How a brush with death reminded me to stop and enjoy it all

MARK BROWN: I don’t remember a lot about the night I almost died in a hospital bed, except for desperately wanting one more chance to tell my wife and kids that I loved them, but not wanting to unduly alarm them by waking them.

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Except for a little health setback, Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown and his wife, Hanke Gratteau, did a lot of traveling in 2022. Here they are on safari in South Africa.

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown and his wife, Hanke Gratteau, did a lot of traveling in 2022. Here they are on a safari in South Africa.

Provided/Mark Brown

I’ve never been good about remembering the dates of important life events. The inevitable questions about “What year did such and such happen?” nearly always stump me.

But I’m going to remember 2022. It made a lasting impression.

That’s because 2022 was the first time I’d been forced to seriously confront my own mortality — and the possibility I wouldn’t see another day.

As you can see, I’m still here and doing just fine, as far as I can tell, so don’t get the wrong idea. That’s not to suggest my earlier concern was misplaced.

This happened back in July. Came out of nowhere.

The first sign was a sharp pain in the back of my left thigh during the middle of my daily 4-mile morning walk with my wife, Hanke Gratteau. It lasted about five minutes and went away. I went to the doctor the next day, and they sent me for some tests, which revealed blood clots in my leg.

In short order, the blood clots migrated to my lungs, blocking my pulmonary artery. Things deteriorated from there. My racing heart went into atrial fibrillation, which I learned is a potentially dangerous irregular heart rhythm.

It was in the middle of the night in the hospital after the nurse told me that my blood pressure had dropped to 70/40, with the situation seemingly beyond the doctors’ control, that I started trying to bargain with God to allow me to see another sunrise.

I don’t remember a lot about that, except for desperately wanting one more chance to tell my wife and kids that I loved them, but not wanting to unduly alarm them by waking them. The bargaining with God didn’t go so well because I couldn’t really see any negotiating power on my end. Somewhere in there, it also occurred to me that I sure hoped the great Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell would be assigned to do my obit.

As it turned out, there was, thankfully, no need for an obituary just yet.

The doctors performed a surgical procedure the next day that cleared away one of the blood clots and stabilized my condition. After a couple of failed efforts to remove the other clot, they decided a blood-thinning medication would eventually do the trick. After a week in the hospital, life has pretty much returned to normal.

They still don’t know what caused the blood clots. The usual risk factors were not present, leaving COVID-19 as the prime suspect. I’d had a mild case a couple months earlier, and studies have shown an increased incidence of blood clots among people who have suffered COVID-19. But they don’t really know.

This is where I’m supposed to impart some universality to this story, some wisdom that I gained from the experience and now can share with you.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t really worked out that way. My little health scare didn’t make me any smarter or wiser.

I’ve long understood that tomorrow is promised to no man, but like everyone else, I’m still expecting to be around for it.

Nor have I made any healthy lifestyle changes. I was already watching my weight and exercising before the blood clots. Now I find it harder to deny myself that piece of cake. I mean, if I’m just going to die anyway.

As some of you may have noticed, I’m not writing much these days. That started before the health scare. I actually retired officially in July 2021 but kept writing on a part-time basis until I found that nearly as stressful. My wife and I have been traveling a lot, figuring we’d better squeeze it in while we’re able.

It occurred to me that the blood clots might be a sign I should get back to work and use my remaining time and talents to accomplish something more in life. Then I got over it and started planning the next trip with my wife.

I wrote at the outset that my 2022 health scare was the first time it occurred to me that death could be near. I assume that could happen many more times before it comes to pass. Or maybe I won’t see it coming at all.

I don’t intend for this to be the last column I write for the Sun-Times. Still, just in case, it’s been an honor.

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