On June 17, 2018 I was declared dead. This is the story of the heroic acts that defied the laws of medicine and changed me forever.
Quick background: I was born with my stomach twisted in a knot. I was supposed to die then too. The scar tissue from that surgery broke off 40 years later and triggered a bowel obstruction. But we didn't know that. The doctors knew I was in pain, but things seemed generally fine. Until they weren't. The obstruction triggered a sudden heart failure. And through a series of miraculous events, including the COO of Omaze, Helen, discovering I was crashing and alerting a doctor minutes before I would have passed, I was rushed into surgery just in time to save me.
After surgery, the doctor told my mom they had good and bad news. They'd fixed the obstruction, but my heart rate was continuing to plummet and I was in critical condition.
A couple hours later my mom went out to get my dad and my brother. As she returned, the loudspeaker declared "Code Blue in Room 437." My mom works in a hospital. She knew that meant flatline. And 437 was my room.
The nurse stopped her as she rushed to the operating room door. It was serious and only medical staff could enter. "I was there when he came into this world," my mom offered with respectful determination. "If he's leaving this world right now, I'm going to be in that room." The nurse let her pass.
She entered to find the crash team battling to bring me back with CPR and electric shocks. My body was bouncing up and down but I wasn't responding. My mom began to crumble. It's one thing to lose a child. It's another thing to be there when it's happening.
At the same time, my brother was standing outside with my dad. He overhead one doctor say to another, "We lost this guy. He's gone." My brother pushed my dad into the room. My dad cried so loudly when he entered, my mom turned to ask him to quiet down, warning they'd kick them out. When she did, she said she saw something she'd never seen before in a hospital. It seemed that every nurse and doctor in the ICU had gravitated toward the window of the room. There were forty of them lined up like a silent church choir, sending in positive energy.
Witnessing them send love to someone they didn't know filled my mom with strength. She took a breath, turned back to the table, and began coaching me.
"Matthew David Pohlson. These people are fighting so hard to save your life. But you're not fighting hard enough. Show them you're a fighter. Fight to come back to us!"
The flatline went on for over 4 minutes. My mom kept coaching the whole time. But that's a long time to flatline. At one point the lead doctor leaned away and shook his head despairingly, as if to say it was done. My mom pleaded him not to call it. He then turned back, surprised. "I think we have a pulse..."
In that moment, my eyes opened up. Everyone stopped. I looked up at my mom, and then at my dad. Then slowly lifted my right arm...smiled...and gave a thumbs up.
There were two more days of equally miraculous events that followed, but we can save that for another post. My last day in the hospital, Dr. Yeh, the renowned surgeon who saved me, explained that was the most extraordinary case he'd ever seen. They had me at zero percent chance of survival for two days and they were sending me home with my full faculties. And they had no medical explanation.
I asked if he had a guess. "It was love and optimism that brought you back."
This experience transformed me on a fundamental level. But not in a way that's externally obvious. Like most of us, I was good at hiding the insecurities and fears that plagued me. They still come knocking, but this experience has improved my capacity to turn away negative self-talk and anxiety, and invite in more loving guests.
My hope is the lessons revealed to me are also helpful for you. Below are two mindsets that shape my second go at life. Mindsets without habits aren't worth much, so I've also included some reinforcing practices.
Share love at every opportunity.
During my flatline, I had a "come back to the light" experience. Buddhists talk about a state of consciousness where your ego dissolves, and you feel wholly unified with all energy, everywhere. You become both a drop in the ocean and the entire ocean. That sense of complete interconnection is the best way I can describe my experience. I could see the love from my family and friends lifting me back. And while I'm more aware than ever of what I don't know, I do know if they hadn't, I wouldn't be here today.
Sharing love can be scary. It took me realizing I'm only alive because of the generosity of others to push through the fears. One practice I've adopted is at least once a week sending an email to a friend or team member, sharing why I'm grateful for them. Simply offering your full attention is also an act of love. Listening intently to a colleague or smiling at a stranger can send their day on a different trajectory. Giving to another can change your day too, especially when you're down. And you never know how far that ripple effect will travel.
Optimism is a superpower (we all can access).
I used to think optimism was a binary concept. You're either an optimist or a pessimist. I now realize it's a skill that requires great practice. The good news is we all have the capacity to harness its awesome power.
Just like a warrior hones her craft in combat, optimism skills are best forged in adversity. Dr Yeh and his team were optimism warriors. He told me the odds of pulling me through were less than one in a billion. And despite having lost countless patients before, they fought. They tapped into a force more potent than statistics and willed me back.
We have two choices when facing adversity: withdraw or grow. We can allow the fear of future pain spawn narratives for why things can't be done. Or, as the Old Testament says, "we can rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope." And our optimism capacity is simply a function of our hope, determination, and know-how.
Fortunately, adversity isn't the only route to develop optimism. Future filing is an exercise where you imagine living the experience you want to manifest. Say your goal is to IPO your company. Write a journal entry as if you're about to ring the bell. Document in detail what it feels like, the challenges you overcame to get there, and the lessons along the way. The more detail you put into describing these events, the likelier they'll unfold as you intend. I know what I'm describing sounds like it defies the laws of nature, but that's what optimism can do. I'm living proof.