Surviving a potentially fatal injury and the fragility of life

You are now out of the Gray Zone, and you are now a member of an exclusive club.

But membership to this club comes at a steep price.  Membership is not offered, it is not dependent on your income, title nor your social status.  Membership is granted simply by surviving or living with a grave or potentially fatal illness or injury and realizing just how fragile life is and how quickly your life can be cut short.

As a member of a very busy orthopedic trauma service in a suburb of New York City , I have witnessed many high powered, high energy type A personalities brought to our emergency room very near death.   As a friend of those potentially suffering from a fatal disease I have seen fearless, ruthless negotiators and wheelers and dealers brought to the the very brink of their potential demise.  On the flip side, once the incident has past,  I have been honored to have shared the knowledge and recognition with many of these patients and friends of just how fragile life can be — and just how lucky they are.

Imagine the Type A high powered Wall Street executive who sees nothing in front of him except for his next big deal and the accompanying payout.  He works 100+ hours a week and sleeps, eats and perpetually searches for the next big deal.  He needs to be reminded when his son’s birthday is, and misses most family dinners to remain in NYC to try and consummate a deal.  None of this is necessary because he likely has more money then he can spend in 4 lives.

This executive takes his Harley out on the weekend and BOOM.  He awakens in the hospital 2 days later, intubated, sedated, in traction, with a pulmonary contusion, half his liver removed, both femur fractures fixed and is looking at 10 more surgeries over the next few days.    When able to communicate their reactions are surprisingly similar.  They want their latptop, secretary and want to know when they’ll be back at work wheeling and dealing.

In the vast majority of cases, the inevitable reality sets in.  Occasionally spontaneously, but usually precipitated by a discussion with a family member, me or another health care provider — and the patient has an epiphany and realizes how lucky they are to be alive.  Then you begin to witness a new set wheels start churning.   A well trained observer witnesses the change before the patient is even capable of articulating it.   This is now a patient who will know his children’s birthday, see the beautiful reservoir they drive by every morning of their life, hear the birds singing, and quite possibly change their job (if their financial situation allows).

In a way it is sad that it takes such a significant moment for most  people to reach this point in their life. The new members do not want their tombstone to read, “he was a stone cold trader.” They now want to experience all that life has to offer, and I really enjoy knowing that I witnessed the transformation, assisted in the transformation and potentially enabled the transformation.

The patient has joined a very exclusive club.  There is no fee to continue your membership, just the memory of how close you were to the end and the desire to live life to its fullest and appreciate every waking moment.


Howard Luks is an orthopedic surgeon who blogs at The Orthopedic Posterous.

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