How a Near Death Experience Inspired Us to FIRE

posted in: FIRE, Inspiration, Life Wisdom 4

My wife, Allison, and I were fortunate to be able to retire in our mid-40s.  It wasn’t easy. We worked hard for many years, saved and invested diligently, created extra income with side businesses, and lived a frugal lifestyle.

You may be wondering what kept us motivated to do these things. Why was creating a life of financial freedom so important to us?  To understand what drove us to FIRE (Financial Independence / Retiring Early), we have to travel back to the year 2009….


Just a Little Chest Pain

We were living in San Francisco at the time, and life couldn’t be much better. We both had well-paying jobs, we were living in a luxury condo, and we were in good physical shape.

But all of that was about to change.  One day out of the blue, I started feeling some pain in my chest.  After a few days, I developed a cough and the pain got deeper and more intense.

I went to the doctor thinking maybe I just strained a muscle doing yoga. My doctor took some chest x-rays, and everything seemed to be normal. He told me to take it easy for a few days, and it should get better.

Unfortunately things didn’t get any better. In fact, they were about to get a whole lot worse. A couple of days later, I was at work and started feeling feverish, weak, and light-headed. My boss and I both agreed I needed to go home and get some rest.

That night, I woke up at 2 a.m. shivering, weak, and in pain. Allison called my doctor and after taking my temperature (104!), we were advised to go to the ER right away.


The Diagnosis

After running a number of tests, the ER doctors determined I had pneumonia.  This was during the “swine flu” epidemic, so I thought I was getting off easy with just a pneumonia.

In my mind, a pneumonia was just a bad cold or flu.  Like when you were a kid, and your mom told you to put your jacket on “before you catch pneumonia.”  

Unfortunately, my assessment was way off. I would end up spend two weeks in the hospital, 10 days of which were in the ICU.

I developed pneumonia in both my lungs within a day. The doctors had to sedate me in order to insert a breathing tube down my throat, a feeding tube in my nose, and IVs in my arms. By the end of my ordeal, I ended up losing about 20 pounds, and I was already a slim 172 pounds at 6’3”.

To top it off, they had to keep me in a medically induced coma so that I would not pull out the breathing tube. The doctors used a drug called propofol, which is the drug that Michael Jackson OD’d on. My reaction to the drug caused intense, vivid, nightmarish hallucinations for about a week straight.

My Near Death Experience

Since I was in the coma and couldn’t move on my own, the nursing staff had to move my muscles around to exercise my body and prevent other complications. At one point, they moved me onto my side into a position where I couldn’t breathe. Unfortunately, I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk, so I had no way to tell anyone what was happening.

After what felt like several long minutes in this position, I started seeing the proverbial “white light.”  Images and flashes from my life were going through my mind. At this point, I felt that it was over and that my life was finished.

Finally the nurses rolled me onto my back and I was able to start breathing again before it was too late. Although I made it through that moment, there would be several additional times over the two weeks where I was so weak and sickly that I didn’t expect to pull through (one nurse even pulled my father-in-law aside to prepare Allison for the worse case scenario).


Before and After -- (L) With all tubes attached keeping me alive; (R) One of the happiest days of my life right after getting breathing tube removed!

Life Lessons Learned

Having a near death experience can be intense and scary, but it can also provide you with a new appreciation of life. Little things don’t bother you as much, and every day you’re alive feels like a blessing.

Here are the five main life lessons I learned from nearly dying:

1. Your health can never be taken for granted

I’ve always been one of the healthiest people I know, and yet I still came down with a devastating illness that could’ve killed me. I was practicing yoga, biking, walking, and eating loads of vegetables each day.

It’s so important to cherish your health and take care of your body as best you can. Yes, you could still have a health scare or accident, but why not strive to be in as good as shape as possible while you’re still alive? My advice is to live your best life in the best condition you can get yourself into.

2. The will to live is powerful

I distinctly remember thinking that I was only 38 years old, and there was still so much more I wanted to do with my life. There was no way I was willing to let go and give up.

As I slowly turned the corner, that will to live became more and more powerful. I knew it was going to be a long recovery, but once I started feeling some improvement, I had no doubt I was going to make it.

After I recovered, I wanted to challenge myself and prove that I was back to full strength. A group of guys from my office decided to run in a 12-mile Tough Mudder course, and I agreed to participate with them. Almost three years to the date that I went into the hospital, I completed the Tough Mudder, and it was exhilarating.

Posing with my Tough Mudder team after the course (I'm second from the left), just 3 years after my pneumonia.

3. People are the most important thing in the world

I was extremely lucky to have Allison by my side during the entire ordeal. Another thing that got me by was having family and friends talking to me on the phone - I couldn’t respond but I could listen. Just hearing their voices made me stronger.

I also knew that so many people were pulling for me and sending love, good vibes, and prayers. There’s something about the “energy” that people put out into the universe that really does have an impact.

Make sure you appreciate the people in your life and make sure you tell them how much you love them every day.

4. Daily problems and fears are inconsequential

When you go through a near death experience and pull through it, you gain a better perspective on life’s little issues that many people tend to blow out of proportion.

It’s so easy to get upset, afraid, or frustrated about minor things people do or events that happen in your life (for example, your spouse leaves the cap off the toothpaste, or your kids or pets make a mess in the living room).  But after facing down death, the small stuff doesn’t bother you as much anymore.  You tend to focus on the bigger picture, like what do you want to do with your life and who do you want be. 

5. Health insurance is an absolute must

If there’s one critical financial lesson I learned, it’s to never be without health insurance. I was fortunate to be covered under my employer’s health insurance plan at the time. Had I not been, I definitely wouldn’t be writing about achieving FIRE in my mid-40s right now.

The total of all my hospital bills was well over $200,000. With insurance, my total out of pocket was about $3,000.  

Whether it's through your employer, the ACA, or a health sharing ministry, you should explore your options for health coverage.

[Note:  You can read more about my near death experience on my post 11 Life Lessons I Learned from My Near Death Experience.]


Life is fragile and precious, so live it up!

No matter how careful or healthy you are, your life could be snuffed out in an instant. It’s a scary thought, but it’s true. Does this mean you should worry about dying and hide in the house? Of course not - quite the opposite, in fact. Because life is precious, you need to cherish it and not waste it or take it for granted.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”  —  Mark Twain

After I recovered, Allison and I realized that we didn’t want to waste what little time we may have had left slaving away under bad fluorescent lighting, so we decided to accelerate our retirement plans.  Four years later, we took the first step toward FIRE by paying off our mortgage through Geographic Arbitrage.

One year after that, we (fortunately) both got laid off from our jobs.  We thought we would just take a little time off to travel and recharge our batteries, but after a few months we realized we had saved enough money not have to go back to work.  

We’ve now been happily FIREd for four years, and we have never looked back.  We’ve visited about 20 countries in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and Central & South America.  (Read about our 35-day trip through SE Asia).

Enjoying our early retirement in Florence, Italy

We have also done some things we wouldn’t have had the time to do if we were still working.  For example, we recently spent six weeks traveling around the eastern U.S. going to our 30-year high school reunions (mine in OH and Allison’s in NYC), attending and speaking at FinCon, and spending six days at Disney World.

Life is too short to spend in an office or cubicle for most of your adult life.  Don’t wait until it’s too late. Take it from someone who was lucky to learn that lesson early in life.      

4 Responses

  1. Frogdancer Jones

    Florence!!! How I loved Florence…
    I agree, life is too short to waste. I’m glad you pulled through and that you’re both grabbing life with both hnds.

  2. Savvy History

    Thank you for sharing your story in such an inspiring way. These types of narratives are what intrigue me the most in the personal finance world. I think reality sets in at a different level when you have been through extreme trauma. Aside from a NDE, losing someone unexpectedly can do it too for many people. I think these “jolting” moments can be turned into something meaningful, but it takes a lot of mental work. You have obviously done that work and are maxing out a life of meaning. Best wishes on your journey.

  3. Caroline at Costa Rica FIRE

    So true that health is wealth, and very true that the flexibility of FIRE really helps with that. I had a traditional corporate job till my mid-30’s and always had aches and pains that are very hard to properly take care of when you’re boxed into a tight corporate schedule. After I started working for myself, I still get the errant cold here and there, but my health (including mental health:)) has dramatically improved. My husband joined me a decade later, leaving his corporate job in his 40’s, and he lost 20+ pounds in his first couple of years off! That may be a new slogan for FIRE — the ultimately wellness strategy.

  4. WTK


    I agree with you. I can sense that my health declines with long hours of work on weekdays (8.30am to 11pm). I am making plan to make the necessary change in order to improve the health. Health is gold. It does not make any sense if one accumulates large amount of wealth and yet no health.