x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The closer we come to death, the more we value life

Just as he digs into his second muffin, my Emirati friend mumbles between bites that he once spent six months in a coma.

Just as he digs into his second muffin, my Emirati friend mumbles between bites that he once spent six months in a coma. "What?" I ask him, thinking it is one of his jokes. "You're a coma  survivor?" Looking at my happy-go-lucky friend, who laughs off the worst of  situations, I would never have known he had gone through such a thing. But then again, maybe that experience made him the way he is today.

"I bit into a blowfish, a Japanese delicacy, at a restaurant, and then boom, black," he tells me. According to his doctor, my friend's heart stopped for seven  minutes because of the toxin, which put his brain to sleep, and he sank into the coma. Contrary to what I've always believed, a coma patient does not remember anything said to him or done around him. My friend didn't hear his family's comforting words, nor does he have any memory of the six months themselves. "It felt like I closed my eyes for a few seconds," he says.

His family and friends would come and visit him regularly, talk to him, pray for him, play some Quran for him as he lay there. He remembers none of this, although the whole experience remains a painful one for him as it reminds him of just how fragile our lives are and how  quickly things can change. He even missed his own birthday that year. But he does remember the day he woke up. "The first thing I noticed was my beard. It was trimmed the last time I saw it, and now it was long," he says. He woke up at night, in an empty room, a strange room, with the Quran playing in the background.

He had a massive headache, his eyes hurt, his voice cracked and he couldn't move his lower body. Everything was sore, and he felt very  alone. "I couldn't even hear well and it felt like I was somewhere under water," he says. A passing nurse noticed him move and called his family, who were there next to him within an hour. "Thankfully, I could feel the needles on my legs and feet, so I knew I  would walk eventually." He had a course of physiotherapy and muscle treatment for a month before he took his first steps on his own. "I went into such a deep depression afterwards, and saw a therapist for more than a year before I could smile again. It took six months for my brain to restart after that poison, and a year to restart my life."

His case was purely a chef's error, but my friend would have died if he had taken more bites. "I was just lucky I was eating slowly," he says. Luck. I wonder how many of life's strange tragedies are a matter of luck. I am sure we have all come across one kind of survivor or another, whether of something health related, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time - such as a car crash, or worse, a plane crash - and tried to learn some lessons from them.

Once I actually went looking for a plane crash survivor to talk to, because I am terrified of flying and I thought that by listening to a survivor's story I would somehow feel better about getting on a plane. It didn't work. I am even more scared now after listening to a man who survived a crash in Latin America some years ago. He told me that he happened to be sitting in the last row of seats, and how he used to hate that seat, but in the end it turned out to be the "luckiest" seat on the plane.

"People screaming and praying around you, and still, your brain is telling you that this is not happening, and I am not ready to die," the survivor told me. He ended up climbing out of the plane through a hole at the back, as the tail hadn't hit the ground when the rest of it did. "Why I am alive, I don't know, but I know that I have changed since then, and I am living life to the fullest," he told me.

All the survivors I have met have said the same thing to me: that they are now living each day as if it could be their last. Something I wish I remembered to do more often. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae