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What It’s Like to Disappear

One morning seven years ago, I disappeared.

I started the day by swimming laps in the pool at the Northwestern University sports and recreation center in Evanston, IL, as I’ve done for at least fifteen years.

I have long suffered chronic muscle spasms and pain in my neck, hands and feet, and my daily swims, pain medications and mindfulness meditation make up part of a very helpful therapeutic regimen.

At around 9:00 am, having finished my laps, I felt some very mild tightness in my chest. This had been happening lately during my swims–but my pulse, whenever I checked, was strong and regular, so I had concluded that the tightness was just rib-cartilage inflammation.

The mild tightness continued as I went into the locker room and stepped into the showers.

Then I just disappeared.

When I awoke, I was lying in a hospital bed, a breathing tube down my throat and intravenous lines running into my groin and my neck. I vaguely remember hearing voices; but looking back, it’s hard to know how much I actually remember and how much I’ve pieced together based on later conversations with my wife, Sally, and my family.

Soon after waking, I was extubated. A figure came into view–Joanie, a nurse I had worked with for thirty years in this hospital. Seeing her, I felt an almost surreal sense that I’d been plunged back into my former life; it felt like a relief to be here.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You had a heart attack!” she exclaimed, looking relieved and happy to hear me speak.

I reportedly responded, “Wow! That’s weird!”

I was amazed at how many people were in the room–and how glad they all seemed to be that I was alive.

Another nurse, Kay, with whom I’d also worked for decades, told me: “When people in Evanston Hospital heard that you’d come into the ER in cardiac arrest, you would not believe the amount of praying that went on for your recovery!”

I learned that my heart had gone into life-threatening ventricular fibrillation (“Vfib”) and had only returned to normal when the ER doctors used shock treatment.

Before retiring from clinical care, in 2007, I had been the attending physician in charge of caring for critically ill infants and children in this very ICU. It felt mind-boggling to find myself a patient here, being cared for by my former colleagues.

My cardiovascular surgeon had once been one of my medical students. Often, he’d seen me work for two days straight at the bedside of a critically ill infant, trying to help save the child’s life; now he’d been instrumental in saving mine.

It was a strange experience, disappearing for a day and a half! I have no memories of my time “away.” I saw no bright lights, nor do I remember seeing or talking with anyone.

A day or two later, when I woke up more completely, Sally was there, holding my hand.

“I’m glad you’re back,” she said. “The house has been a lonely place without you.”

Whenever one of my family, friends or colleagues came to visit, I felt all over again how lucky I was to be alive.

I felt especially grateful to have survived my heart attack with my mental and physical abilities intact. Thinking back to my days as a practicing clinician, I remembered how ambivalent I’d sometimes feel while resuscitating a patient whose heart had stopped at the end of a long, complicated and incurable illness.

If they do survive, I’d wonder, will they be coming back to a wretched quality of life? I sometimes had mixed feelings about giving the patient another reviving dose of epinephrine.

Recalling this, I felt good that my colleagues were glad I’d survived.

My recovery went smoothly, and I soon resumed my normal activities, including morning yoga and stretching, mindfulness meditation and some guided imagery. Walking replaced swimming in my daily regimen, and I now work to get 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day.

Within four weeks of my disappearance, I returned to Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago, ready to start teaching again.

When I stepped into the resident conference, there was a pause–and then, to my surprise, delight and gratitude, everyone broke into applause.

Joseph Hageman, a sixty-nine-year-old clinically retired pediatrician, practiced for three decades in the Chicago area as a neonatologist, pediatric intensivist and pediatric hospitalist, primarily at Evanston Hospital, NorthShore University HealthSystem. He is an emeritus professor of pediatrics at Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, and is now doing NICU quality improvement at Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago. He is also editor-in-chief of Pediatric Annals. “I’ve been happily married for forty years, with four grown kids and eight grandchildren. I am pleased to be alive after disappearing, and to be spending time with my family and making small contributions clinically, in editing and teaching and to the medical literature.”


14 thoughts on “What It’s Like to Disappear”

  1. Thanks Joe for sharing this. Its been a long time since we have seen one another and I wish you a long career to come. Residents and students have much to learn from your wisdom so stay with us an I have to confess, that I learned more from you than I ever gave back.
    XXOOs to Sally and please have the very best of this Christmas and New Years Season!
    – Jim Stockman

  2. Joe,
    I had no clue this happened. Glad you’re back helping the next generation learn how to be a caring, compassionate, thoughtful doctor as you have been for your entire career. I’m 23 years removed from my M/I and it’s a good thing to have behind us!
    All the best,

  3. Craig Baumgartner

    Joe, you will never disappear. All the lives you have touched and all the good you have done will continue to make the world a better place forever. You only saw from your experience some of the people you have touched. There are many many more. Reading this is the first I learned of your experience as a patient. I am sure glad you pulled through ok and can continue to make the world a better place for even more people! Every day I think of the saying ”Man makes plans and God laughs.” I’m glad you can continue doing both!

  4. Joe, I clearly remember learning through the hospital grapevine about your collapse. And yes, Kay was on target, pretty much the entire hospital was praying for your recovery. As medical professionals we are aware of life’s curveballs, but really don’t expect them to come our way.

  5. How many times we have heard and see it: In a matter of seconds, life can change.
    Living in the present, is the key.
    Doing good deeds and practicing tzedakah giving meaning to our lives.
    We must love Our families at home and at work.

  6. Thanks, AJ. Working in a small community is definitely a blessing! I cannot tell you how lucky I feel with each day I get to spend with family, friends and colleagues!

  7. the most touching part for me was that your life was saved by your former medical student. that is so amazing… you’re blessed to have worked in a small community for so many years

  8. Hell of a way to find out how much you are loved by colleagues and family. As an elderly patient would say to me, “Good on ya !”

      1. Joe, so glad you have another chance at life. I can remember how you spent nights at the hospital guarding those pediatric patients that were so sick, never thinking of yourself. Life just came full circle for you.
        Just thinking of how you sat in my hospital room 36 yrs ago when we were losing our 1st baby. You were so comforting and reassuring.
        God bless you !

  9. Robin Schoenthaler

    Wow, that is quite the story! Life, as we who work in health care know too well, can turn on a dime. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Robin. For all of the times, I sat by my patient’s bedside after they passed away and talked about how worthwhile their lives were for their family, and thought about what it would be like to be in their position. Then I was!

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