Professional climber Timmy O’Neill has had plenty of close calls with death but when he suffered a sudden stroke in Patagonia, he discovered the wisdom of how to bring love and purpose to a broken world.
Photo by Sarah Lee Steele
My close calls with death have been short conversations—they have taken no longer than the time it takes a toaster-sized rock to kiss the hairs of your head as it rockets past or the duration it takes a car to flip multiple times down a concrete and rebar spiked embankment at 50 miles per hour or the span of time it takes a tethered body to fall a hundred feet down a rock face before coming to rest unscathed. These are quick talks with the Reaper: Hello. Not so nice to see you. Goodbye! But the conversation that started with a thunderclap inside my head and continued through weeks of uncertainty and complications was something new, something that made me listen.
Ten years ago, while filming “180 South” I missed out on the first ascent of a peak that would be called Cerro Kristine, after the co-founder of Tompkins Conseravtion, which has given millions of acres of land to Chile and Argentina for national parks. So I jumped at the chance to come back to Patagonia this February to climb the peak along with her, Rick Ridgeway, and a film crew led by Jimmy Chin.
We returned from the peak and I headed down to the main lodge where we were staying. I was finishing a set of twenty pushups when I felt a sudden burning within the back of my head. It felt like my brain stem was being dipped in hydrochloric acid. Within an instant, the pain was spreading across the surface of my brain. I stood up and gripped the back of my neck and my forehead, trying to squeeze the pain away, to keep my head from splitting open.
As I gasped in anguish, it dawned on me that I might be dying. I could not make sense of why something so intensely painful was happening to me. I staggered out into the open, not knowing if I only had seconds left to live. I took in the quivering leaves of the trees and tall, waving grasses that lined the marshy area in front of me. I took in the view of mountainous folds draped in soft greens and browns. Towering, broken cliffs capped the ridge lines beckoning to my climber’s eye. Bird songs reached my ears. Guanacos grazed indifferently. I took it all in and then said calmly out loud, “It’s been an amazing life, I guess this is it.”
I took what I thought was my final breath and waited for a moment as another wave of intense pain hit me. (I was to discover later that this was the pressure of the blood being pulled between the meninges, the multi-layered lining that covers the central nervous system.) I peeled my eyes open. The pain reminded me that I was indeed conscious, so I staggered away in search of relief.
As I rounded the corner of the lodge, assistant producer Teague Wasserman pulled up and said, “What’s up Timmy?”
“Something’s wrong with my body,” I replied in a weak attempt at being nonchalant.
Within one hour I was in a small Cessna, flown by an expert bush pilot, headed to a regional hospital in Coyhaique, Chile, where I got the stark brain bleed diagnosis. The next afternoon, I was on a medical jet, jacked on fentanyl, headed north to Santiago and an ambulance ride to Clinica Santa Maria and an evening angiogram.
I was lucky. Most likely a vein had suddenly opened up in my head and the pressure of the surrounding central nervous system had just as quickly closed it off. I had bled a significant amount, a 4 out of 4 on the Fisher Grading Scale for Subarachnoid Hemorrage. When the cerebral arteries bleed, they cause ischemia, brain cell death from lack of oxygen. Luckily for me it wasn’t an artery that burst in my head, but a vein. I received multiple scans searching for the cause and possible further complications. My neurologist warned me that my stay would be protracted as we waited out dangerous post-trauma vasospasms for at least 10 days.
I’m not a person who just sits in bed and I was eventually asked to sign a self-restraining order. It stated that I could not get out of bed alone and wasn’t allowed to move anywhere without supervision. If I didn’t listen to the techs and follow the protocol, I would be physically restrained in my my bed and strapped to a chair when sitting. The people with the least amount of power seem to hold onto it the strongest: The docs would laugh, the nurses would shake their heads and the techs would grab onto me and move me as if I was a sickly sack of sorry-ass potatoes, which I kind of was, but I still didn’t want anyone moving me around.
I would feign indignation and inform the beleaguered tech that, “Soy un adulto,” ironically since I was acting like a chid. When I signed the paperwork, I was told there would be repercussions, and I didn’t think they were kidding. I could imagine myself struggling against a straight jacket as I was trying to break out of my prison cell, hospital room 712. I was often in a distant mood, a twilight where I was simultaneously okay and on the verge of dying. During my hospitalization, the class turmoil that had racked Chile for the past five months began again after the summer holidays. I could hear the drumming outside my window, where a park connected the uptown bourgeois to the downtrodden.
When we first arrived in Santiago before my stroke, the film crew went downtown to visit several protest sites and get footage of the graffiti and mementos such as the paper mâché eyeballs thrown up to drape over wires and street lamps to serve as monuments to the many who had lost an eye to the rubber bullets and metal shotgun pellets fired by the police into the masses.
I have spent a good amount of my life climbinig not just rock faces but also urban structures and statues. When I was a kid, I was allowed, and even encouraged to climb up high with no safety, so as soon as I see something interesting I think how can I get to the top that? Seeing a classic national monument, the stoic hero atop his horse in Plaza Italia, which has been the hub for the class riots, instantly piqued my interest.
I ran across the street and up onto the pedestal and then used a rope tied to the horse’s leg to pull myself up. I shimmied up the rider’s leg, onto his shoulders and finally stood atop his bronze hat with my arms outstretched, perched 30 feet above the ground.
I flashed back to this scene from my hospital room as thousands of protestors gathered for the International Women’s Day march. It struck me how quickly you can go from being super capable to super fucked. It wasn’t unfair. I didn’t feel as if something happened to me that I didn’t deserve. It was more like something happened to me that I didn’t expect. The unknown has always fascinated me, be it a summit or the the bend in a river, but this was different. I have always imagined ways past and around the obstacles—now I was imagining the obstacles themselves and not the ways past.
So much of medicine, as well as life, is the unknown. Sometimes it seems the only certainty is death, so if things feel uncertain it must mean that you’re still alive. In my case, I was fighting to remain so.
During the ordeal and as COVID-19 began to hit the U.S. in early March, I received messages from family and friends: Always they would declare love, deep love, and a wish that I stay alive to continue my life and work of creating and curating love. As I lay in bed connected to heart monitors and bags of intravenous fluids and medicines, I became quite connected to my sense of purpose, my understanding that I didn’t need to necessarily change my life as much as I needed to change the way I was sharing and amplifying my life. I explored again the places and people who brought this love and wisdom.
For me, the initial seed came from my brother Sean, who transformed the crisis of his paraplegia into the challenge of climbing. Eventually, I co-founded Paradox Sports, a non proft dedicated to bringing accessible climbing experiences to people with disabilities. I harvested the hard-earned wisdom of blindness via Himalayan ascents with the brilliant, blind adventure athlete Erik Weihenmayer. I have spent a decade volunteering with Cure Blindness and the indefatigable Dr. Geoff Tabin in sub-Saharan Africa, curing preventable blindness via high-volume cataract campaigns. These deep roots continue to bear the fruits of meaning, compassion, and love in my life.
I got back to the States just as COVID-19 was disrupting not only travel but every aspect of how we gather in person. I traded the sterile isolation of the intensive care unit in Chile for the less severe, yet collective quarantine of the Bay Area. Suddenly the state’s entire population joined me in recuperating at home in a mandated act of radical empathy.
A couple of days ago, I showered, shaved and put on this Paradox Sports t-shirt and I felt like I fit into my body again, as if I suddenly landed back inside myself. Each day I recover physically allows more time and space for the mental and emotional healing, to accept my new abnormal, and move forward.
I have been talking with Sean every day during the quarantine. He is the most prolific thinker and he often toggles between arcane math and astrophysics, whether it’s applying the golden mean or tracking the transit of Venus. We were discussing my current state of patience and humility, and he said, “That’s a hard earned perspective, make sure you hold onto some, don’t put it down too quickly.” And I felt he meant that not only do I need to recognize the need for it but more so accept the fact that at this point I have no choice but to slow down.
Thankfully my journey continues. Our lives are appraised not only by our personal actions but also by our communal impact to inspire and empower others to action. After I rolled out of the hospital, I stood up and felt the sun on my face. I hadn’t taken a single step but I felt like I was summiting a significant peak. I realized how little I needed to feel happy, human and whole and immediately I felt the urgent gratitude of simply being alive.