As I hear these words I feel a hard kick to my chest, and my body slightly rises and jerks. WTF?
“He’s back. I have a faint heartbeat. Give him some oxygen and start an IV.”
These voices are filtering through my consciousness but I’m not coherent enough to understand where I am or what is taking place. There’s a hive of activity around me as nurses put a mask on my face and insert an IV into my arm.
All I know is that I’m having trouble breathing. It feels as if an elephant is sitting on my chest. I cannot seem to fill my lungs with enough air. I’m suffocating and every single breath is a struggle. I’m so tired. Staying awake is a battle and I’m losing. I’m drifting in and out of consciousness and the room seems to shrink with every breath I take.
At some point I notice that the nurse standing directly to my left is screaming at me, “Don’t you die, motherfucker. I will not have two inmates die on the same night on my watch. Stay with me, Hernandez.” I still do not fully grasp what is happening. Why is she shouting at me, I think. But as I glance over to look at her, I see tears streaming down her face. She’s crying. And that’s when reality dawns on me: I’m dying.
I’m standing at the abyss and death is staring me in the face. 1 can actually see the proverbial light in the distance. I hear a voice in my head say, “Let go. Everything is going to be fine. Your mother is here and she is waiting for you.” A huge wave of remorse washes over me. I don’t want to let go, I want to live.
My mind drifts to the beautiful woman that is waiting on my release from prison. She’s been by my side for over nine years and she is expecting me home in a few short months. She and I have a plan. We’re going to buy ten acres in the country outside of Austin.
She’ll have a veggie garden and a few Rhode Island Reds and I’ll have a Shar-Pei puppy who’ll have free reign over our land. We’ll take long walks on our property and just enjoy each other’s company. We’ve already decided on the design of our custom built home. The only thing holding up the plan is me. To die now would seriously mess up our plan, and be really unfair to her.
Moreover, I still have so many things that I want to accomplish professionally. I’m working on a book about my life. It’s a powerful story about addiction, sorrow, bad choices, but more importantly, redemption, second chances, and forgiveness. To have this story end with my death in prison seems tragic. I’m also looking forward to street politicking and building community across Texas. And I want to finish the work I began before my incarceration and be the voice on criminal justice reform at the Texas Legislature. I have so much to prove, even if it is only to myself. I simply cannot die tonight.
My mind snaps back and once again I’m at the emergency room at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) Coffield Unit. There continues to be a lot of activity around me as medical personnel push and prod my body. But my body does not want to cooperate. My heart is fading and my breathing is still labored. I’m just so tired and letting go seems the easiest thing to do. Intuitively I know that if I lose awareness one more time, I’ll die. So I must focus and fight. And fight I do.
A slight panic arises and fear rears its ugly head. I’m thinking that it might be too late and I’m not going to make it. These emotions and thoughts do nothing to improve my physical condition. I must overcome them. So I retreat into the place inside of me that I have come to know well over the last nine years. It’s where I go when the chaos of the penitentiary becomes unbearable. I found this place through my meditation practice and it has never failed to calm me and bring me peace.
I begin focusing on my breath and notice how each breath makes my body feel. As thoughts come up, I let them go and focus on my breath. I’m mindful of everything going on around me and it does not take long for me to become calm and centered. I bring my awareness to my heart while picturing it whole and healthy. I use the same meditation on my lungs. I let the energy of my breath heal my body. Soon, my breathing is not so labored and my heart feels stronger. I open my eyes to the astonished looks of the nurses and correctional officers standing around my bed. They simply cannot believe that I pulled through.
I died that night. Twice. Later, I was told that when I arrived at the medical department I did not have a heartbeat and I had stopped breathing. I was clinically dead. But the medical staff at the Coffield Unit did not give up on me. They resuscitated me through a series of chest compressions and the use of a defibrillator. I had the bruises and scars to prove it. I was found unresponsive in my cell and carried down three flights of stairs in a “potato sack.” Another inmate, Hot Rod, also died that night. But he did not make it through. Unbeknownst to me, his cold body lay twenty feet from where I lay dying that night. Administrative officials were waiting on the local coroner to take his body to the morgue. He and I both smoked the same bad batch of K2 and overdosed. That happens frequently around this prison. One just never knows what one is going to get around here. It’s a crapshoot and sometimes the consequences can be deadly. I’m still dumbfounded by the fact that one stick almost took me off the count. One stick. One little stick.
I’d like to think that there is a reason that I did not die that night. Perhaps, as some have suggested, I still have a purpose to serve or it just was not my time. Whatever the case may be, the whole experience really opened my eyes and scared the shit out of me.
I’ve been sober since that night. And hopefully, my sobriety carries over as I prepare to reenter society. That way, my book will have the ending I hope it will.