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Lessons in Mortality

A story by David Kulle



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Thirty years ago, when I was around 40, I picked up a winter bug that had me on my back, seemingly with a bad flu, within a day. It got worse, my temperature rose, and I developed a stabbing pain along my rib cage. A call to the doctor the next day resulted in my being admitted to the ER at Hartford Hospital. It turned out that I had strep A pneumococcal pneumonia—the same bug that killed Jim Hanson, of Muppets fame. Upon admission, three of the five lobes of my lungs were filled with the strep a bacterium, and I was immediately given massive amounts of antibiotics. I lingered for two days, with my temperature through the roof and semi-delirious, until I reached what my doctor later called the crucial breaking point, where someone either makes it or doesn’t. I made it, I was told, because I was in such good shape and had arrived at the hospital in time. If I had come even a few hours later, I probably would have died. No one had any idea how I might have picked up the bug; it could have been at a restaurant the day before, at the gym, from a doorknob—who knows.

That episode seriously shook my world. I had always been, and thought of myself as, an athlete. I ran, I payed soccer, I biked—I was active and fit. I read about these sorts of things happening to others, but I guess I thought deep down that it would never happen to me. I didn’t  think I was invincible, but I had felt some level of assurance that I would be able to fend off just about anything, where others might not. Anyway, I recovered fully, and eventually returned to my prior level of fitness. Over the years, that brush with death faded from memory, and, looking back, I suppose I gradually re-developed that same same sense of physical superiority—of physical hubris—that I had had before.

So now, fast-forward to 71, and here I sit writing this in my room at Hartford Hospital. Yup—here again. I had been noticing that I was tiring more easily and breathing more heavily than normal, and this all came to a point last Friday morning. I had planned on helping to lead a tour at the local art museum, but I couldn’t walk from the garage to the museum without resting against a lamp post every 20 or 30 yards. There was no way I could lead the tour, and I drove myself to the ER. I was told that my heart wasn't pumping properly, and they needed to get to the bottom of it. What? My heart? MY-Y-Y heart?!  Every annual check-up I’ve been told that my heart is strong. I’ve typically worked out 5 or 6 times a week. Right before I retired a few years ago I even got certified as a personal trainer. How can it be? Well, it is. Seemingly in an instant—just like that—my self-image, my schedule, my plans all ran into a brick wall.

I had an echocardiogram that was inconclusive, and the next step is an angiogram to see if there is a blockage somewhere (more often than not the case). I don’t know how it will all turn out, but I’ve been told that, whatever the cause, it’s likely treatable, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. But what I do know for sure is that we have absolutely no ability to predict the twists and turns that life may take, or how quickly they may occur, and that it’s folly to think otherwise, no matter who we are. Whatever happens, I intend to go forward with optimism. I intend to savor good health and good friends and make the most of all that is best. At the same time, I will try my darnedest to remain aware that it could all change in an instant, and to be prepared for the worst.

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  Hartford, CT
March 1994 to February 2024


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