The First Time I Died

The first time I died was in nineteen ninety-six. I’d cycled from Boston to Baltimore and took a bus to Portland, Oregon with the intention of cycling to New Mexico. I rode for three days. Then, through what I believed to be Divine intervention, I turned around and made Portland my home.

Thirty days later — by what I was told — at two a.m. in the morning, I was run over by a car. Or at least my bike was run over. My head went through the wind-shield. I was one block from the hospital. And good thing, because I died.

Thirty days later — by what I was told — at two a.m. in the morning, I was run over by a car.

The doctor said they’d lost me three times. After, I was in a coma for a week. They saved the clothing they’d cut off me for the moment I came out of it. They’d said, “Keep his clothes for when he wakes up. He’ll need the familiar.”

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Several years after the accident, I’d obtained my medical file for some doctor, somewhere. The file was about an inch and a half thick. Its size didn’t get me. It was the story written in the itemized bill for the emergency room visit. Things like, plastic gloves, and jell for defibrillator paddles before they are applied.

From a novelist’s point of view, it was — let’s just say —freakin’ wild to see a kind of moment by moment break down of the goings-on right up to the moments before and after my death.


With the clothing, and the itemized billing for my emergency room visit, I’ve pieced together what I might’ve seen, had I been outside of myself, maybe on the ceiling, or in a corner just watching. I’ll take the ceiling. It’ll be easier to describe that way.

Here we go.

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February 18, 1996 1:30am
A machine is wining, or maybe crying. My heart stopped.
“Clear,” somebody says.
My chest heaves upward.

The doctor, holding the paddles up, through her teeth, says, “Come on.”

The tone stopped, stuttered, and beeped twice. Nothing. Then, “Clear.”

My body heaves.

They wait.

Moving to my head, the doctor bends down as if to tell me a secret. Before speaking to me, she turns to the nurse. “Where’d you say he’s from?”
“Friends say Louisiana.”
Turning back, she says,“Is that so?” her face close to mine. “So, you a southern boy are ya?” She swallows hard. “I don’t think it’s your turn yet.”
A voice from the corner near the door. “Twenty seconds.”
Then another. “Call it?”
“No.” The doctor, isisting. “Do it again.”
“But -”
“Do it,” she orders.

At the jolt, the skinny bundle of muscles and blood heaves again. My head is turned to the side. With every new first beat of my heart, blood pools in my ear running over the sides of my cheeks and down the back of my head.
The doctor says, “There ya go Louisiana. Your son lives to see another day.”

At twenty-six, in that emergency room — I don’t care what the doctor said — that version of me died, and was never revived.

The nerve that keeps our eyes working together, that runs along the top of the brain — near the skull — was badly bruised. My vision was extremely doubled, though my eyes looked straight.

I couldn’t run anymore. Couldn’t talk without stuttering, and coughing. Oh, man… I laughed with every other word. The nerve that controls your gag reflex and swallowing is located near the base of the skull. So, I had lots of issues to overcome.

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I was forced to admit it, I had a brain injury. It wasn’t easy living with the idea I may never be that cyclist, runner, and two-time state champion swimmer again.

For months, afterward, my legs were insanely anxious and restless. I always felt like I needed to run to get out some extra stored energy. I was living with headaches. I’d made an appointment with my doctor about the anxious legs.

“Are you depressed?” The doctor asks.
“No,” I said. “I mean, I’m alive.” With that, I began naming off all the reasons why I didn’t think I was depressed.
“Well,” the doctor, holding an x-ray of my skull to the light. He points with a pin. “You might not think you’re depressed, but your brain could act otherwise.” The gray-haired man, taking his glasses off, reading himself for a lecture. “You’ve suffered a brain injury.” He lowers the exray and returns the pen to his front pocket. “I want you to see a neurologist. But, until then, I want to start you on an anti-depressant.”

I was 165 lbs. After just a few months taking the antidepressant, I developed love handles for the first time in my life. The angst in my legs did not go away, nor the headaches. My muscles wouldn’t relax. My lower back and neck felt like overextended rubber bands. My eyes felt open when they were closed. Sleeping was next to impossible. I saw the neurologist.

He called it muscle spasticity and put me on a medicine that he said would cause them to relax. The first few days I’d felt like I died and went to heaven. Nothing hurt. My muscles were loose. After three days, my body adapted and the medicine stopped working. I slowly weaned myself off.

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The death of one version and the emergence of another. The version of me before the injury was a hundred and sixty-five pounds, lean, and healthy. After, at my heaviest, I weighed two hundred and forty-five pounds. I gained a total of eighty pounds. The real me began to disappear under the weight of something, somebody, or maybe many bodies that’d been there long before the accident, each having their own face. Not all had a name, not yet anyway… and that was okay.

Because that accident is such a marker in my life, I can say – God used a car, a hospital, death, and a strong-headed beautiful woman — to chip away at that eighty pounds, and bring back the art-work.

Do you think of your body as art work.

So, here I am. Twenty years later. I just died again. I’ve lost 65 lbs. And, at 182 lbs — amazingly I get to write and talk about it.


This article was written in 2015. I hope you enjoyed it. Shawn Boutwell is the host of The Deacon Show and Made Alive. He is a pastor, speaker, and author of several books. Please consider supporting this ministry.

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