospital room. Bex says that his suicide attempt was a turning point. He's 22 now, and regularly going to therapy.
Bex: My therapist is really great. Which is a sentence I never thought I'd say. Cause I've had a hard time with therapists in the past. Um, he can tell me that I’m being a brat if I’m being a brat, which is something that is also helpful for me. I mean, I’m a 20-something year old! Like, I'm not always—I’m not always a grown up, a man. I’m not always an adult. Sometimes I need to be told that I’m being a brat.
And Bex says now, suicide is off the table for him.
BM: And that's way harder than having an out. I've always been able to say to myself, well if things don't work out, I can just kill myself. Um, but now, you know, I'm just kind of trying to push forward. And just try to figure out who I wanna be in this world.
AS: I just—for you, from what you’ve learned from going through what you’ve gone through, if there's someone who's in that dark place where you were a year and a half ago, what do you want to make sure you say?
BM: Um. A lot of people say that things will get better, and I’m not entirely convinced of that, but I think that things always change. And they may get worse—that's totally true—like things may get worse, but if you’re in the gutter, just statistically it’s way more likely that things are gonna get better. It’s just a statistical fact. It just is.
AS: Have there been days...that you wanted to die?
Elizabeth Caplice: Yeah. Yup. It's—I've had times where depression's flared up a little bit. Um. And I've just gone, there's no point, what am I even doing? And that feeling passes. And I think about things that I do want to experience and will have the opportunity to experience even if I only do have three months to live.
Elizabeth Caplice is 32 years old. I talked with her from Canberra, Australia. A listener sent us a link to the blog that Elizabeth writes, called "Sky Between Branches." She has stage four colorectal cancer. She was diagnosed two years ago. In an email to us, Elizabeth described her life these days as "one big near death adventure." But the day before we talked, she'd gotten some bad news.
EC: I’ve had—actually had a particularly rough couple of days. Um. My oncologist called me yesterday and he said, conservatively I could have three months. Optimistically I could have twelve months, but the reality lies between those two numbers. So that’s kind of just been my last 48 hours, is learning to adapt to that.
AS: That’s a lot.
EC: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a lot all at once.
AS: Do you feel different?
EC: No. Not really. I mean, it’s hard because I don’t feel different. I don’t feel that sick. I mean, I felt much sicker before diagnosis than I do now. I certainly don’t feel like I imagine I would feel were I were dying. Like, you know, if someone I met said they were terminally ill, I wouldn’t expect them to feel or for that matter to look like I do. Because I feel fine, except for a little bit tired. Like it’s - it’s extremely hard to tell at this point is, “Am I tired because I am dying or am I tired because I stayed up too late?”
EC: Am I feeling sick today because I’m dying or am I feeling sick today because I ate half a Toblerone for dinner? It really could be either most of the time. It’s really really difficult to know most of the time and my doctors can’t really tell me.
AS: When you wake up in the morning, do you feel a certain pressure to achieve things?
EC: Yeah. The - the pressure to - I kind of jokingly call myself “cancer hero” cause a lot of people through my blog and through my Facebook find a lot of what I talk about and my mere existence to be inspirational. And it becomes this weird sort of pressure, like, I need to achieve something real. I need to - I don’t know - run a marathon. Like, I’m a very lazy person. Essentially I want to sit at home and it just feels like I am doing what I do but I have this intense guilt that I’m, you know, wasting my time. I don't really actually know what I would do to classify it as ‘living my life more fully.’ Like I’m pretty happy with my existence of feffing around on Facebook.
AS: Have you become less afraid of death?
EC: Um, I think so. I - I used to be very, very frightened and kind of, almost obsessively so, of dying. And it’s become a less horrifying prospect. And just the ongoing realization, very, very selfishly that in fact once I died it wouldn’t be me suffering. It would be others suffering. Which is terrible and upsets me greatly. But my suffering ends at that point. My part of this will be finished. And the thing that the world will be left behind with is people’s memories of me and people's loss and how they then manage it, which is not something I’m - I’m responsible for.
AS: So there's comfort in the end of your suffering.
EC: Strange. Strangely, yeah. I mean, I think one of my big takeaways from it all is, like, cancer sucks. It obviously is a really terrible and rancid thing to happen to anyone, but in like, a lot of ways, it's simultaneously been worse and not as bad as I thought it would be. Like, the kind of—the realization that happens when you realize that you're dying is...like, it's harsh. It's a harsh thing that you deal with every single day, like you wake up and you know, it's not always the first thing that I think of anymore, but it's always in my head. I'm always aware of it, I always will be aware of it. Um, but. Like it's not as horrific. I don't know why, or how, it's not as horrific as I thought it'd be. Because it's a natural process. It's not—it's not something alien to being human, it's—it's a very human thing to have happen to you, is to die.
That's Elizabeth Caplice. You can find a link to her blog on our website at deathsexmoney.org. Thank you to all of you for sharing your stories.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios. The team includes Katie Bishop, Chester Jesus Soria, Emily Botein, Hannah McCarthy, Rick Kwan and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. Hannis Brown wrote the original score for this episode.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney.
And we've heard from a number of you who are still struggling with your near death experiences or with suicidal thoughts. If that's you, please ask for help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
And we have a sad update to one of the stories you heard during the show. As we were putting this episode together, we heard from the fianceé of Jeff, the guy who survived the car crash that killed his friend. She told us that Jeff died in a hiking accident on April 11th. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends. When Jeff originally sent in his voice memo about the car accident, he told us that that experience had really changed the way he felt about dying.
Jeff: I don't fear death anymore. I saw death. And I saw how calm and how peaceful it was and that it's just not something to be afraid of.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.