Karen Henson Jones has always been a fainter.
Every once in a while throughout her youth, her eyes would roll back in her head and she would momentarily lose consciousness. It was a little scary and inconvenient, but doctors assured her that she was otherwise fine.
So the hard-driving Falls Church native went off to Cornell University and then New York and then to London Business School. She stayed in England to launch a career in media finance and pursue an ambition-fueled, single-girl life in the city.
In 2007, on a visit home to see her parents, she went to lunch with a friend in Georgetown. At the table, the elegant 30-year-old brunette suddenly slumped in her chair and awoke to find herself being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.
After a battery of tests at Georgetown University Hospital, doctors told her she had a condition that sometimes caused her heart to beat abnormally or to stop for a brief period. At the restaurant, she’d actually gone into cardiac arrest.
“I wasn’t totally shocked,” she recalls. “It felt like a puzzle that was coming together. They said, ‘This is a very dangerous condition that could be fatal.’ ”
Karen was advised to have a device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) placed in her chest to monitor her heartbeat and trigger a shock to reset the rhythm if another cardiac arrest occurred. Without it, her doctors said, she’d have “a 6 to 15 percent chance of dying before 40.”
“I didn’t think I’d really die,” she says. But she also wanted her parents to be able to sleep at night. “So, of course you’re going to do something.”
Besides, doctors assured her that the surgery was routine and that the recovery time would be brief. She figured she’d be back to her old life in London in no time.
But just before her surgery, as she stood on the cold tile of the hospital bathroom, something eerie happened. “I looked in the mirror and I saw myself running out of the hospital in my hospital gown — running down the street. I was totally freaked out,” she recalls in an interview at her parents’ home. “I had never seen anything mystical — I hadn’t had any visions before.”
She was rattled, but chalked it up to pre-surgery nerves. Soon after she woke up from the anesthesia, however, she knew that something was wrong. “I feel like there’s a hook scratching the inside of my chest,” she recalls saying. She insisted on staying at the hospital for two more nights. “They said, ‘Oh, you’re a small person — maybe you just feel it more because you’re small,’ ” she remembers. She was sent home with a prescription for an injectable blood thinner.
Moments after giving herself the first injection, she collapsed. She drifted in and out of consciousness as she was rushed to a different hospital, where a new set of doctors — who did not know what device had been implanted, nor exactly where — worked frantically for hours to save her life as her blood pressure dropped to zero and her heart stopped.
Though she knows that not everyone will believe it, what Karen remembers of that time is being somehow outside her body but in the room, trying to control the numbers on the machine monitoring her heart rate. “Because I knew if the number moved, it was bad,” she says.
Fatefully, a cardiologist was walking through the ER. Another doctor pulled him into the operating room, where he determined that the sac around her heart had filled with blood. The doctors stemmed the bleeding and sent her to recovery, but within 12 hours she woke up choking. “I was drowning, literally, in my own blood,” she says.
During her third operation in a week, surgeons discovered that a wire from the ICD had torn a hole in her atrium. Finally stabilized and in the intensive care unit, she was too weak even to write her name. Back at her parents’ two weeks later, she needed constant care and help with even the most basic functions.
Karen’s fast life of big deals, fancy restaurants and handsome dates came to an abrupt halt. Unsure when she’d regain her strength, she was forced to resign from her job. The weeks and months ticked by with little improvement, and she sank into a deep depression.
“I was like an infant. Everybody had to take care of me,” she says. “After two years, I started to think, ‘How could I come back from death to this life?’ ”
She underwent physical therapy and followed all her doctors’ orders, even while pursuing alternative medicines and crazy health schemes — everything she could think of to improve her health. The efforts made her well enough for trips to the grocery store and to perform small tasks around the house, but she was still hunched over in a C-shape and couldn’t conceive of going back to work.
At the same time, she became fascinated with near-death experiences and reports of miracles. Since her own brush with death, she says, she’d begun seeing spirits and comprehending the universe as a multidimensional entity that she was hungry to understand further.
Desperate to feel better, she enrolled in a 40-day meditation course in California, where her sister lived. From dawn to dusk every day, she focused on her breath, chanted and visualized her body getting better. By the time she left, she felt significantly stronger and was determined to learn more about the mind’s power over the body.
With the help of her sister and an ex-boyfriend, she traveled to an ashram in India for a month-long advanced training course in meditation, mentally repeating the phrase, “I am getting better,” for hours each day. When she flew back to the States, she was standing upright, stronger than she’d been in years.
She also returned with a new perspective. “For two years I was thinking, ‘Why do I have to live at my parents’ house?’ ” she recalls. “In India I was surrounded by lepers, by kids with polio. When I came back I wanted to kiss the ground. All of a sudden I was so grateful to have my childhood bedroom.”
She wrote blog posts about her experience and launched herself on an “Eat, Pray, Love”-style spiritual journey that took her to Bhutan and Israel. But just as her recovery seemed assured, the defibrillator started vibrating in her chest. A wire had fractured, requiring extensive surgery to remove the ICD and implant a new one.
As she spent the next year recovering, she began to think, “Why do these things happen? Why did I have to go through these surgeries twice? Is there some kind of soul lesson that I didn’t fully get the first time?”
She worked to get back on her feet and began to gather her experiences into a book. Then, two years ago, lightning struck a third time: Scar tissue around the ICD wires was causing a blockage in her circulatory system, making her face swell and her veins protrude. The device had to be removed again. And this time, she opted not to replace it — leaving her exactly where she would have been had she followed her vision and bolted from the hospital all those years ago. Except with many more scars and a deeply altered life.
Now 38, Karen still lives with her parents and works as a writer and a meditation teacher. Her book, “Heart of Miracles: My Journey Back to Life After a Near-Death Experience,” was released in February.
But she struggles with regret at having agreed to the initial surgery. “It was too much physical pain and took me too much off course of feeling like a human being,” she says.
At the same time, she can’t conceive of life without the wisdom she acquired from her ordeal. “It was all for a purpose, because there was so much learning,” she says.
In the end, she walked away with one ultimate lesson.
“You just need to learn to be happy now,” she says, “no matter what your circumstance.”
This Life is an ongoing series about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. If you know someone you think should be featured, contact Ellen McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org.