“I had a 3 percent chance of survival. I should be playing the lottery.”
Four people who came near death, and what happened after
I was super healthy before all this happened. But in October 2017, I ended up having to go in for an emergency surgery to have my gallbladder removed. I stayed at the hospital a week and couldn’t figure out why — most people who get their gallbladders removed leave the next day. We found out later that the doctor had discharged me with undiagnosed sepsis — a really serious infection of your bloodstream — pancreatitis, and an 18-centimeter pseudocyst.
I ended up at a second hospital, and that’s when the cyst ruptured. That, combined with the sepsis, ate away a lot of my organs. They opened me up, realized how bad it had gotten, and decided to induce me into a coma — I had to have about three-fifths of my intestines removed. The coma, which lasted three weeks, was to shut my body down to give everything a rest. Because I was going to have so many surgeries, they just left me open, though they put some mesh over the opening.
I have no memory of getting induced. But I dreamed that there was a reptile zoo that shared a wall with the hospital, and all their snakes had gotten out in the ICU. My scariest dream was that I had woken up to a 10-foot boa constrictor devouring me whole, and it was all the way up to the top of my thigh. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t scream, and my call button wasn’t working. So I was banging on the sides of my bed, trying to get the nurses to come in. And finally, they heard me and grabbed onto this snake, counted to three, and yanked it off.
I also dreamed that I had swallowed three snakes while I was sleeping, and, in the dream, I spent the whole next day throwing them up. Of course, it was just the wires: I had a trach tube that looked like a snake. They put things on your legs to keep your blood flowing, so that was the anaconda.
I don’t remember this, but when my mom told me that I had been in a coma, I was pissed. I had a 3 percent chance of survival. I mean, that’s low. I should be playing the lottery.
— Becca Burgess, Los Angeles
The production I’m currently in is Macbeth, and in Macbeth, there’s blood throughout. It’s one of the main themes of the play. The word “fear” is said something like 32 times, and the word “blood” is said 21 times. I’ve died more than 500 times onstage, but this season I will only die 40 times
You do the research early to see the way the body reacts when, say, a sword gets thrust into one’s gut. The way the body’s muscles will tense up around that weapon. You don’t want to overdramatize or milk it. You try to make sure that you’re dying appropriately. You think, How would I react if I was about to plunge myself on my own sword? Are there a lot of deep breaths right before you do it, or are you peaceful, calm? Are your eyes closed or open?
Dealing with blood is tricky in that it stains your skin. The food coloring and the corn syrup combination will leave a pinkish hue that lasts longer than you want. So we use a barrier lotion that auto mechanics wear that keeps the grease from soaking into their skin. In some of my quick changes, the people who dress me are literally washing off — with warm washcloths — the parts of my body that are bloody while I’m working on getting new socks or a shirt on. It’s a team effort whenever there’s a death onstage.
I played Iago last year, and he lives at the end. I found it harder to come down after that show. For big characters, death is an escape of sorts — they have worked themselves to a place where it’s the only way out. For the actor, death gives you this kind of wonderful release where you can let that character go. You don’t get that when a character lives.
— Danforth Comins, Ashland, Oregon
Back in 1986, my school had this thing where we went and climbed Mount Hood. They had done these trips forever, and in the springtime, we did all these conditioning hikes in preparation. There were people who’d gone to this school their whole lives, but I had only been there a couple of months and was still the new kid.
We started early, 2 o’clock in the morning, and I was still not feeling great — I had bean dip the previous night that wasn’t sitting well. Some parents had looked at the weather and said there was a big storm coming through. But the trip leader told them, “It’s fine. We’re going to go up and see how far we can go.” So we start, and all you’re doing is stepping into the step of the person before you. We got three-quarters of the way, and the steep part of the trail was coming. I finally was like, I can’t keep going.
I tell the leader, “I think I’m done.” And he says, “What, you’re giving up on what could be the greatest moment of your life?” I’m like, I’m 16. I haven’t had sex. I’ve heard that’s pretty cool. Plus, I was new — I wasn’t going to let this guy talk me into doing something I didn’t want to do. So I headed back. Some people who had gone down before me had rented a room at a hotel, and I went there and slept.
Later, when we went outside, the sky was dark. We get on the bus, and the driver says, “Oh my God, it’s really late. I’ve got to call the school. The others should be back by now.” All of a sudden, these rescue people came. I thought the others were fine. I’m not a panicker. Then we learn a few days later that they found three bodies. They had frozen to death.
I felt horrible. I still feel horrible. The only person I saved was myself, but there was a woman there, the dean of students, who was struggling, and she could’ve come back with me. People talk about pushing themselves. But my mom had always told me, “Hey, if someone tells you to do something you don’t want to do, don’t do it.” You have to know when to go back sometimes.
— John Whitson, Portland, Oregon
I worked in downtown San Francisco, and I used to bike to work on Market Street. I remember my bike wheel was making a squeaky noise, and it had been raining for many weeks, and it was the first sunny day in January. I was waiting at a red light, and when it changed, I started biking across. Then this guy in a pickup truck full of cement made an illegal right turn. I remember my tire hitting the truck and being like, Oh, shit.
I went under the truck. Fortunately, I had a helmet on. The truck crossed my rib cage and broke my whole chest, and my ribs punctured my lungs. I remember looking at the sky, and it was so incredibly blue. I was super embarrassed that I was holding up traffic, and I was trying to get up. The person I remember coming to my aid, he was just some guy walking by. He had a goatee, and he held my hand. It’s his kindness that chokes me up.
I’ve always been an artist, and I thought of myself as a darkroom photographer, and I couldn’t physically do that anymore. It was hard to just wash my hair. So during my recovery, I was painting. It was this overwhelming emptiness that I was trying to deal with. I thought I shouldn’t be alive. It wasn’t that I wished I was dead; I just didn’t understand why I was alive.
I started running again, too, about five years later. And one of the things I tell myself when I’m running is, You’re alive. You’re lucky to be alive. You can breathe. You can move. I decided to do this project where for a year I’d run a thousand miles, and I’d create these maps that would be about my relationship with San Francisco and just being alive. I go for a run, and I use Map My Run or Strava to track my route. At the end of the month, I take all of my maps and layer them on top of each other, and I stitch those onto a piece of fabric. I’m past the midway point; I’ve hit 500 miles.
— Margaret Timbrell, San Francisco