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Near Death at Singapore General Hospital and Five Lessons I Learned

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In May 2016 I awoke from what I thought was a simple colonoscopy at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) to check my ulcerative colitis (diagnosed in 2004), as I had been suffering from a severe flare-up. I thought the flare-up would be treated with a simple course of steroids, as had been my experience from previous flare-ups. However, the expression on the face of the gastroenterologist said otherwise, he looked like he had sucked on a lemon. He was flanked by my wife, who they had asked to come to the hospital urgently, and she was clearly upset. The gastroenterologist informed me that my colon was severely inflamed, and that I needed to be admitted to SGH immediately.

The truth of the matter was that prior to my trip to Singapore, I was treated for the flare-up at Jukei Hospital in Japan. However, the doctor had gravely misread the severity of my condition, had under-prescribed the necessary drugs and misdiagnosed me. I should have been hospitalized, but instead he gave me the green light to fly to Singapore.

Lesson One: Listen to your gut.

Literally, in my case. Whether you feel something isn’t right in your body or in your business, stop and listen to what your subconscious is telling you. Intuition is a powerful tool that has guided us silently through the last hundreds of thousands of years. It could very well be what separates us and our extinct ancestors. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ‘Blink’ describes the phenomenon as our ‘adaptive conscious’, the part of our brains that quickly and quietly processes mounds of information to draw conclusions that sometimes we can’t explain – we just ‘know’. Don’t ignore that little voice in your head, the early warning signs are the most important signs. My “she’ll be right” attitude, misinforming me that everything would be ok, landed me in serious hot water.

The subconscious mind is continuously working, and it communicates in the form of hunches, flashes and intuition. We need to be listening. Do whatever your need to do to tune in – mindfulness, prayer, and meditation are amazing tools that can be the bridge between the conscious and subconscious. So, use them – it could be the difference between life and death.

Despite three weeks of aggressive steroid treatment and a round of Infliximab (Remicade), I was still horribly unwell. Both forms of treatment failed to have any lasting effect, and the inflammation of my colon was as bad as ever. The doctors suggested that the only course of action was to have my colon removed. The news swirled around my head, together with the image of living life with an ileostomy bag – a surgical opening constructed by bringing the end of the small intestine out onto the surface of the skin, intestinal waste then passes out of the ileostomy and is collected in a pouch. It was a terrifying prospect. My wife, Gladys, suggested a second opinion. We sought outside counsel and consulted with a leading gastroenterologist practicing in Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore. He patiently explained the procedure and the pros and cons, setting my mind at ease and we decided to move forward with the operation.

Lesson Two: Seek outside counsel.

Take the time to seek counsel. Fear is not a reaction to be ignored, address each of your anxieties before you make important decisions. We can’t all be experts in every field, speak with a trusted authority and let their experiences form the right judgement. Listen to your fears, seek expert counsel, collect the facts and make the decision boldly and decisively.

The surgery itself was successful, however, the recovery was not. I experienced nausea, vomiting and as I was unable to hold down any food, I began to lose a considerable amount of weight. It was then determined I had pneumonia and an infection in my lung, on top of the blood that was being discharged from my ileostomy bag. Having been in the high-dependency ward initially, after more surgery I was readmitted, and things went from bad to worse. June had not been a good month, but July was going to prove to be considerably worse. As my condition worsened, the outlook was bleak.

The pain and morphine increased, blood transfusions were administered, and my blood pressure reached dangerously high levels. Friends flew in to see me, perhaps to say their goodbyes, and Gladys and I cried, prayed, and asked for guidance. She begged me to fight. Through the help of Father Francisco Basnayake, of the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and God’s grace, I dug deep and continued to fight. Miraculously, day by day, things started to improve.

I had the opportunity to join a support group of patients, all of whom were the proud owners of a recently fitted ileostomy bag. Most of the patients were survivors of colon cancer and almost all spoke of a higher power helping them draw on their inner strength and carry on. The patients were from all faiths, and some did not prescribe to a religion, but they all believed that they were able to tap into something deeper. I found my new friends to be gracious and compassionate.

Lesson Three: Spirituality is important.

At Google’s headquarters, they offer a course called ‘Search Inside Yourself’, that proved so popular, that the company created entry-level versions such as ‘Neural Self-hacking’ and ‘Managing your Energy’. The search-engine giant has also built a labyrinth for walking meditation. eBay has meditation rooms equipped with pillows and flowers, while Twitter and Facebook also have mindfulness programs for staff to enrol on (Schumpeter, 2013). Some of the greatest leaders of our time, such as Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs, and Jack Ma, were considered great leaders not because of their position, authority, appearance, personality, management techniques, or heredity, but because they created better futures for people around them; no matter how tough the going got, they never gave up (Rajeev, 2014).

My condition stabilized, and the long slow process of rehabilitation began. My weight sank as low as 30 kg (my normal weight is 75 kg), I was unable to walk, my throat muscles had forgotten how to swallow, let alone do the basics, like showering and dressing myself.

When I dwelled of these things, I was completely overwhelmed and wondered how I could ever resume a normal life. But I was reminded that life can only be lived one day at a time and not to project into the future. Slowly, my 5-meter walk, assisted with a frame, progressed to 20 meters, which a week later was 30 meters with a walking stick, before I knew it, I was throwing the stick away and could walk holding my wife’s hand. Slowly but surely, my strength returned and at the time of writing I can walk for around 30 minutes before tiring.

Lesson four: Focus on marginal gains.

Products are not launched in a week, I couldn’t walk in a day and new drugs are not approved in a year – things take time. Knowing this, how can you improve performance? Marginal gains involve small improvements in any process, that lead to a significant improvement when added together. The concept of marginal gains has revolutionized some sports, and if applied correctly could revolutionize business (Syed, 2015). By looking to improve on our personal best each day, over time we will make significant improvements.

As my health improved and body strengthened, and I began to realize how lucky I was. I had survived a near-death experience, but I was surrounded by people who love me and a team of great doctors and nurses. I started to count my blessings and began to see more joy in the world than I had previously experienced.

Lesson five: Be grateful.

American Thanksgiving is such a great idea for a holiday. Our American friends have it right when they stop for a day and give thanks for all they have received. In my homeland of Australia, we all have different ways of showing our gratitude, and a vivid memory of how my beloved father showed his thanks comes quickly to mind. When I was a boy growing up in the dusty farmlands of western New South Wales, each night I would see my father kneel at his bedside and pray with Rosary beads in hand, asking God to open the heavens and pour rain down on our 2000-acre property, Morunda. He would also give thanks for his nine children. Dad had an attitude of gratitude and encouraged me to think in the same thankful, positive way.

Five lessons from my time at SGH, and perhaps soon I’ll be grateful for this experience too.

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