“You will need a liver transplant in 5 to 7 years.”
Those were the sobering words from my trusted physician. After getting healthy and losing 65 pounds, those are definitely not the words I thought I would hear. I was launching my medical practice and applying for life insurance when doctors discovered elevated liver enzymes indicating there was a serious problem.
I was only 27 years old.
News like this is devastating, to say the least, and calls for a lot of reflection. I went through all sorts of emotion. I hit all the biggies — denial, anger, sadness and fear. I just could not believe I had finished my residency and was starting my first job the very next day and BAM…change of plans.
Dr. Joann Schaefer is vice president and chief medical officer of medical care and management for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska. She previously served as chief medical officer and director of public health for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services for about eight years. She blogs monthly for livewellnebraska.com.
Thankfully, several family members with wisdom and a splash of wicked humor and many mentors along the way have helped me reach the conclusion that this journey has been the best thing that ever happened to me.
I know, it sounds so cliché. But truly, when you think your life is going to be cut short, you look at everything so differently. You start to realize how amazing life is and you start to think about death a lot. Not because you're obsessed with dying, but because you want your life to have meaning. So that if you die young, you'll be remembered. So that you'll know that you've contributed something to make the world a better place, and that you spend your time and love on the people who matter the most to you.
None of this is easy to do during the hustle and bustle of life. But when you think your life will be cut short, something life-altering like this does make you focus. You also think about how big and yet how small the world is, and about all of the places you want to see and all of the things you want to learn while time seems to be going by so terribly fast.
I'm not trying to be a downer. This is supposed to be a happy blog. But it is all of this thought that made me so appreciative and so joyful inside, even though I wasn't always feeling well and at times faced life-threatening consequences from my liver disease.
I could have turned into a crabby person, but I did not want to be remembered that way if I kicked the bucket early. My grandmother died fairly young of presumably the same disease, and that made it clear to me I had to stay healthy and hope for technology and a transplant to save my life. In the meantime, though, I had to — as Morgan Freeman said in the "Shawshank Redemption" —“Get busy livin' or get busy dyin.”
And that's just what I did.
Looking back, I'm not sure I would have learned to enjoy life as deeply as I have without my earth-shaking news. I'm not sure I would have learned to change the way I view stress in my life, and not just manage it, but build resilience from it.
I'm not sure I would have as many close relationships as I have, or would have ended the ones that are not healthy and learn from both.
I'm not sure I would have taken as many journeys, as many leaps of faith or tried as many incredibly silly and funny things. I'm not sure I would have taken the time to have deep and meaningful conversations with dying friends and loved ones — when they were the last conversations I would have with them — had I not been so mindful of life, forgiveness, and the healing powers of saying goodbye one last time.
I also wonder if I would have been more judgmental of people, instead of truly appreciating everyone for who they are — not knowing the path they have walked any more than they know mine. For all these reasons, I am so thankful for my bum liver. It taught me a lot about life. Now my new liver is giving me the power to live fully and completely.
So as promised…my three lessons learned from this experience that I would like to pass on to you:
1. Think about your funeral. Who will take the time to come, and what will they say? By the way, this is a famous exercise conducted in many leadership classes.
2. Be honest about what and who is most important to you in this world. Open your calendar and see if your time commitments match up with them.
3. Make a plan to start living your life. Get a coach, take a time management class, get some mentors who know how to do this…it just might give you a life!