So this one time, I died.

          Since today is the SPOOKIEST day of the year and everyone is talking about death and zombies and creepy things and vampires (ohwait — everyone talks about vampires all the time now. nevermind.) I decided to post something from my own life that could be considered Halloweenish. I want to finally tell you all about MY DEATH. Yes. Creepy, mccreepy.
Succinctly, I died due to a heart problem I didn’t know I had. If you want the long version full of my afterlife details, read on.
*Also, official cry warning. Maybe, maybe not. But just in case. Official warning.*
          Six years ago I died. When I was younger, sporadically I would feel my heart beat differently. The only way I described it was: my heart beats funny sometimes. Somehow I neglected to ever mention this fun fact to my parents–the ULTIMATE my bad! I remember in the second grade I was sitting in class next to my friend and I felt my heart pop. I turned to my friend and said, “Wow, my heart is going REALLY FAST. It popped.” I’m sure in the mind of my second grade friend, hearing her friend’s heart had popped was not comprehendible. She responded, “Mine does that sometimes too.” I never thought about the conversation again — until I was 17. 
          If you’ve never been to Gatlinburg, Tennessee let me tell you an important fact: there is no hospital in Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg is a tiny town in the mountains of southeast Tennessee that exists solely for tourists and because of tourists. Small streets, lots of traffic, church/business/allkindsof conventions, hiking trails and shopping galore define the somewhat secluded mountain town. Much like a college campus, pedestrians can walk anywhere they want at anytime and vehicles have to sit and wait. 
          On Sunday Feb 20, 2005 I was attending a youth conference with my church in Gatlinburg, TN. Winterfest is a good ol’ southern church convention packed with about 20,000 people, so the streets of Gatlinburg were slammed. Sunday was the final day of the convention. We loaded up the charter bus early in the morning and then walked to the convention center. In the parking lot of our hotel I gave my friend a HUGE hug — and felt my heart pop, similar to my buried memory of second grade. I thought Man, that was weird, but said nothing. As we walked downhill to the convention center, I felt my heart continue to speed up. I turned to my friend Melanie and told her my heart was racing. She asked if I needed to sit down, but I said no. In my mind, it was just a little difficult to breathe. No big deal. I loosened my scarf from my neck thinking the scarf was the culprit of my shortness of breath. A few steps later I felt weak. Although I had loosened my scarf, there was an immense pressure on my throat. I felt like someone had a vice grip on my neck ensuring neither air nor blood could pass. I realized it was incredibly difficult to breathe, think and walk. I turned to Melanie again and stopped walking. She helped me lean up against a construction fence lining the sidewalk. She grabbed my wrist and tried to take my pulse but my heart was beating too quickly. Our group passed us by as they continued walking downhill. 
          Melanie saw my 6’2” brother’s head sticking out of the crowd of our group and screamed for him to come over. Grayson, my freshly fifteen-year-old younger brother, jogged back up the hill to us, took one look at me and went into what I like to call GO MODE. His GO MODE sent Melanie into GO MODE as well. Let me point out that Melanie is a striking contrast to my large brother. At somewhere around five feet tall, she is over a foot shorter than him. They placed me between them to help me walk down to the convention center. I could not join in the conversation, but I heard it. They were plotting and scheming which routes to take to get through the crowd and what they would say to the security guards to let us pass. Now given the drastic height difference between Melanie and Grayson added to the fact that I had little control over my legs, the human-crutches scheme began to quickly unravel. Grayson and Melanie both realized the inefficiency of our current method of travel and Grayson scooped me up and began running with Melanie on his heels toward the convention center. 
          We approached the guard who had only one job — DO NOT LET PEOPLE PASS. Part of my brother’s GO MODE involves a Captain America/Superman/Robin Hood type persona. If he witnesses an injustice, he will not just step in, he will FLY IN and TAKE OVER. The poor little security guard had hardly any time to register the situation before my brother was charging past him. My brother and Melanie ran inside the convention hall and laid me down on some chairs. I could hardly breathe, and certainly couldn’t think. I could feel all the blood in my body pooling in my neck. Melanie crouched down on the ground next to me and called 911. *Here’s where the important facts about Gatlinburg kick in, creating an incredibly long wait for an ambulance.* The 911 dispatcher immediately sent an ambulance, and asked Melanie to take my pulse. I distinctly remember hearing Melanie scream “123456789101112131415161718192030405060708090100…200… over 400! I CAN’T COUNT FAST ENOUGH!” Someone from the convention noticed our situation and moved us into a private office, where I was laid on the floor in the position I was soon to die in. Little did we realize, my brother charging past the security guard had caused a scene. Thankfully, my youth minister witnessed the scene and quickly joined us in the little office room. 
          I do not remember the process of being moved from the chairs in the convention center to the floor of the private office. I have random bouts of memory from different moments in time. From what I have been told, once my youth minister showed up and found out the ambulance was on it’s way, he told my brother to run outside to the waiting crowd (about 5,000 people) and yell for a doctor. My brother has such a loud, booming voice that he was once singled out at a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert by the guitar player on stage–we were sitting in the nosebleed section. Yeah, his voice is THAT loud. So he had no trouble finding a doctor in the crowd. The amazing thing is, the doctor that came out of the crowd was an old friend of my parents from when we lived in Alabama a few years earlier. The crowd was easily 5,000 people, so the chances of the random doctor in the crowd being my parents close friend … well, 1 in 5,000. 
          I remember when the doctor came into the room, a whole crowd of people I knew pushed their way in behind him. The little office room filled up to standing room only. I was lying on the floor. Everyone’s eyes focused intently on watching me die. The doctor began asking questions while assessing me. I remember one of the questions was “Do we have an AED?” That question quickly turned into the command “FIND AN AED!” An AED is an automated external defibrillator. It’s that thing from the movies and Grey’s Anatomy and House when the doctor shouts CLEAR and (s)he places paddles on a dead person’s chest and the body flails from the power of the shock. An AED restarts the heart, and that’s what the doctor wanted someone to find. He needed an AED to use on me. I tried to reason with everyone in the office as I laid on the floor. I thought I was telling the room full of adults and my brother and Melanie that I would be fine. I felt fine. They didn’t need an AED for me. Apparently I wasn’t even moving, let alone speaking.
          I was laying on the floor of the little office, not at all aware of how serious the situation was–which was definitely due to a lack of blood flow to my brain for an extended period of time. I watched through blurred vision as the crowd in the room cleared a path to let my brother resume his position standing at my feet. I could barely focus on Grayson as he made his way back. I couldn’t see the doctor, although he was by my side and I could hear him. I concentrated my focus on Grayson and in the process noticed my youth minister was next to him. I saw his hand next to his ear, and his lips moving, but I could not hear what he was saying. Later I learned he was on the phone with my parents. I had tunnel vision, so knowledge of my surroundings was limited. The last thing I heard before I died was a choppy conversation that went like this:
      “I can’t feel a pulse in her ankles or wrist. Check her neck.” 
      “I can’t feel anything in her neck.” 
          I could hardly breathe. I could no longer hear, speak or move. I was dying, and I hadn’t yet realized it.
          I focused my remaining energy on staring at my brother. He was the only person in the room who made me feel safe. I recall the point when I saw worry begin to creep over my brother’s face; it was during the can’t feel a pulse conversation. I remember losing feeling in my legs. The tingling sensation turned to numbness and the numbness turned to nothingness and the nothingness flowed up my legs, torso, arms, and shoulders until finally I knew this was my end. The doctor was here, but the ambulance was not.
          I remember the exact moment I knew I was dying. My brother, who had carried my limp body past the security guard and who had been the first to recognize the situation to be as serious as it was, stood at my feet covering his face with his hands. His fingers parted so his eyes could see only me. I clung to his presence as if he alone tethered me to this life. We locked eyes and I noticed tears. He was weeping. His hands were covering his face because he didn’t want the crowd to see his tears. He knew he was watching his sister die. I knew I was leaving my brother without ever telling him what he meant to me. And then, I died.

 

          Watching my brother weep at my feet, I melted into myself. I melted into a white light of contentment. I was weightless, not in my body. I have no visual description of what came next other than the white light of contentment. The descriptors I have for the white light of contentment are all feelings, because I have never felt so full, so complete, so content. I was somewhere much more enjoyable than earth. I was more free, more loved. I was surrounded by bright, shiny LOVE. It was overflowing, filling up my every desire. I wasn’t a being in a place of love, I was a puzzle piece returning to my home in the love. The feeling of love in this place was palpable, visible, and REAL. I couldn’t tell you what it looked like, but I can tell you I could see, taste, smell, hear, and feel LOVE.
           I knew I was going to meet Jesus. I knew Jesus came next, every part of me knew Jesus was there–wherever there was. To better describe how certain I was that Jesus was the first person I would see, I will liken the situation to earthly terms. 
          When I come home after a long, stressful day at work and am exhausted, I expect everything in my home to be exactly as I left it. Sure my hubs may have moved a pile of laundry, but I’m talking about drastic changes. I expect a kitchen to be on my left, a hallway to my right and a living room in front of me. If I returned home one day and found my front door now opened into my bedroom, I would be shocked. How shocked would you be if you returned home to find your living room in the place of your kitchen? Exactly. I’m talking about BIG, STRUCTURAL changes that would never happen. When I walk in my front door, I feel safe and relieved because I am seeing what I expect to see, right where I expect to see it. I know my kitchen will be on my left. I know my bedroom will be behind my living room. I know when I turn the corner in my living room, I will see my bedroom.
          Well, after melting into myself and dissolving into a white light of contentment, I knew what I would see next as well as if I was walking through my own front door. I had never been to this place before, and had not a clue where I was, but I knew who was around the corner.  As if I was returning to my house after a long, hard day at work, I knew what I would see next. In the vast white light of contentment immediately following my life, I knew Jesus was around the corner. There was no corner in the limitless white space, but thats how well I knew He came next. When I come home, I know my living room will be in front of me. When I was in the white space of love, I knew Jesus would be next. I was going to meet Jesus, and I was going to meet Him NOW.

Then I came back. I was sucked through a vacuum and had to live in a space as small as a freckle.
         There is no medical reason explaining definitively why I came back. The paramedics hadn’t arrived, so no one dramatically shouted CLEAR and shocked me with an AED. As a last ditch effort before resulting to CPR, I know the doctor was pressing a lot on my throat which could have triggered a Vagal maneuver to restart my heart, but no one knows for sure. The actual process of coming back felt like a bomb exploded inside of my chest. I felt a thousand elephants with firey feet jumping on the inside of my ribcage. The first breath I took was the most pain I have ever experienced. I would rather willingly slam my head into a cinder block wall, than experience the pain of taking my first breath again.
Then the paramedics arrived. I rode to the hospital and boring stuff happened and eventually, once I returned to Virginia, I had a heart procedure to fix my heart.
But there is one more important part. 
I had only one regret as I watched my brother weeping at my feet. I should have said “I Love you” more. There were so many people in my life, including my brother, who I loved but who had never heard me tell them. We are first and foremost supposed to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and why couldn’t I tell my neighbors I loved them? 


          My dad has since told me my youth minister was talking to him on the phone while I was dying on the floor of the tiny office. The home phone was on speakerphone so both my dad and my mom could  listen to the updates on what was happening. After my youth minister relayed the can’t feel a pulse conversation, my dad took the phone off of speaker and placed it next to his ear. He knew I was dying and he didn’t want my mom to hear the chaos that was soon to ensue. My love for my parents is great and as teenager I was too cool to tell them. It took an experience of death for me to learn to share my feelings. I love you mom and dad! You are amazing! I love you Brooke! You are a wonderful person! Stay who you are and never change, because you are just perfect exactly the way you are :-).
          Now, I’m pretty big on sharing love. I can find something I love by the grace of God in every person I meet, and I try to point it out and say it. I have one life (well, maybe two). I need to take advantage of every opportunity to spread love.


You’re beautiful. The world is beautiful. God is beautiful. Please, share this story. It is meant to be spread. Love is meant to be shared.

Phil Wickham – You’re Beautiful


John 13:34-35
 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
              

  • Brooke Annabella

    I love you Hayley. You are the best big sister anyone could honestly ask for. Your life has helped me shape the way I want mine to be like and they way to live it.

  • http://www.caryncaldwell.com/ Caryn Caldwell

    Okay. You were right. This DID make me cry. Wow. Just…wow. What an amazing, reaffirming, scary, loving, and ultimately comforting story. I’m so glad you survived, and that you live in a time when you can have a procedure to heal your heart. Thank you, also, for the very important reminder to tell the people in my life what they mean to me.