Nothing makes you appreciate life like a near-death experience

I came to on my bedroom floor, scratching at it and wondering why it wasn’t my bed. I tried to move and was hit with an intense pain I’d never felt before. I had apparently had a heart attack and broken four ribs in the fall. I then did what any sane person would do: I dragged myself to my phone and called Bird TLC to tell them I wouldn’t be in for my volunteer shift. Thankfully, they called 911.

I am now post-heart attack, post-four broken ribs, post-open-heart surgery and wondering when the heck I got so old. I’m officially one of those people who owns a bracelet into which I can scream, “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” I remember once laughing at the pathetic nature of that person and her needs. Now, I’m her.

I’m guessing I’m not the only member of the sixties generation that is suddenly coming face-to-face with their own mortality. We all thought we were going to be young forever. Remember that saying, “Never trust anyone over 30?”  Back then, we never thought we’d get over 30. And some of us didn’t – mostly musicians, but still.

For those of us who moved far away from our birth families, being struck down with such rapidity and strength means we have to rely on the families we made up here – people who might be called good friends somewhere else. But in Alaska, so many of us left our families behind in search of something different, something we can hardly define or explain. That left us vulnerable, and we need our friends to wrap us in their arms and make us feel safe.

I have been wrapped up in the arms of everyone from a childhood friend to the Bird Ladies here in Anchorage to the friends I made in Utqiagvik. I was never alone and never scared. And that’s saying a lot.

So what has this journey taught me so far? Glad you asked. I learned that Alaska has some mighty fine doctors and nurses who can help you survive, despite your best efforts to live an unhealthy lifestyle.

I found out that I am the worst patient you will ever encounter. Not being in my own home and able to make my own decisions damn near killed me as much as the heart attack itself. I believe my very early discharge after the surgery occurred because they realized the stress of being in the hospital was going to kill me long before the heart disease. Yep, if I had been one of those nurses, I would have put me in a car and driven me home just to get me gone.

Of course, no trip to a hospital is complete without a reference to the food. Yep. That’s what it was called. Food. You could have fooled me. Don’t think I was able to eat once while I was an inpatient – though here, again, I feel I should point out that if you put me on a low-sodium, low-fat, low-sugar diet, none of it will resemble food as I know it.

Being helpless and near death brings a lot of things into sharper focus. I thought I was invincible. I mean, after all, there I was kicking old age’s butt. I was on my own and totally independent. Only I wasn’t, really, and I’m not now. My own limitations came up and smacked me right in the face and it scared the living daylights out of me. I now face each day more grateful than before but also more frightened than before because I realize how tenuous my grip is on life and how quickly and easily it can slip away.

So here’s my message from the other side of this mess: If you are going to survive, do so with a vengeance. Eat what the doctors tell you. Exercise when they tell you. And at least once a week, treat yourself to something that simply makes you happy. If you’re lucky, when you finally do die, it will be on the day when you have a big grin on your face because you treated yourself to some happiness… and yes, ice cream counts.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska columnist and author. Her book “Coming Into the City” is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

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