On the morning of February 14th 2007, three minutes before my heart stopped, three people made choices that saved my life.
A postman was selecting his route, a nurse with an unexpected day off was heading to Starbucks, and my business partner called just before I ran out the door of my home.
Instead of letting the call go to voicemail, something compelled me to answer the call—so that three minutes later, instead of being on the highway going 60 mph, I was driving up a side street near my home when I had my cardiac arrest.
The postman and nurse appeared at just the right time to perform CPR for eight minutes until the medics arrived. Which meant that it was not my day to die.
This was my introduction to our inter-connectedness, how profoundly our instincts and choices affect one another, and how fragile and yet robust our lives are.
People often ask me if they could have the insights and the perspective this experience has brought me without doing the dying part...
I believe the answer is yes.
As a little girl, my grandma Mattie would ask me to point at one of her wrinkles. I’d choose very carefully, and when I made my selection, she would say. “Oh! Susie, that’s a good one, I earned that one!” She would go on to tell me a story about her childhood, her family, or about some crazy thing that she’d done! And she would always tell me, what she had learned.
It took dying for me to realize what a profound reference Mattie gave me. She was equipping me to savor my story, to notice my learning, and to accept and honor my body as it changes.
When someone touches your life. It changes you. When something happens to remind you of your mortality, it changes you. When you have one foot in a world beyond this world for even a moment, it changes you.
No one is spared tragedy or pain, but there is a flow of goodness that comes together to comfort us and to grow us. So, rather than wishing difficulties away, I’ve come to believe that these experiences are our classrooms. They strengthen our fiber and open our hearts, making us ever more able to connect with another.
I’d always thought that I was invincible—that my smarts and muscle would get me through most anything. Instead, I have discovered that I am here by a most extraordinary grace and provision, and by very little of my own doing.
My practice is to remember.
I keep the Dolce Gabbana overcoat I was wearing that Valentines day—the coat that had always made me feel so “together”. The coat that was shred in seconds, so that Les Davis, my Medic One paramedic could place the external defibrillator pads on my chest to shock me three times before my heart responded and they could rush me to Harborview.
Every February, I hang that coat in my home. It kind of freaks out my friends and family, but to me it is a visceral reminder of how quickly the things we think are powerful can go away and make room for the things that are truly powerful.
I feel the device resting in my chest, and remember the day in the hospital when my doctor told me they were going to implant a defibrillator—which is about the size of an old Razr cell phone—that would shock my heart back into normal rhythm when I needed it.
In my stripy pajamas with tubes and monitors everywhere, I puffed up my posture and exclaimed, “I’d like to talk about my other options.”
He looked at me gently and said... “Dying. And we don’t recommend that one”.
Needless to say, I agreed. And it only took the device going off once, a few months later, for me to fully buy into the idea.
By the second and third time it did its thing, my device had fondly become my watchdog.
When I least expect it, my heart will do its thing again. And I remember.
When I arrest, I begin to lose consciousness, my mind slows and I know that if my heart doesn’t begin to beat normally again, in seconds I will be out. And in a few more, my device will send a robust shock through my heart.
It began to happen in a business meeting not long ago. In those seconds, my thoughts of the agenda vanished, and were displaced by a most intense vulnerability—to disrupt the meeting, to be seen as broken—to have my device send a jolt through my unconscious body... and what if this time, it doesn’t work?
Yet, as time slowed, I was gently swept into a deeper place. “Sue, these are kind and generous souls. Vulnerability is what we all have in common. It doesn’t make us weak. It draws us to one another.”
Thankfully, my heart most often converts back to normal rhythm on it’s own, as it did that day. And thankfully, I never stop learning.
I’ve learned that when I am the most vulnerable, I am the most impactful; that when I’ve done what I can, and I loosen my grip, things flow as they are meant to.
I’ve learned that when I slow down, I notice things. When I pay attention, I hear. When I listen, I learn. And as I learn, I have more to give.
I’ve learned that I have this moment and this moment alone and when I live outside of it, in worry or expectation, I miss it.
I’ve learned that when I listen to my gut, things happen more gently, and that the more I listen, the clearer my insights.
I’ve learned that when I’m angry, I need to look at what I’m afraid of. When I’m afraid, I need to trust. And when I’m anxious, I need to breathe deeply, and remind myself that we are not in control, and that this is a very good thing.
I’ve learned that this life is not about what we are meant to “do”; it is about who we are meant to “be”.
It’s taken a long time for me to make sense of how differently I see things now. Or more accurately - it has taken time for me to appreciate HOW differently I see things.
Believing for so long that vulnerability was weak and dangerous, I found myself more vulnerable than I could fathom. And that experience has shown me the most stunning side of humanity.
In 1967, two years after I was born, Dr. Leonard Cobb and several colleagues began a novel program in Seattle. A program to place specially trained fire fighters in a transformed Winnebago to bring the services of an intensive care unit onto the street, to the sight of an emergency, to improve outcomes of people suffering cardiac arrest.
Their goal was to save lives and to see if non-physicians really could carry out medical care on the streets. They achieved both goals, and their vision became Medic One.
So, while I was studying, launching my career, pursuing my music, Dr. Cobb and his colleagues were cultivating a vision that 40 years later saved my life.
It took dying for me to see our interconnection. It took three minutes, and three strangers coming together to realize the undeniable impact we have on one another’s lives.
And it takes practice, deliberate choice, closing my eyes to be still, and tangible reminders to return me to what is true.
So when the voice inside of me doubts that I am sufficient, or my fear sweeps me into a vortex, I say, “stop!” I recall my story, my acute vulnerability; the warm amber glow of light that encompassed and healed me while I was in my coma— moments profoundly big and small, where my life has intersected others with unexpected provision and generosity.
I have seen the tapestry of our interconnection at work, and I believe its potency. The more I pay attention, the more I see the web of virtual lines that connect us—showing the possibilities for how our lives might touch, how our lives do touch.
I stare at these things, and marvel. And as I do, a swell of gratitude and the twinkle of possibility eclipse my fear.
By Sue Nixon