Near-Death Experience

One evening after coming home from work in September, 2010, I greeted my wife in the kitchen of our lovely Moorpark home, and poured myself a glass of V8 vegetable juice. It was to be a life-changing experience, and the closest I have come to dying.


As soon as I swallowed the first sip, I knew something was wrong. I felt deep, vexing, pervasive pain in the center of my torso, just below my sternum; smoldering pain unlike any other, as if a hot coal burned inside me. I could almost taste it. This was the first expression of a mysterious ailment that was to accompany me relentlessly for the next five years.


At the time I worked an extremely stressful job as graphic designer for a fast-paced, deadline-driven ad agency. I mention this because I suspect that stress may have played a role, but this has never been confirmed. What was certain was that any food or drink I consumed after the V8 incident—even water—caused me extreme pain that lasted for hours. 


A new symptom—nausea—soon began to accompany the pain. During my waking hours I was frequently nauseous and never pain-free, finding relief only at night when I slept. The nausea came and went, but there were periods when I experienced it continually for months at a time.


I soon learned several things: over-the-counter remedies had no effect, liquids caused me less pain than solid food, resting on my back provided a small amount of relief, and I never felt pain while sleeping at night.


I rapidly began to lose weight. Normally weighing 148 pounds, I declined to 119 pounds in six months. I knew that soon I would not be able to handle my stressful job—and perhaps not any job at all—and took measures to find something I could do that was less toxic and taxing.


At the same time I saw doctors—lots of them. I began with my primary-care physician, who prescribed various digestive medications that did not relieve my symptoms, and ordered numerous tests—all of which showed no indication of any problem. I went from one gastroenterologist to another—some referred and others recommended by friends and family members. 


More medications were tried and more tests were performed: upper endoscopies, lower endoscopies, MRIs, CT scans, X-rays, motility tests, blood tests. One of the top specialists in his field—a doctor at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles—wanted to perform a delicate procedure called an ERCP (an examination of the pancreatic and bile ducts with a small scope). But since my own research taught me that this procedure has a high risk of causing severe problems, I declined. One doctor offered me a medical marijuana prescription; another suggested opiate painkillers. "Don't be a hero," he said. I refused both. 


All tests showed no abnormalities in my digestive system, and no accurate diagnoses were ever made (only vague guesses). Still the pain persisted—enough to distract me from most tasks, make me grimace, cause my forehead to perspire.


Finally, I took matters into my own hands. I read a great deal about similar ailments in books and on the internet; my wife did a lot of research as well. Since liquids were less painful for me to consume than solid foods, I began to drink Ensure Plus, and lived off of that exclusively for six months. I consumed three or four bottles each day, which provided me with enough calories to stabilize my weight. I seldom drank alcohol, but since one doctor suspected that my condition might be pancreatitis (a painful and potentially deadly inflammation of the pancreas that may be aggravated by alcohol consumption), I stopped drinking alcohol entirely.


I applied for a new job at SolarWorld in Camarillo, and was granted an interview. On the designated day and while in extreme pain, I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot before going inside, gripping the steering wheel, breathing heavily and thinking: ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’


What happened then is something I can only describe as compartmentalization. I simply set aside the pain in one part of my brain, and performed my duty in another. I was interviewed by four people. I smiled, shook hands, exchanged pleasantries. I answered their questions, showed my portfolio, even joked. A wild beast tore at my insides, but for the time being, I ignored it.


By the end of the interview I was confident that it went well and that I had the job, and only moments after I arrived home I received a call and an offer, which I gratefully accepted.


My new position at SolarWorld was a good one: demanding but reasonable (rather than impossible and insane), and I worked with numerous supportive coworkers who were for the most part convivial, professional, well-educated, and dedicated to promoting the solar power industry. As the company’s only graphic designer, my new job was less chaotic and stressful than my prior one; more sensibly-paced and better organized. 


My gastric pain was always present and frequently severe, but I was determined to do a good job and make the best of things. Compartmentalization. Focus. Mind over matter. After a few weeks with the company a photographer was hired to take pictures of all employees, and it’s shocking—even to me—to see how skinny I was. 


Pain affected my ability to attend social events: lunches, parties, after-hour get-togethers, where the consumption of food and drink was expected. For the most part I declined to offer lengthy explanations, believing that no one really wants to hear about someone else’s problems.


My usual routine was to drink an Ensure Plus in the morning, another at lunchtime, then rest on my back in my car for a while before walking a mile or two (and occasionally three) around the lovely farms that surrounded the SolarWorld buildings. I drank another Ensure when I got home, and occasionally another at bedtime.


As the years passed the pain and nausea subsided somewhat, and I was able to supplement my Ensure intake with some mild foods. In the last year at SolarWorld—before the office was closed—co-workers might recall me occasionally attending group lunches, eating sandwiches, chips, and potato salad with them; sometimes even visiting a restaurant.


In the years since, I am happy to report that my mysterious digestive problem has quieted down, and today I am nearly symptom-free and can eat pretty much anything I desire. I never learned what triggered my ailment, what it was, why it persisted for so long, or why it subsided. I still refrain from consuming any alcohol, high-fat foods, and tomato products—and return to drinking Ensure Plus for a day or two if I feel the slightest sign of the old pain (which I have become quick to identify). 


Happily, I am now—in most every sense—normal and cured, and my weight is back to 146 pounds (ideal for me). But I have learned that digestive anomalies are tricky, complex things, and that even specialists in the field have difficulty making a clear diagnosis of gastric problems, let alone curing them.


My advice to those who encounter similar issues is to remain calm, go gently, take no extreme measures unless absolutely necessary. Lower your level of stress. Persist and be patient. Do your own research. Listen to the nuances of your body. Drink water. Eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, just a little meat, and no processed or fast foods.


Live long and prosper.