In March 2015, I almost died at the Guardian Life Keep it Alive 5k Night Run in Jamaica. Ironic, isn’t it? I signed up for a charity run with a company that sold life insurance, and almost died in the process.
Here’s what happened.
The Night Run
I remember being really excited for the charity run. I had been training for months without incident, and naturally expected smooth sailing.
On the night of the event, I lined up with a friend near the front. The organisers sent off the disabled participants first, followed by the walkers, and then the runners.
The first kilometer of running was bliss. I had never done a night run before, and was really enjoying the cool, night air. “This is going to be easy,” I thought. “I’ll probably set a new personal best.”
But as the second kilometer set in, I felt a familiar pain in my chest. “Not now,” I thought. “There’s no way.” The usual recommendation when an angina attack hits is to stop, sit down, and rest for about 15 minutes. But I had grown used to breathing through it over the years, and decided to keep on running.
Yet the more I ran, the worse it got. Eventually, it grew into the absolute worst angina attack I have ever experienced.
“I’m going to die,” I finally started thinking: something that had never crossed my mind before, during an attack. Up ahead, I saw an ambulance materialising into view. “Should I stop?” I asked myself. “Can I finish the race like this?”
The ambulance grew closer and closer, and I started to slow down. But at the last second, I decided to keep going. “People die all the time, “I reasoned. “If I’m going to die tonight, I’m gonna die running.”
That angina attack followed me for the next kilometer of the race. But by the time I reached the halfway mark, the ache was gone. Determined to catch up, I finished that race with a new personal best record.
My friend and I then spent the next hour or two at the concert and after party; wheeling our shirts over our heads, and jumping up and down. She was high on adrenaline after the run, and I was high on facing my mortality and emerging triumphant.
A Difficult Start
To put this all into better context — let’s go back to the start.
I was born early one October morning in 1989, with a heart defect. Then along came tonsillitis, which triggered acute rheumatic fever. By about 9 years old, the fevers stopped, but not before causing serious damage to my heart valves.
At 14, my health deteriorated again. Doctors told me my rheumatism hadn’t disappeared, after all. It had just become sub-acute rheumatism, and caused further damage to my heart valves.
So much so, that I was diagnosed with micro-vascular heart syndrome. In short, by 14 I had been diagnosed with 4 different heart conditions.
They (and every other doctor, since) told me:
There’s nothing we can do. Take an aspirin when it hurts…
I was immediately pulled from the track team, and banned from P.E. classes. Doctors advised me to take it easy, and to put my active life behind me — or risk death.
Breaking the Rules
That was 2004.
But by the time I started college in 2006, I was ready to take charge of my life again. I didn’t play sports anymore, but I spent a lot of time at the beach, and would go for miles-long walks with friends, several times per week.
In May 2014, I took it a step further by running my first 5K race with coworkers. We did this every weekend that followed, until the real charity race in September. When the race ended and the training stopped, I started training with a Taekwondo black-stripe belt on Thursdays, and joined a gym.
My doctors were horrified. But they were also intrigued when I told them that since reclaiming my active lifestyle, I wasn’t having heart pain anymore. After some deliberation, they gave their blessing for me to keep doing what was working.
So naturally, when I lined up with my friend for Guardian Life Keep it Alive 5k Night Run, the very last thing I expected was to have an angina attack.
If you don’t know what an angina attack is, it’s heart pain equivalent to a heart attack, but without the damage. In fact, people who suffer from angina attacks often die of a heart attack, because when the real one comes, we don’t know the difference and don’t seek medical attention.
If you’re waiting for me to conclude with some thought-provoking lesson, don’t hold your breath 😂 The decision I made to keep running is not the advice I would have given to someone else. It was risky, potentially fatal — some would even say “foolish”.
But you know what? When you live your entire life with a death sentence hanging over your head, you really only have two choices. You can submit to fear or limitations, or you can transcend them.
I would rather live to see my 30s than survive to see 100.
So until my heart gives out, I’ll still be at the gym, still hiking up waterfalls and mountains — still living.
Interested in contributing to my bravery (or stupidity)? Then tip me! To everyone who contributed so far, my world is a lot bigger because of you. I can’t thank you enough.