So many ways to almost-die

Even if we don’t go to battle against a big bear or a tiny spider, death will get everybody. Once we go, organ donation can make a lasting impact.

LONDONDERRY — I taught a short fly-fishing lesson for a young man who had survived a bear attack in Alaska. The near-fatal encounter occurred in 2011 while he was on a hike deep in the back country.

His group apparently surprised a large grizzly bear, which quickly attacked, crushing his skull and biting him in the arm, leg, and neck. The bear attacked several other members of the group, but everybody survived following an emergency air evacuation.

I had just returned from my own solo trip to Alaska when the attack occurred and had been hiking similar terrain, so the national news story about the incident sure caught my attention.

It was nice to meet him and to hear him recount the attack and lessons learned. It was an interesting way to almost-die.

* * *

I thought of that story recently as I was solo hiking Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks. The three-mile hike is in black bear country, so I tried to make noise as I wound my way uphill. I did a lot of foot dragging and ground kicking, and sung a few verses of Born to Run, Growing Up, and Thunder Road on the assumption that a black bear would scurry away, but not feel threatened by early Bruce Springsteen.

The Whiteface trial starts out gently, but narrows and gains pitch about a third of the way up. As the trail steepened, I pushed harder and found my respiration deepening as my muscles burned oxygen. I was moving through a tight passage of trees, sucking wind and ready for a break, when I stumbled into a wall of spider webs.

I pushed the webs off my face and spit a piece off my tongue, then took another deep breath. As I grabbed that last breath, I saw a small black spider disappear into my mouth. I felt it slip down my throat, and I quickly coughed to try to push it free.

I was badly winded and struggled against the new irritation, coughing and spitting, but unable to get the spider out. For a minute or so, I could fell it moving deep in my throat, then the movement stopped and things settled down. It was a weird encounter that changed my song selection to an old nursery rhyme: There was an old lady who swallowed a spider;/That wriggled and wiggled and tickled inside her;/She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;/I don't know why she swallowed a fly-/Perhaps she'll die!

It was funny for a few moments, but as the hike continued I felt a sharp bump in my throat just below the Adam's apple.

The damn spider had bitten me in a last-ditch effort at revenge.

I'll bet the old lady in the nursery rhyme never thought about that possibility.

* * *

I'm not allergic to many things, and a spider bite would usually be a minor annoyance. But this one bit deep inside my throat, and the bump quickly progressed to swelling, which partially blocked my windpipe.

I stopped and sat quietly on the side of the trail considering what to do next.

I was alone, about two hours from the base and an hour from the summit. As best I could tell, there were no hikers ahead of me, and there might not be anybody else on the trail for the rest of the day.

I was wishing I had brought along a first-aid kit with Ibuprofen, but that was in my overnight pack back at the campsite. An EpiPen would have been a nice addition, but since I don't have allergies, I don't carry one.

After a few minutes of rest, I found I could breathe almost normally, but I couldn't gulp air. If the swelling stayed the same, I'd probably be OK, but if it worsened it could become a life threat.

Staying put didn't make much sense, and a tough hour to the summit seemed like a better option than a slightly-less-tough-but-longer trip to the base station, so I pushed forward very slowly with lots of breaks.

In time, the swelling subsided, and when I reached the summit, I was left with just a bit of scratchiness and a short story that illustrates another interesting way to almost-die.

* * *

That brings me to the point: eventually we will all die, perhaps in an interesting way, or perhaps from a garden-variety traffic accident or illness. Yup, even if we don't go to battle against a big bear or a tiny spider, death will get everybody.

Most of us spend our time creating a life and hopefully placing a few stepping stones for those lives that will follow. We strive to make a difference now and later, and we hope that for at least a short while we won't be completely lost to oblivion.

Organ donation is one way to help others and create a lasting impact. I've made it a point to include organ donation in my health-care proxy, and logged the intent with my family and on my Vermont driver's license.

Each state also maintains a database that allows residents to register their organ donation desires, and I followed up there, too. The federal government maintains a website with links to each state's registry at organdonor.gov.

So for now, life goes on. In my case, that little spider only had the power to create a little problem, so my life goes on literally, but if it didn't, at least my life might have gone on figuratively.

If you haven't thought about organ donation, or haven't thought about it in a while, now is a good time to make sure your wishes are documented and known to your family. Please take a moment to do that.

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