On being near death

October 2017 was not a good month for me. First I dislocated my ankle and broke the surrounding bones in three places. Then the subsequent ankle surgery had major complications, and I ended up in the Intensive Care Unit on a respirator following seizures and fluid on the lungs and brain. Now, thank goodness, I am mostly recovered from this double accident. Here’s what happened and a few insights.

How did I break the ankle? I’d like to say that this happened while rescuing small children from a blazing building, but the truth is much less heroic and a little more amusing. I was at the Edmund Hillary Fellowship welcome week for our first cohort of international and New Zealand fellows, and one of the group exercises on the topic of climate change had me galloping across the stage pretending to be a horse – and unfortunately colliding with someone pretending to be a pretzel. (Trust me, there is a strong and irrefutably logical connection between horses, pretzels and climate change – ask me sometime…). Next minute I am lying on the ground with my ankle dangling sideways, the wonderful Sonya Renee Taylor holding one hand, the also wonderful Huia Lambie holding the other, and the rest of the Edmund Hillary whānau calling the ambulance, notifying family, packing my gear, and even singing to me and accompanying me to hospital. A special thank you to this amazing group of people for your care and love.

And how did I end up in Intensive Care? My ankle required surgery to stabilise the bones – a relatively routine procedure called “open reduction internal fixation”. Unfortunately I appear to be allergic to the post-op drug Tramadol which caused hyponatremiaseizures, pulmonary edema and encephalopathy – and I was admitted to ICU. Three days later I woke up, astonished to find myself in hospital and connected to a variety of tubes and devices – and very glad to see my wonderful husband Dave there beside me.

It has been a bit of a journey since – physically, intellectually and emotionally. For the first month I was too immobile from the broken ankle and cast to get around, too phased and weary from the head trauma to work and too emotionally fragile to begin to make sense of a near-death experience, an unremembered trauma. But two months later here are some insights:

  • Relationships are what matters most – and none more than my relationship with myself. I am fortunate to have a long and strong marriage, three great sons, a loving mother and siblings as well as many good friends – and I now realise deeply and intensely just how precious this is. Little things – having my hand held and head stroked, a friend bringing a meal, a colleague sending a flowering pot-plant – these things matter and they help. Yet even in the best of circumstances there are the dark moments where others can’t or won’t be there. And who is there then? Only me. I am, I realise, never truly alone – because I am always there with me. The challenge – and the gift – is self-kindness. “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete” as Jack Kornfield states.
  • Not independence but interdependence. I have thought of myself as a strong and independent person, but I now wonder if independence is an illusion of privilege. It’s easy to think myself independent when I am healthy, active, have a good job and a nice house in a peaceful and prosperous country. Take away one brick in this edifice – in my case health and mobility – and suddenly I am dependent on others for so many of the things I had taken for granted. In fact, we are interdependent – on each other and on our world. Through this experience I have been learning to give and receive with equal grace and to cherish reciprocity.
  • What helps recovery: There are no silver bullets to regaining health, but some things are more helpful than others:
    • Unhelpful: Social Media. Reaching for my mobile was an easy way to spend time when I was sick in bed – but it didn’t help recovery. I ended up overwhelmed by the emails I had the energy to read but not to respond to, stressed by the articles and current events I couldn’t keep up with, fraudulent about the Facebook posts I made with smiling photos of me in my plaster cast when hours later I was falling apart, and obsessed with checking the responses I had to those same posts. The result was an unhelpful, agitated state of being. I am trying now to limit social media to twice a day.
    • Helpful: Much more helpful were the many therapies ACC and our health system offer – in my case physiotherapy, occupational therapy, osteopathy and counselling. Also helpful were visits and phone calls from friends, feel-good novels, movies and music, puzzles and drawing – even though I can’t draw to save myself. Also useful were my self-help attempts – morning pages, guided meditations (like these ones), and simply doing nothing but gazing out the window. All of these helped only a little, but the sum total is considerable.
    • More helpful: Listening to my heart and my body and trying to balance being and doing has been an important part of this journey. I am naturally a head person and a doing person; my mind scuttles about planning the things I need to do then triumphantly ticking off my to-do list. But with my leg in a cast and my mind weary I had no choice but to listen to my heart, and to be rather than to do. And my heart was where the healing came from. My challenge will be keeping this balance of heart, body and mind, of being and doing, as I resume full-time work.
    • Most helpful: Time. Pretty obvious that one…
  • Thoughts on death: I have no memory of the days spent drifting in and out of consciousness following the surgery and seizures; there was no tunnel of light or blinding revelations. Except perhaps that when I think of death now it seems a little less scary. Why? Philosophically I consider myself a small piece of the universe which is briefly podded off into a being called Kate. Death then, is a return to the universe. And whether that means heaven or reincarnation or oblivion perhaps doesn’t matter that much, because the important thing is not me but the whole of which I am part – call it the universe, creation, humanity. And this will continue with or without me. But, thank goodness, I woke from unconsciousness, and this precious gift called life stretches ahead of me again.

So, two months later I am mostly recovered. I am intensely grateful to be alive, to be me, and to again be able to make my small contributions to that which is greater than me.

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  1. Thank you for sharing your deep wisdom and powerful reflective learnings. I (for one) am very glad you are still alive Kate. 🙂 Sending you much aroha on your journey towards full recovery. Cx

  2. Thanks Kate for sharing what sounds like a harrowing and weirdly fruitful journey.
    I am with Cheryl, glad you made it through alive.


  3. Big heart hugs to you Kate. Looking death in the eye is a powerful, ongoing journey that takes courage and a good amount of resilience. It takes twists and turns and in my experience, it unfolds in layers over time. The challenge of living fully without being attached to being alive is an ongoing one!
    Best to you – Ruth

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this Kate. It’s given me much to think about and reflect on, and I really appreciate that. I’m very glad you are recovering from this experience.


  5. Glad to hear you are doing better now Kate. What an ordeal. Really appreciated reading your reflections. A good time of year to be pondering such things that’s for sure. Best wishes for a full recovery!

  6. Dear Kate, thanks for sharing these beautiful reflections gained from your journey through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23). I’ve resisted reading and responding to it prior to now because I was on holiday up until Monday and trying to preserve my family time. Yes you’re right about the primacy of relationships and particularly I believe our primary ones. Amen also to your words about interdependence and self care/self love.
    Given the seductive nature of busyness, I appreciated being reminded of the importance of just being rather than always doing. Thank you.
    Go well and be well. I look forward to catching up sometime soon.
    Shalom, Lindsay

  7. Kia Ora Kate – your reflections have sat with me for some time… incredible to go through that experience. Thankfully you have been able to write about it. I look forward to seeing you sometime soon and acknowledging all of this kanohi-ki-kanohi.

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