The important lesson I've learned from two near-death experiences

"I went quite close to becoming another one of the Grim Reaper’s statistics."

Twice during the last four years the Grim Reaper took me for a ferocious waltz.

Each time, I only survived by the skin of my teeth.   

On both occasions, he appeared unannounced, brutal and dramatic, like a thunderbolt from the blue sky, catching me completely off-guard.

They were not waltzes which I would ever have wished to dance. But he forced himself upon me.

I then had to watch every move I made. If I stepped on his toes, I knew I would be finished! This second time, before he took me to one of his influenza balls, he has already wiped out an annual 3,000 of his dance partners.  

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This year is his most successful harvest. Extreme weather spawned extreme bugs. After not catching a cold for two years, I have now been tossed around by these bugs as helplessly as a paper boat on a cyclone whipped oceanic king tide.  

I went quite close to becoming another one of the Grim Reaper’s statistics.

It started with my throat going on fire with an intensity, the like of which, I never experienced in my life. During the first day I had no symptoms whatsoever during the day, but by the evening all hell broke loose.

As if my tonsils were tossed on a barbeque, I simply could not swallow at all without excruciating pain. Until now I never noticed that I had to swallow 4 to 6 times every minute, because till now swallowing was quite automatic and without the slightest discomfort. Now I dreaded every agonising next time that I was forced to swallow. No wound licking respite lasted longer than 10 seconds.

My face was grimacing with pain, bracing myself for the agony of every successive swallowing. If this was not enough, I started to get convulsive sneezing attacks, every one of them ending in a loud explosion in my throat. It was like scraping my throat with barbed wire while blow-torching it.

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And you, the Grim Reaper just stood there watching me agonise, asking the question:

“Well, I wonder how long you’ll last? After all, you are nearly 71, perfectly eligible by age for accompanying me.”

“Oh, no!” I would protest, if I only could! But I was unable to utter a single coherent word!

For now, within half an hour of the outbreak of this inner firestorm, my lungs were also rattling, getting ever more irritated and forcing me into another layer of excruciatingly painful dimension: compulsive dry reaching through non-stop coughing!

I was at my wits’ end. I crawled to the phone, rang my doctor sister but I could only cough into the phone. So I heard the magic words from her: 

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“Take two Panadol tablets now and every two hours and go on antibiotics immediately.”

Well, the Panadol was a brilliant idea; I myself was too distressed to think of taking them on my own before her prompting. In general, I have been avoiding Panadol, like the plague.

I have not taken any for the last twenty years. But now, in my misery, Panadol seems to have been heaven-sent. I found them in my wife’s medicine kit. I take two, curl up in front of the slow combustion heater and for the first time in 24 hours I fall asleep and feel relatively comfortable for two hours.

I wake up shaking with coughing. At last, I experience a glimmer of hope; even though my throat is still on fire and I am again coughing non-stop, at least I had two hours of respite from intensive distress.

Now, for the first time since I became ill, I am sufficiently composed despite my infirmity to be able to take stock of myself.

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My mind drifts back to January 2014; my first close shave with the Grim Reaper.

My doctor told me then that I was only a few hours away from death.

For unbeknown to me, my lungs were by then filled to 80% of their capacity with blood clots, collapsing my left lower lung lobe.

That was because it was subsequently diagnosed that I had massive pulmonary embolism that stemmed from an undiscovered deep vein thrombosis in my left calf. From knee to ankle, two, 21 centimetres long deep veins were blocked by thrombosis; one partially, the other totally. 

Yet I did not have a clue about this as I did not have the slightest pain symptoms in my left calf. This might have been so because I was very fit: other veins simply took over carrying the venous blood from the dysfunctional first two.

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And again because my lungs were in top shape prior to my massive embolism, as they started to fill with blood they still functioned smoothly, with no breathlessness until they became so full of blood clots that they started to collapse and only then, very close to the onset of death, that I first had any symptoms of breathlessness and excruciating pain. Yes, I had the silent killer, the athletes’ disease, as I subsequently found out.

When the symptoms came near death, my wife drove me to emergency at the Katoomba Hospital. After a day of tests, the doctor in charge completely misdiagnosed me.

No wonder more people die in the country because of inadequate medical treatment for preventable deaths than in big city teaching hospitals.

The doctor wanted to send me home with pain killers with a provisional diagnosis of pneumonia! Except I did not have pneumonia and had I gone home that night untreated I would have died, according to the doctor who eventually took over my treatment in Intensive Care when I was rushed there after one more test.

It was that test that saved my life.

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Or rather, it was my angelic GP sister, with 50 years of general practice experience under her belt. Except that she was in Sydney when the doctor in charge of the casualty department in the Blue Mountains Hospital wanted to discharge me home with ‘pneumonia’.

I declined going home and rang my sister.

Now that she is retired, she never answers her phone after 5pm. Nevertheless, I felt I just had to ring her. And miracle of miracles, she answered her phone. She told me that my condition did not sound like pneumonia to her because of the intensive pain I felt. She suggested an immediate CT Scan of my chest.

But here is the rub! She was just my sister; an outside GP. Who was she to suggest to the doctor in charge of Emergency what to do? He could have told her where to go; he was in charge!

But he did not. He acceded to her polite phone request for that test for me.

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When the results were back soon: I was rushed to Intensive Care, was put on drip and oxygen and immediately given anti-coagulant that saved my life by stopping further clots entering my lungs.

The diagnosis of the cause – the massive deep vein thrombosis – came later.

Did I get the DVT because 9 months earlier I had two 24 hours flight-to Hungary and back to Sydney?

Apparently the greatest percentage of passengers who end up with DVT after such long flights are athletes, because their blood pressure, like mine, is low and the blood begins not to circulate from under the knees during the long flight.

My treatment specialist now recommends to everyone over 60 to take anti-coagulants after consultation with their doctor for such long trips, for three days. He decided on this, after his friend dropped dead on arrival to an overseas airport after DVT induced stroke in the air.

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Now a single anti-coagulant tablet a day keeps my thrombosis away.

Since my recovery in 2014, I have resumed a most vigorously healthy lifestyle with three hours of mountain bicycle riding every week, three swims, walks and daily Yoga.

Except there is one thing I have not paid much attention before this latest visit from the Grim Reaper: that I am not 17 any more, but rather nearly 71!

Yet lately I have been taking risks appropriate for 17 but definitely not for 71 in hindsight.

Because I love swimming in fresh water and in winter I am forced to swim in the highly chlorinated enclosure of the heated swimming pool, I bought a wet suit and recently swam 6 days in a row in a freshwater creek with less than five degree plus temperature.

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I loved the swims but I might have picked up some infection from the creek and pneumonia.

On the top of this, to date, I steadfastly refused anti-pneumonia and  annual anti-flu vaccinations which are recommended for people of my age.

Well, I paid the price.

I survived on double antibiotics, but just. 

From now on I’ll take the flue shots and will not tempt you too vigorously, Mr Grim Reaper!

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Have you ever had an uncomfortably close brush with death?