When life hangs by a thread, we realize what really matters most.
The ER doctor was white as a ghost. “I just took a look at your MRI,” he said. “There’s a good chance you’ll be dead this time tomorrow.”
My ears were ringing. My heart pounded. I’d heard the words he’d just spoken, but they didn’t seem to compute. I didn’t feel like I was on the brink of death. I’d just gone cycling last weekend.
“To be honest,” said the doctor, “I don’t even know how you walked in here today. I don’t know how you’re talking to me right now.”
I wouldn’t have even visited the ER, I told him, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I’d suddenly felt out-of-breath after climbing our home’s staircase that afternoon. And that wasn’t the first time I’d lost my breath during a seemingly simple everyday activity. I knew something wasn’t right — so I called my family doctor, who, to my surprise, told me to high-tail it to the ER.
Even then, until the moment the doctor delivered his diagnosis, I’d had no idea how grave my situation was.
“You have a massive bilateral pulmonary embolism,” the ER doc explained. “There are big blood clots in your lungs’ arteries. We’re scrambling a team of doctors to decide if you can withstand the treatment you need.”
Over the next five days, the brilliant ICU team at John Muir Medical Center saved my life by breaking down the blood clots with a protein called tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) applied via thrombolysis therapy. Essentially, they put a catheter in an artery in my groin, threaded it to my lungs, then pumped in tPA to bust up the clots.
My wife Marianne was with me every step of the way. And, as often happens when we face mortality, her presence got me thinking about the things that really matter most to me: my family, my faith, and my love of helping people.
For more than 25 years, I’d had a great career in international finance, including a stint as the CFO of Microsoft North America. I was fortunate to have a generous income, a beautiful home in San Francisco’s Bay Area, and the respect of senior execs at some of America’s top companies.
But as I lay there in that ICU bed, holding my wife’s hand, I realized more than ever how fragile and short life is—and how little money and material things really matter.
I turned to Marianne and said, “You know that career change I’ve been talking about all these years? It’s time.” She smiled, nodded, and said, “I know. I support you.”
As soon as I got out of the hospital, I spent the next year retraining myself. I got certified as an executive coach and facilitator. I also got certifications in personality and leadership assessments. I started spreading the word that I was about to make a major career change. I put up my website. I interviewed successful executive coaches to learn the keys to their success.
Then I had to learn how to market myself and sell my services. For the first six months, I worked nights and weekends to rebrand myself from CFO to executive coach. I let everyone in my network know about my new business. The result was a lot of encouraging words but very little income. We were fortunate to have rainy-day savings to get us through the transition.
Little by little, my business began to gain traction.
Three and a half years later, I get to help others build the muscle to achieve their aspirations, every day. For me, it doesn’t get better than that. My wife says she can tell I’m happier with my work than I’ve ever been.
As I look back on my journey, I realize I’ve learned three core truths from surviving pulmonary embolism (PE) and changing careers:
Life is too short and precious to spend it chasing money. It’s more fulfilling to focus on the people and values you cherish. At the moments when life and death hang in the balance, you realize they’re all that truly matters.
When you realize it’s time for a change, look for the intersection between what you’re good at, what you love doing, and what adds value to society. When you find that intersection, you’ll discover work that will feel like living, not working.
There’s a time and a season for everything. Recognize there may be some schools you need to pass through to prepare for new phases of life. Some of these will be formal schools, some will be learning on the job, and some will simply be the school of hard knocks. I’ve come to believe all experience is good experience.
Oddly enough, the doctors and I never figured out exactly what caused my PE. Often, a PE starts with clots in the legs as a result of too little activity, but mine didn’t. With some genetic testing, I learned I have factor V Leiden, a genetic mutation that can increase the chance of clots in the legs and lungs.
Somehow it got triggered. And I’m glad it did.