Blithe spirit - What dying feels like, a personal story of my meeting with the 'Widow Maker'
Type of spiritual experienceHallucination
I thought it might be helpful to add the Wikipedia description too, to add a little detail.
"The Widow maker is a nickname used to describe a highly stenotic left main coronary artery or proximal left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery of the heart.
This term is used because if the artery gets abruptly and completely occluded it will cause a massive heart attack that will likely lead to a sudden death. The blockage that kills is made up of platelets streaming to the site of a ruptured cholesterol plaque. Even a small amount of plaque in this area can (for a variety of poorly understood reasons) rupture and cause death; bypassing chronic blockages or trying to open them up with angioplasty does not prevent heart attack but it can restore blood flow in case of a sudden blockage or heart attack.
From the minute a widow maker hits, survival time varies. Rapidly progressing symptoms should signal the need for immediate attention. Symptoms of initial onset may include nausea, shortness of breath, pain in the head, jaw, arms or chest, numbness in fingers, often of a novel but imprecise sensation which builds with irregular heart beat. Early symptoms may be mistaken for food poisoning, flu or general malaise until they intensify. A widow maker cannot kill instantly but induces cardiac arrest which may do so within 10 to 20 minutes of no circulation. A victim with no pulse or breath is still alive, living off oxygen stored in the blood and may be able to be rescued if treatment is begun promptly within this window"
A description of the experience
The heading to this observation may seem absurdly impossible, you cannot be dying and then write about it.
But in 2011, I was dying and dying very quickly from a very rapid narrowing in a blood vessel called the left main coronary artery. Any blockage or final narrowing of this artery causes a heart attack called the "widow maker" simply because those who have them die. According to the Belgian cardiologist who put the stent in that saved me, I was about 5 days from being one of those people and indeed that is how I felt, I had known for months I was dying.
So I can tell you exactly what it feels like to be dying and what happens.
A little bit of science from Wisegeek to start the explanation.
“In order for the heart to function properly, it needs to be supplied with sufficient amounts of fresh blood. A number of vessels, called the coronary arteries, provide the muscle of the heart with the energy and oxygen that it needs to survive”.
No blood, no oxygen, no oxygen and the heart stops.
I had three warnings, in the months preceeding what would have been my death. Terrific attacks of dreadful pain which radiated up from the centre of my chest to my face, gripping my jaw and making my eyes feel as though they would pop out of my head. It is not possible to describe how excruciatingly painful a heart attack is, the NHS use a pain scale from 1 to 10, and having had other times of pain with which to compare, a heart attack must class as a 9. But comparatively speaking, if you don’t panic and simply let it happen, it is a very merciful way to die, as it is so quick.
Each attack resulted in me having to be taken as an emergency to the hospital. There in A&E, dosed up with what I assume are tranquilising drugs, I lay all alone listening to the outbursts of the drug addicts and the terrible cries of pain from little old ladies who had fallen and broken hips, arms and wrists.
You wait a long time in A&E in the UK.
They have no system whereby you can contact anyone. We have a health system that is primitive and cruel. The truly sick – the emergencies – are lined up on trollies so that they can all listen to the terrors of each other. I closed my eyes and took myself away in my mind, breathing slowly and as deeply as I could [it is very difficult to breathe], and visited far off lands. If I hadn’t, I would have been screaming with them.
The diagnosis of a ‘heart attack’ is dependent on blood tests and because the NHS do not employ enough laboratory technicians, these can take literally hours. On my last attack, I was wheeled in at 4 in the afternoon and the test results came through at 2 in the morning. The test looks for specific blood enzymes which are released if the heart is damaged. But on each occasion, due to the very swift action of the paramedics and my use of ‘meditation’ methods - the deliberate slowing down of every system, it wasn’t damaged. So they said I hadn’t had a heart attack.
On the third time round they decided it might be wise to do the test for heart function. These are called stress tests and are used to test cardiac function under the stress of exercise, such as walking and running on a treadmill. The thought of running, I’m afraid, at that stage was laughable and I was barely able to get myself to the test room in the hospital. I lasted under a minute before they had to lift me off. I waited and waited for some kind of feedback from these tests. I found out later they lost my test results.
This is the UK’s National Health Service.
So I was resigned to dying, it seemed inevitable.
Billions is wasted on the NHS, it has become a self serving money earning machine for its employees.
Only one timid, female trainee doctor was competent enough to recognise how sick I was. She held my hand and said, 'I think we ought to do more tests you know'. A bluff little pompous Napoleon of a male doctor over-ruled her. That is the NHS - ruled by ego.
Dying, as I was, from lack of oxygen to the brain and to the muscles and heart, is not frightening.
You can get appalling headaches at night because your brain is also starved of oxygen, but otherwise, there is no sense of terror or impending doom, no sense of dread or fear. You are weary beyond comprehension, every act requires intense concentration. You slow down to the pace of a slug on benzodiazepines. You get to automatically judge whether something is possible or not. Going up any stairs takes time, you walk nowhere if you can help it. There are no excursions to the shops, no outings, no dinner parties. You are waiting for the inevitable.
People used to ask me, in the way people do as a common courtesy ‘How are you’? And towards the end I would sit there and look at them and tell them the truth. ‘I’m dying’. And they would look embarrassed and walk away, because few people these days can cope with the idea of someone they know dying.
I was perhaps in a different position to some. When I was 26, a year after my marriage, I was told by a female NHS doctor I had never met before, in that blunt matter of fact way doctors have of breaking the news, that I had an 80% chance of dying from cervical cancer. At 26, at a time when life seemed good, this was a shock. But the operation to remove the cancerous cells worked and I didn’t die, but from that point on death meant very little to me. Every extra day was a bonus, every day needed to be lived to the full, because it might be my last.
Perhaps it opened the spiritual door, because without ever studying this area, I gradually came to feel that the spirit – the software - was far more developed and extensive than the form based image with which our eyes present us. Death was really about going home, it wasn’t an end, it was a beginning. By being born I’d been thrown down the well – the tunnel - into the physical world, but my real home was at the top of the well, with spirits – or something – of which I was occasionally dimly aware.
I became a lot more aware of them as I was dying.
When people ask the dying if they are hallucinating or seeing people or angels, it is a pointless thing to ask. The physical world takes on an unreality that is difficult to describe. It all appears to be an hallucination, none of it appears ‘real’. You feel as if you are watching some vast play being acted out, with all these marionettes that call themselves people scurrying about in a stage set. Another way of describing it is to imagine that you feel as though connected to a permanent virtual reality machine. Are these my hands picking up this cup, or are they a construction made to look like hands for my benefit?
I may have seen angels, I may have seen avatars, I would never have known. Sometimes a scene took on a surreal air, which means simply that it didn’t quite match with what my mind told me normally happens, but then what is normal?
What I am trying to explain is that to someone who is dying, there is a sudden realisation that nothing is ‘real’, it is all a construction in our minds, and we are all hallucinating.
The apparently bizarre seems after a while as normal as what others might term normal. I no longer know what is normal as a result of this. It has become a meaningless word.
The next thing you feel is this extraordinary sense of deep peace. A peace that passeth all understanding. A bliss of sorts, a feeling of letting go. I am on the whole a fairly passive, ‘go with the flow’ sort of person, and so I simply did what was natural to me – I went with this flow - gliding down the river of death towards places unknown. It is a quiet, slow sort of river, with no eddies or rapids or whirlpools, just a vast current in which you drift along in silence, the little boat of your body simply heading back to the ocean. But you do feel the power that is taking you, a force bigger than you or anything you have ever known, a deep never ending river, a tide that can never be turned.
I knew I was not alone, I felt surrounded by spirits unknown trying to help me. It was as if a million invisible hands were holding mine, as if a million arms were round my shoulders trying to support me and comfort me. I had no night mares, no demons came to visit me, there was no sense of hell or realms to fear. Love, that was the abiding sense, perhaps it was divine love, it was difficult to know, but I knew I had nothing to fear. I just had to let things happen as was intended, not fight events, not try to turn their course, just accept. All things have a purpose.
It may be helpful to know I was on no medication at that time and I believe this helped.
Despite having had a stent put in, I am on no medication now either, I have ditched the lot. I’m afraid I regard pharmaceuticals as evil and the spirits they conjure up are evil too. They are not even a necessary evil. I am feeling better now than I have done for ages on a regimen of apples, cod liver oil, and garden tomatoes!
In July, the daughter of one of my dearest friends and her two children came to stay with us at the seaside. She is an osteopath and she took one look at me and said ‘BS you are really ill’ and I said ‘I know Els, but no one believes me, not even my own husband’. She is married to a cardiologist, and when she returned home, she told him. He told me to come immediately to Belgium. It was the beginning of August.
My husband tried to dissuade me, but I went - alone - to Belgium. It was an extraordinary journey. Everyone helped me without knowing what was wrong. Someone helped me onto the first train, someone else helped me off. As I sat waiting for the time for the Eurostar, a little waitress brought me a broth like soup and a green tea – being ‘the best thing’. It wasn’t on the menu. Anything more substantial would have put a strain on my heart and I could have died there in St Pancras station. I was helped onto the Eurostar, I was helped off. There was a tunnel leading from the train platform to the exit to the station and I looked at the length of the tunnel and the walk it represented, and suddenly I felt I could go no further. At that very moment one of my dearest friends rang on my mobile from the UK, out of the blue and willed me on, willed me to get to the exit. And Els picked me up at the station and took me to her home and said to go to bed, because they had arranged tests for me early next morning.
Early next morning, however, I was too ill for tests and I was classified as an emergency and put in an ambulance and taken to Bruges hospital where they did what I think was an angiogram, where x-ray images of blood vessels in the body can be seen on a large overhead screen. “The procedure involves the insertion of a small, flexible tube, or a catheter, into the blood vessel. A water-soluble dye which shows up on angiograms is then injected into the blood vessel, allowing the doctor to see how the blood is flowing through the blood vessel”.
If it sounds vague, it does all seem vague to me, I was on the very last leg of the river to death, a vast powerful river that by that time seemed so inevitable, all this work on my body seemed a bit pointless. At this stage you sometimes hear music – not hearing in its normal sense, but a sense of music in your head, like a chorus of harebells and violins – high notes, maybe the sound of female’s voices – a sort of choir of some sort. It was all very beautiful. I wasn’t in Belgium I think, I was half way there – going home, going home, going home. I was actually happy.
In the UK they rarely let you see the screen. In Belgium they do, and it was a strange sight. There was my heart. It was the first time I had ever seen my own heart. All the blood vessels were there – or at least they weren’t there. Like a river delta, but with a dam which had blocked all the tributaries so that they had all dried up. There was a sort of channel through, so narrow it almost didn’t show up. No more than a hair’s width. You feel oddly detached about it, so that’s why, you think, that’s why I am dying.
The cardiologists had a short discussion, a very short discussion, about the number of stents needed. They decided on one, on the basis that if they opened that main channel it might reopen the others. If it didn’t entirely work, then there would have to be more.
So they gave me one and it worked, the dam broke and I don’t appear to need anymore.
They gave me life – the Belgian doctors and I am supremely grateful, but I am also sad, because I know that what awaits those who die is better than anything that we have here on earth.
We are here for a purpose. I suspect I have not completed what I am here for. And this is why I was helped, this is why at every stage of that epic journey to get to Belgium there was someone there to keep me going. At times what I think I am here for seems unbelievably daunting to someone who has been through this. But there again I have nothing to lose, I am on borrowed time and the time I have borrowed was meant to be used wisely.
Ask me what dying feels like and I can only answer for myself, but for me it was unutterable peace, a real sense of returning to where I belonged. But I was not in pain, and I was on no medication, so maybe for those who go the route of pharmaceuticals it is not the same.
All I can say is that no person should ever fear dying.