A change of heart and mind after a near-death experience

Getting a second chance after a near-death experience can be life-changing and transformative

A few weeks ago in Mongolia, I met a man who told me he had had a change of heart. Literally.

It was early July and a group of editors from around the world were gathered in the Mongolian city of Ulaanbaatar for a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe summit.

In the two or three days that we were there, we talked about everything from the digital transformation of the media industry to increased cooperation between our newsrooms.

What I found most interesting were the cultural performances they treated us to, as well as the meals that we had together, when we could chat about far more important topics - like whether Paris Croissant is the same as Paris Baguette. Or, how a hooded Caucasian man could rob a bank branch in Singapore in broad daylight with nothing more than a piece of paper.

One night, I went to a Foreign Ministry dinner at the Blue Sky Hotel, a building that looked like a mini version of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. I was sitting with the very charming wife of a Singapore diplomat and a South Korean editor eating "Crab Three Ways" when I noticed J, the Korean editor, ordering Sprite from the waitresses.


I asked him why he wasn't drinking the wine and super- smooth vodka everyone else seemed to be guzzling.

J said he stopped drinking about a year ago for health reasons.

What happened, asked the diplomat's wife.

I had a heart transplant, he replied, matter-of-factly, before telling us his remarkable story.

One day, without warning, his 50-something-year-old heart stopped beating.

He said doctors could not explain why. Like most Korean men his age, he drank and smoked regularly, but he never had any serious health problem and heart disease also did not feature in his family history.

J's wife told him later that his heart had stopped for about 40 seconds, before it was somehow revived. She thought he was dead or going to die.

Yet he regained consciousness in a hospital several days later, after what he described as "the longest dream of my life".

By now, we were eating some sort of fish, another unspeakable luxury in landlocked Mongolia. But the food was the last thing on our minds.

J said that in his dream, he was dressed in furs and in an endless snowscape. He was running furiously after something and, after a while, he gathered that he was hunting tigers in Siberia.

"Past life regression!" said the diplomat's wife excitedly.

J said he agreed with that.

In the 1800s, many Koreans migrated to Siberia and, by the end of the century, the 1897 Russian Empire Census found about 26,000 Korean speakers in Russia.

After J woke up, his doctor started an urgent search for a replacement heart. There was a queue of patients that needed heart transplants, but he was moved to the front because he could die at any time.

Despite this, his doctor rejected two donors before settling on a third candidate, a relatively young man who had suffered brain damage.

J told us he will forever be grateful for the patience his doctor exhibited in the face of such critical urgency, waiting for the right heart to come along at great risk to his patient.

The surgery was successful, but the best was yet to be.

According to J, the new heart changed him somehow.

The first thing he noticed was his eyesight improving. Then his hair became thicker and his skin healthier.

Doctors said this was the result of the fact that J's donor was probably younger and led a healthier lifestyle than him. So J's health is probably improving as a result of increased circulation that comes with a stronger heart.

Over and above that, J swears that his new heart has changed his character. He said he feels happier and more relaxed now about life, though the journalist in him thinks that could also be the result of having a near-death experience.

Yet his wife has told him that his temper has improved and he is a much more pleasant person to be around.

This is why - although he is not religious - he makes it a point to attend Catholic mass every weekend. His donor was apparently Catholic.

He goes to church to give thanks and pray for the soul of the younger man whose physical and emotional core has rejuvenated his older, jaded body.

After a tale like that, there could be only silence and wonder as we quietly reconstructed our deconstructed cheesecake.

The geek in me immediately started processing the implications of J's experience. After all, my favourite subject by far in university (and the only paper I did well in and aced) was philosophy of mind, with its theories on the nature of consciousness, emotions and other mental events.

On the one hand, past life regression shows that the mind can be independent of the physical body and the brain.

But J's altered state of being hints at the contrary - that our everyday consciousness, emotions and character are very much a result of the state of our physical bodies.

And if the mind is not independent of the body, then everything ends with death.

That has profound implications for one's belief in many religious concepts such as heaven, hell and the afterlife.

Yet J's story has stayed with me - weeks after - for a different reason. It has made me think about second chances.

The survival rate for a heart transplant patient is about 85 to 90 per cent in the first year, but drops to about 75 per cent after three years. Every year after that, the survival rate drops about 5 per cent.

J said he knows this and therefore treats every day he gets as a bonus.

It made me think of the racing games I used to play with my friends from school at the arcade.

If you drove your car well around the Daytona race track, sometimes you got an extra lap or extra time. And as you reached the end of that extension, you wondered if you did well enough to qualify for another one, and another one.

I found myself asking what I would do with the extra lap.

And whether, as I rounded the final bend and went into the home straight, whether I would be happy at having run a good race or desperate for yet one more lap.

I looked at the photo of J and myself on my phone, newfound friends smiling together in front of the massive Chinggis Khaan monument at Sukhbaatar Square.

Our paths may never cross again, but this little Mongolian pit stop he made on his extension lap has probably been well worth it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'A change of heart and mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe