'I Discovered What Happens to Your Body When You Nearly Die'

It was an ordinary day in April, 2001, and I was trying to focus on my work as a PR executive. But I felt unwell, and felt gradually worse throughout the day. I contacted my doctor and he recommended I go to the ER near me in Greenwich, London.

Despite the fact that I lived next door to the hospital, he insisted that they send an ambulance for me. And so I came to be sitting in that ER, when an Australian doctor on a trip to London said he could smell something—something he had smelt before in Australia: the unique and terrible smell of rotting flesh.

I must have passed out as the next thing I remember is coming round in an ER room, where just one nurse was sitting in a chair, real close to me. I later discovered that this was protocol when a patient is not likely to recover. It would be her job to report the death and later prepare me for the mortuary and whose job, in the meantime, was palliative; that is, to keep me comfortable until either my body and the antibiotics kicked in or I died.

Kevin Fetterplace
Kevin Fetterplace writes that his near-death experience changed his perspective on life. Kevin Fetterplace

I was told afterward that I was minutes from death—certainly within an hour if I hadn't improved by then. I had Necrotizing Fasciitis, the "flesh-eating disease."

When you die, or become very close to it, you are primarily aware of two things. Firstly, there's the devastation that this is happening to you. You go through the mental torture that this is happening to you—and you are going to do this alone.

I felt desperately alone because, although there was someone there, they couldn't understand what I was going through. They were unable to help me. This loneliness or awareness of being alone was deeply terrifying.

I also felt very cold. This is because my body had taken all the blood away from non-essential places like my hands, feet, arms, and legs and diverted it to the main organs of my body—my core. Everything, it seemed to me, was ice-cold, so I was violently shivering.

Terrified, shaking with cold and abject fear, I squeezed my eyes tight shut. Maybe this was all a dream, and I was going to come out of it? It was wishful thinking.

A new sensation hit me like a hammer as the very last elements of my body started to fail. My breathing changed from a pant, due to a lack of oxygen, to long sighs on the other side.

Hospital bed
Stock image of hospital bed. Kevin Fetterplace writes about the morphine dreams he endured while in a month-long coma. iStock / Getty Images Plus

My life sped by in my brain at this point. I dreamed of being at the front of a tube train—with the driver a good pal of mine—and each station platform was full of all the people I had known in my lifetime. As we passed through the station, each person raised their eyes to look at me passing by. It was terrifying because, for one thing, there wasn't any light at the end of "the tunnel"— rather it was very dark, except for the station platforms which were brightly lit.

It's at this point that I looked for something to cling onto. Something worth fighting for. If you find this, people say you are much more likely to survive. On this occasion, I was in a tremendous place because I was in a terrific relationship that was full to the brim of promise. I believe that clinging to the reality of that relationship during those most terrible, frightening of moments, rallied me and made my very stubborn body fight back. I even remembering imagining sending out little "soldiers" to travel throughout my body fixing things.

Later, I realized that was probably the morphine talking—but it worked for me just then. Finally, it was over, and I lapsed into a month-long coma.

When I regained consciousness, I became aware, first of all, that I was breathing cool air, having just taken off the oxygen mask I had been wearing. And that realization confirmed that I was alive.

I felt warmer, too, which was a joy. But I also felt confused because for a little while, I had struggled to shake off the morphine dreams I'd been having. They had seemed so real just a few moments ago, but it was a huge relief that they had subsided—if anything is going to frighten you, it's morphine dreams.

In my dreams, I felt like I was in a fish-tank: I could see the outside world, my doctors and nurses, relatives and friends, but everything had a blurry blue hue. I couldn't talk to them, but I could hear them sort of mumbling nonsense. This was very scary as with normal dreams you can will yourself awake—but with a coma, you can't. You are stuck in it.

Necrotizing Fasciitis is said to be one of the worst conditions you can get. I wouldn't argue with that. The smell of rotting flesh was cloying. The pain was unimaginable—both mental and physical. The treatment for the flesh-eating disease is surgery to cut out all the dead stuff that relentlessly expands every single day until the disease runs out of flesh to eat.

The doctors performed nine surgeries over five days to cut away my flesh. Very few people survive this disease—either their body can't take the surgeries and goes into shock, or the disease eats enough material to kill them. Somehow, I survived. I was in the hospital for 50 weeks but I got through it.

Kevin Fetterplace at home in Seattle
Kevin Fetterplace in his home in Seattle, Washington. Fetterplace now requires a wheelchair, following his near-death experience. Kevin Fetterplace

I am now in a wheelchair full-time, due to this experience, but I learned so much about life and humility while I laid in that hospital bed. I now yearn for less and am happier as a "poor" guy than I ever was when I was making a lot of money. My stress levels are well down, too.

Three months after my hospital release, on March 17, 2001, I realized London was not very accessible for wheelchair users and I flew to New York. I was still wrapped like a mummy due to all the wounds coupled with a lot plastic surgery sites from where they had taken skin from my legs and applied it to the open wounds. I flew to New York and never went back.

It was cold and raining when left London, but it was a bright spring day when I arrived in New York. It was a different world, and I began to flourish in it. And every day, I thank the gods that I am alive to appreciate it.

Kevin Fetterplace is the founder and owner of Mojo Working International. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Do you have a unique experience or personal story to share? Email the My Turn team at myturn@newsweek.com