Jonathan Cutrell

The Day I Almost Died


On the 4th of July this year, I almost died. I think the most important thing for you to know, out of the gate, is that it wasn't fireworks. The second most important thing for you to know is that I'm fine now, physically speaking.

How it happened

You may or may not already know that I am a powerlifter. Well, I usually am a powerlifter.

Right now, I'm injured, so my lifting is limited. (Pre-existing condition to the almost-dying incident.)

To say I'm a powerlifter is to say I'm a programmer - I haven't written much code as a manager. I start to feel some impostor syndrome after a while; is the cure to remind yourself you can do the thing, or to become capable at doing something else? Can I be comfortable with saying "I have done some programming" or "I have done some powerlifting"?

Anyway, I was adjusting my power rack. It was an 8-post rack, I decided it was time to change it to a 6-post rack. My goal was to remove the front two posts, take the connections from those and put them between the back two and second pair of posts. (These details are mostly for my memory and are not particularly germane to the story.)

I had successfully removed the front two posts and extenders, and had disconnected the back to posts. So now we have a two-post and four-post structure. The two-post structure also has a lat-tower attached to the back. (The important thing there is it had "feet" on the back side that I assumed made the whole thing stable.)

I was up on the second step of a two-step stepstool when I felt the lat-tower two-post structure tip onto my shoulder.

Now, as the astute reader will note, if I pushed against this tower, the step stool would buckle under me. If I didn't push against it, the situation would eventually resolve itself anyway. At first I was able to hold it up, to try to figure out what to do.

I realized the gravity of the situation... no pun intended.

In no uncertain terms, I screamed for my life in the most guttural fashion. I screamed for Lauren, my wife, to come help me. She arrived to the room moments later, yelling at me asking for instructions. A handful of choice words later, she was pushing on the two-post structure, but considering the structure held a combined weight of something around the one-ton mark, she was unable to push it.

It's a bit blurry, but eventually there was no choice but to go with the rack to the ground.

Part Two: Better Than The Lottery

I laid on the ground stunned at first. The fall was oddly slow - I guess because it wasn't like something falling straight down off of a shelf. I was convinced that my legs would both be broken at least, and much more grisly at worst.

My wife still screamed at me, "are you okay!?"

I have to admit, at that moment, I did not know if I was okay.

Something had pinned my leg to the ground, but I was able to get out from under it. And, in a moment of absolute fortune, I stood up. Structurally, my bones seemed fine. I had some scrapes, but I was ok.

My whole family and I spent the next few minutes recovering emotionally from what happened. My children, 3 and 6 years old, hugged me before saying anything.

I surveyed what felt like the aftermath of a car accident in my interior gym, and realized there were about a billion ways this could have gone wrong.

I often think about alternative timelines and the "infinite universe" theory that inspired the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once. The tldr; - anything that could possibly happen is happening and has happened, because there is no known boundary on the universe... thus, all possible arrangements of matter are occurring in some cosmic reality.

I'm convinced that in almost every arrangement that was identical up to moments before that rack fell, the constituent parts of matter that make up my alter-egos are now in a grave.

That is, I did better than winning the lottery.

Winning the lottery is only applicable if you are alive. I guess if someone wins the lottery and dies, it passes on to their heirs or something - I imagine the lottery companies have a way of recouping if that person chose the lifetime payments over the lump sum. (Come to think of it, that's a mental model I should update; "consider the lump sum for reasons that go beyond the utilitarian calculation of the total amount.")

Anyway, I lived in this particular iteration.

Subsequent tests in the ER showed no major artery damage (which was a concern based on where my leg was pinned). Then, my calf started to get tight and red and warm... an indication of a potential clot. Another ultrasound later, no clot.

I escaped with just some very intense bruises. One was shaped, amusingly, like a t-bone steak.

Three: Reflections

First, it's amazing how "narrowly escaping death" feels very much like a routine event. I don't know how much more it would have hurt to die. Being an American citizen, after going to the ER, I went and ate cheesecake and watched fireworks that night at my sister's farm house.

It's odd to "get on with life", but the alternative seems worse: to bask in the nearness of death. And so things continue on with some regularity. I realized that people barely pause for you; and why should they? They themselves are living their lives, why should I take some of theirs?

I'd also like to say that the experience made me more patient, less easily frustrated, more grateful on a moment-to-moment basis. But, in honesty, I haven't noticed a major difference in that. Maybe it takes more near-death experiences, or maybe being frustrated sometimes is just normal.

I already think about death a lot. I have not yet reached the point in life where my fear of death is outpaced by my fatigue with living. I grew up in a (very authentic and loving) religious atmosphere. I make quite a few concessions about death to myself to try to deal with those thoughts: there is nothing you can do, so why waste your time thinking about it? Millions have died before you. If you grieve what you will miss, you should also logically grieve what you missed before.

These thoughts masquerade as comforting, but are in fact distractions from the inevitable unknown eternity.

However, simultaneous to my darkest existential dread, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. (Not in the every-minute, as I already mentioned... but in the reflective part of me.) For the confluence of factors that led me to where I am today, with the life I have to live.

Four: Resolution

I'm convinced that part of our psyche is built to overindulge in what-ifs, and that it gets magnified in situations like this. I assume this is part of our natural survival learning so that these kinds of things don't repeat themselves. You see a tiger in that cave, you don't go back to that cave - that sort of thing.

The feeling was nothing short of anxiety-overwhelm thinking about what almost happened, what could have happened had any small variable been different.

The night after the accident I stood staring at the gym floor covered in haphazard, awkwardly balanced equipment laying everywhere. I stared mostly in awe. Every new glance, there was another reason or avenue for me to have been maimed or killed.

I think our brains don't really fully parse when a threat is no longer active. I don't know much about PTSD, but intuitively I imagine this is at least a component for some; even though the falling equipment was no longer threatening me, I still felt fragile.

And then it hits me: I am fragile. I make mistakes. In the grand scale of everything, this is just a whisper.

That feeling of fragility is at first uncomfortable. But then it becomes, in an odd way, comforting. We all are bound together by our fragility. Not just between life and death, but in everything we do.

I looked at the crossbar that saved my life; had it not been there, I wouldn't be here. The weights on the floor that could have fallen on my head. The bars horizontally that could have twisted and broken my legs like pieces of uncooked spaghetti.

Then, we cleaned it up.

My lovely wife helped me set the gym back up. We didn't just restore the functionality - we made it safer, and even upgraded it. Better space I've already gone back down to work out.

For me, this is resolution.

Written by Jonathan Cutrell, Engineering Manager at Guild Education and podcast host at Developer Tea. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcutrell.