A near-death experience raises a question for Luke Hunt—international correspondent and author—’should I stay or should I go?’

“… my life review – a euphemism for near death experience or NDE – really didn’t do it for me.”

As the new coronavirus took hold about 100 people were doing what they do best, sorting a barbecue, the last to be held in the garden of House Nine on Street 830 in Phnom Penh, my home for the last eight years.

Old friends and the odd luminary – famed correspondent Jim Pringle among them – indulged in a hedonistic mix of food, music and intoxicants of choice on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

It was on the eve of lockdowns. Government quarantines, social distancing, face masks and must have sanitizers were still over the horizon. Hugs, kissing and the odd dance were still allowed.

Two weeks later I collapsed with severe abdominal pain, fever and volcanic chills.

My doctor, Gavin Scott, listened to my gut with his stethoscope and said: “I can’t hear anything at all. Nothing.” Gratefully, I couldn’t feel anything either but the look on his face said too much.

My organs were shutting down as I was rushed into ER at Royal Phnom Penh Hospital then five hours later into an ICU with suspected salmonella or typhoid as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, up-ending and closing-out life as we knew it.

Dr Kraipope Jurapaiboon got it. As my internal organs were nearing retirement he did the charts. A stomach inflammation reading of one to three is considered normal, five is high.

I was clocking around 265.

The ICU resembled a NASA control room. Ten electrodes connected me to the EKG. Three intravenous needles delivered a milk substance and antibiotics. There was a catheter, assisted breathing and four or five staff on hand 24/7 as I drifted in and out of consciousness.

Needles and blood tests followed more needles, more blood tests and CT Scans.

Kraipope diagnosed salmonella leading to complications, which included pneumonia with pulmonary embolisms in both lungs, peritonitis, thrombosis on the liver, kidney stones and diverticulitis resulting in a perforated colon.

That infected my stomach and sent me into sceptic shock, twice.

Blood was turning into sludge and clots, of which I was blissfully unaware. The morphine – a must have at the next barbecue – was terrific.

But as the bells and whistles sounded from my ICU, I instinctively knew exactly what was happening and I was ready to go. I also had the best view. I could see Kraipope, another doctor and a team of nurses dart to my bedside. I was impressed.

I was looking at them from just above, then drifted towards the window as my life review, also known as a near death experience or NDE, began to rewind through a montage of black and white photos.

It was entertaining, I liked my life but like too many of the photographs I’d taken over the previous decades my NDE was in large parts dreadfully out of focus. There was a light that ran in a curve out through the window and up, and I was overwhelmed by a comfortable urge to follow. Just go.

I hesitated for a nano-second. My life review looked a bit clumsy. It lacked clarity. It was a bit like my old school report cards: “Could do better”.

Then I thought of friends and family. Mum had passed barely 12 months earlier leaving a tribe of grandchildren behind and I didn’t need to add to their anguish by buggering off so soon afterwards.

Last and least, I didn’t want that concrete skeleton – the Booyoung construction site next door – to be my last picture of a planet blighted by environmental destruction.

I shot upright. Literally; awake, throughly alive and totally aware.