Sebastian Junger is used to dodging bullets in war zones, so he didn’t expect to almost die in his own driveway.
Junger was walking with his wife in the woods near his home in Massachusetts when he suddenly felt so ill he could barely move. By the time paramedics arrived, Junger felt better and only reluctantly boarded the ambulance at his wife’s insistence.
At the hospital, doctors realized Junger’s pancreatic artery had ruptured. It was so dire, he needed a transfusion of about 10 pints of blood right into his jugular.
Junger, an author and journalist, sees parallels between his own medical trauma and the death of his friend, photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who bled out from a shrapnel wound while chronicling the Libyan civil war.
The two men faced very different medical scenarios, but both required blood transfusions in order to survive. Junger got that transfusion, while Hetherington did not. He died en route to the hospital.
Junger never thought much about blood donation before he needed someone else’s blood. Now he feels donating is a vital part of being a good citizen.
“Give blood, vote and serve jury duty, and you will feel like you’re part of something greater than yourself, which is one of the best feelings a person can have,” he told CNN.
A near-death experience
Besides making him an advocate for blood donation, the experience also caused the affirmed atheist to question what happens after death.
Junger’s experience was terrifying — but it’s also one that’s shared by people across the world and across different cultures.
“I didn’t know specifically I was dying. But I knew I was getting pulled into a black pit that was underneath — which seems like bad news — and I didn’t want to go there,” he said. “And that’s when my dead father appeared over me until I was like, ‘Get out of here, Dad. I want nothing to do with you right now.’ I’m a non-religious skeptic, right? And there was my dead father welcoming me, and I don’t know why.”
The next day, an intensive care unit nurse at Cape Cod Hospital told Junger he had almost died. The realization was startling, and when she returned his room, “I said, ‘I’m OK, but what you told me has really kind of freaked me out.’”
That nurse suggested that instead of thinking about his brush with death as something frightening, he should “try thinking about it as something sacred.”
It was a suggestion he’s taken to heart. The experience “left me with the thought that I’m going to continue thinking about for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’m not religious, but I understand the idea of something being sacred.”
The ultimate front line
Junger’s experience was so transformative that he’s writing his next book about near-death experiences. He’s still in the research phase but the working title is “Pulse: What Keeps Us Alive and What Happens When We Die.”
“I’ve been covering front lines in war zones my whole life. This was the ultimate front line for me,” he said.
Junger says hospice nurses often report that in a person’s last days and hours, they see the dead in their room, and even talk to them. The dying patient often believes they’re being escorted away by their loved one.
That was the experience Junger seemed to have with his dead father.
“This is very, very common and I’m trying to sort of understand it. That was for me, incredibly traumatizing, but almost a kind of spiritual awakening,” Junger said.
“It didn’t make me believe in God, but it did make me think maybe there is something more to existence, and to this universe, and this life, than the pure rationalists will allow. Maybe there’s something a little bit more that we just don’t understand, and it’s sort of waiting for us.”