Life lessons from people who’ve faced death: Alissa Smith
From a near-death accident, to presenting on Fox Sports
It’s the great irony that most of us never really appreciate life until we’re faced with death, so what can we learn from those who’ve been closest to it?
It’s a question we put to an eclectic group of people with a few key similarities – they’re all brave, strong and resilient and have seen first-hand the fragility of human existence.
This week as part of our series on life lessons, we spoke with Corporate Product Manager, Aalia Stahl.
This is her story.
31 year old, Aalia has a genetic condition called Ehlers Danlos which affects the connective tissues found in your bones, skin, ligaments, joints and organs. Because of her condition, Aalia has sleep apnoea, asthma, severe gastro-paresis (paralysed stomach), colonic inertia (paralysed colon), eye problems, joint problems, endometriosis and Raynaud’s. She’s also had to have emergency surgery to repair a collapsed lung twice.
Aalia: I was gravely ill for the first time in my mid-20s. I was trying to look after myself, but was always tired, lethargic and unable to keep food down. I would bring up undigested food and would spend weekends in the ER receiving IV fluids. The doctors didn’t know what was causing the vomiting; I continued to go to work, but I’d generally be sick on the way home. Finally, I saw a gastroenterologist who ordered a nuclear scan that confirmed I had severe gastro paresis.
Despite a diagnosis, my health continued to deteriorate. I was dropping weight quickly and when I weighed just 52kgs, I was admitted to the hospital. The vomiting had taken its toll on me; I had severe electrolyte imbalances, my organs were struggling and I had damage to my stomach and throat. My heart was under pressure and I was in pain.
Gastro paresis was the reason for all the vomiting; it meant my stomach was paralysed and couldn’t digest or empty food. I wasn’t able to absorb any nutrients and my body was severely malnourished. Doctors told me it couldn’t be cured and they inserted a nasogastric (NG) tube into my stomach through my nose to prevent further damage.
The ongoing vomiting had impacted my heart and other organs and I was on placed on multiple IV lines, filled with bags of various fluids to prevent further decline. But, despite the doctor’s best efforts I had gone into starvation mode and my body was shutting down.
I didn’t want to give up, so I declined a feeding tube and instead trialled an oral liquid which I call ‘medical milk’. After two weeks my body strengthened to the point that the doctors removed the NG tube. Three weeks on, I was strong enough to go home. The second time that I faced the possibility of death was during the months after the unexpected passing of my dad over Christmas, 2016.
I started experiencing bouts of chest pain and at first I thought it was a combination of stress and heartache - a deep grief that left me breathless and crying in agony.
My doctor sent me for a few different scans on my heart, but nothing showed up.
I knew by body well enough by now to tell that something wasn’t right, so I returned to the GP. He sent me for a CT scan which found I had a collapsed lung. Chest surgery is really risky and there was a small chance the lung would heal on its own, so I was put on pain killers.
Three weeks later, I was back in the ER needing a life-saving procedure to insert a tube into the lung and re-inflate it. I needed two blood transfusions and woke up in ICU with a chest drain. I was in the hospital for more than a week on oxygen, and underwent physio multiple times a day to learn how to breathe again.
It’s been over a year since this procedure and while I still have breathing troubles and face the prospect of having the procedure repeated to my right side, I am alive thanks to a GP who never gave up.
For me saying ‘why not?’ is empowering; it reminds me that I can cope and I am not a victim
Aalia: During the second experience when my lung collapsed, I understood how serious the situation was, but I tried to base my reactions upon facts rather than emotions. Internally I was so frustrated that the lung had collapsed for a second time and I wished the doctors had just fixed it the first time; I was frustrated that they waited to see if it would repair itself. It’s such a painful experience and not something you want to go through twice. I had moments when I cried behind closed doors, but throughout the rest of the time I tried to not react to the stress; I tried to be as calm as I could.
I knew becoming upset at other people wouldn’t help. I needed to trust the surgeon’s abilities and the doctor’s advice.
Aalia: The complications I have faced from my EDS have made me more empathetic and understanding of the struggles that other people go through. I find myself in awe of people who are survivors; the people who choose to not give up. Every day I meet amazing people who get up and make the most of what they have; I used to think ‘why me?’,’ why do I always feel tired and sick?’, ‘why can’t have just one week without a medical appointment?’. But I don’t think that way anymore.
Instead, I think ‘why not?’
I bet there are amazing humans who have bad days too and still keep going. For me saying ‘why not?’ is empowering. It reminds me I can cope and I am not a victim, it’s not poor me anymore. It’s ‘why not?’ - you’ve shown how strong you can be, you can walk and still work, and you’ve got this!
My desire to be present has been reaffirmed by my experiences - to not worry about the past or fret greatly over the future. I don’t re-live what I have been through, I am trying to live with the new me but I know that if I have another health scare that I can kick butt.
I still have days when I’m frustrated with everything but I know that day - or that week - will pass; it’s all part of the journey.
Aalia: I’m not afraid of my own mortality and I think these experiences have made me realise this:
Some things just are.
Being close to death has reinforced how much I enjoy living; not just doing, but living. I love the sounds of birds and the feeling of sunlight on my skin; I love how refreshing cold water is. I love hearing laughter and talking to people. I love learning new things and seeing new sights.
It has shown me how resilient I can be, and it has reinforced that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. I know my limits and understand that it’s ok to rest, because resting today means I can achieve my goals tomorrow.
Having these experiences has taught me how to stop and be grateful for what I do have, rather than fret over what I don’t have.
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