Near-Death Experience Teaches Man Not to Worry about Life’s Small Problems
After brain infection came out of nowhere and nearly killed him, he wondered: ‘How much of myself will I get back?’
March 13, 2019
Hazem Fahmy, 40, a project manager for technical translations in Chicago, was healthy before food poisoning and a meningitis infection almost killed him. Now fully recovered, he has gained a new perspective on life and says the experience taught him that everyday worries are not important. He spoke with Greg Beaubien.
IN NOVEMBER 2017, IT STARTED WITH THE WORST HEADACHE I EVER HAD. I couldn’t bear light. I couldn’t work, not even from home. A friend drove me to see a doctor. He took one look at me and said calmly, “This is meningitis. And you have to go to the hospital right now, or you will die.”
At the hospital they did all sorts of tests and came up with an abscess in my brain and another in my liver. The doctors said the two infections were feeding off of each other. My official diagnosis was meningitis/encephalitis. Encephalitis means any inflammation or infection of the brain. The doctors didn’t know how it came and weren’t sure if it would go away. A week earlier I’d had a severe case of food poisoning from a Vietnamese restaurant.
I was not afraid of dying. I just wanted the headache to end. For me, the fear was not of death itself, but of dying super-painfully in a hospital while episodes of Friends played on the TV. That wasn’t how I wanted to go.
I was in the hospital for two weeks. On the fourth or fifth day they had to drain the abscess in my brain. I had long hair and they shaved my head. They drilled into my skull and put a needle and tube in it to drain the fluid around my brain. They gave me an anesthetic but I was aware of the drilling. I was on morphine so I couldn’t tell if draining the fluid relieved the headache.
‘I was able to put worries in perspective, and not worry about things that my brain tries to get me to worry about, when they don’t deserve that much worry.’
When I came home to recuperate, the scary part started. I couldn’t gather my thoughts straight. My focus was completely off. I could barely walk. I had to get a couple of hiking sticks to walk around. There were always questions of, “How much of myself am I going to get back? Will I ever be able to paint again? Will I be able to cook without cutting or burning myself? Will I get my hand-eye coordination back? Will I be able to think coherent thoughts?”
Slowly my brain started to repair itself. Not only did I get myself back, but I feel that I am now better than ever. This experience was the closest that I have come not just to death, but to a complete unravelling of who I was. During my recovery I wasn’t worried about anything except going back to who I was. Every other thing that had worried me before this happened wasn’t there anymore.
I started realizing that I didn’t need to occupy the space that my worries about recovering had filled with all the little things I typically worried about before this whole predicament happened, because they had completely evaporated when faced with something big. It meant they weren’t that big in the first place, and I shouldn’t try to fill in an allocation of worry space in my brain with things regardless of how small or how big they are.
Reflecting back on the issues that I worried about before my illness, I saw they were First World problems. They were not related to survival, or to functioning as a human being. So I was able to put those worries in perspective, and not worry about things that my brain is just trying to get me to worry about, when they don’t really deserve that much worry.
Now I can catch worries before they get out of hand. I picture worry as a weed to tear out before it starts sprouting and branching out and taking over. If I have a worry now, I look back at that time when I was recovering and ask myself: “Would I have been worried about that then? And if not, then why am I worried about it now? Is it really that big, whatever the issue is?”
Now I think about how to improve what I’m doing, and how to enjoy life within my means. I try to keep things positive. If I have a worry now, I just focus on what I can do about it. What happens afterwards is irrelevant, because I’ve already done my best. When we apply context and force ourselves to change perspective, it can change how we feel about things.