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Woke Up Still Not Dead Again Today

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Video produced by John V. Turner

Woke Up Still Not Dead

I had been in the hospital for about four weeks when I got a message from peripatetic fly fisherman and friend Pat Ford, a photographer and writer who contributes regularly to Anglers Journal. He sent fish photos and salutations from a trip he’d just taken to Colombia.

“Hope you’re feeling better and happy to be in the ‘woke up still not dead again today’ club,” he said, quoting from a Willie Nelson song.

Pat’s dark humor made me laugh. It was exactly the medicine I needed.

I was recovering from a ruptured brain aneurysm — a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a devastating type of stroke that is fatal in about 40 percent of cases. Of those who survive, more than 65 percent suffer some permanent neurological deficit, according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation.

The writer’s brother Chris sketched this portrait in the ICU.

The writer’s brother Chris sketched this portrait in the ICU.

It’s hard to describe, in everyday language, the feeling of going through a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Medical jargon doesn’t really capture the worst headache I’ve ever had in my life. A ruptured brain aneurysm is a hunched-over marsh heron stalking through the shallows with reddish-yellow eyes. It shrouds you with its wings and then tries to snatch the life spark from your eyes with its thick bill.

As winter turned to spring, I lay in a hospital bed counting my blessings and feeling as if the turn of events had cast me upon the sea.

Long, sleepless hospital nights are perfect for thinking about all the things you should have done with your life. I thought a lot about family and friends. I prayed. And, forgive me Lord, I dreamed plenty about fishing as I watched 65 years of life unspool in my wake. At 3 a.m. in the dark of any given morning, I figured it was a lot healthier to conjure fish and good times still to come than to ponder where all the time had gone.

It felt good to swap stories with Pat, who is 75 and nearly cashed in his chips five years ago, when he woke at 4 a.m. with excruciating abdominal pain from pancreatitis. Complications, including a MRSA infection, followed.

“Between April 4 and July 4, I spent 47 days in the hospital, underwent multiple invasive procedures, which ultimately saved my life,” Pat told me. “I’d be in the hospital for a week, home for a week, back in the hospital for two weeks, home for three days, back in the hospital. … I had so many MRIs and CAT scans, I think I began to glow in the dark.”

I can relate. I spent a month in the hospital, including 11 days in the intensive care unit, and I can tell you, atrophy sets in quickly.

“When the hell does the feeling that you won’t wake up pass?” I asked Pat.

“It doesn’t take too long to move from nervous to thankful,” he said, adding that his new lease on life includes “savoring every minute, every day on the water, every fishing trip, every photo. Can’t put things off until tomorrow anymore.”

I want to take this moment to thank my wife, family and friends, and the good doctors and nurses in the Neuroscience ICU Unit at Yale New Haven Hospital who saved my life after I came whisking into the emergency room on an ambulance gurney on a rainy, windy morning. I also want to give a big shout-out to my colleagues at Anglers Journal, who helped keep the gears turning smoothly when I stumbled into shaky town. They include Dan Harding, Erin Kenney, Michael LaBella, Krista Karlson, Kim Kavin, John Turner, and Wade Luce and his staff. And special thanks to AIM Marine Group president Gary DeSanctis for adjusting deadlines and providing unwavering personal support.

The road back is never without its unexpected turns, dips and switchbacks. My goal is to fish my way back into the light as the cool, healing waters of spring soothe my brain and eventually carry me home.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Anglers Journal magazine.

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