Getting existential in a Tokyo hospital

Getting existential in a Tokyo hospital

A Story by Dave Afshar

That time I almost died in Tokyo


“Your liver enzymes are higher than normal. This could be a number of things. It could be mononucleosis, or hepatitis - but that is rare, unless you travel to poor countries. Or it could be a side effect from drugs. We will have to do more tests to find out. It will take about a week. Oh, and it could also be leukemia, so…maybe you have that."

The Japanese are known for being thorough, and this is something I generally appreciate, but when lying in a hospital bed trying to figure out why I’ve been incapacitated for the past week, the last thing I want to hear is a list of every possible life-altering, debilitating disease that starts with a high fever.  Have you ever visited WebMD, typed in “headache” and then spent the rest of the week convinced that you now have brain cancer? A visit to a Japanese doctor is a lot like that, except that the bad news is delivered to you live and in person by a real doctor.

As if hearing that wasn’t already disheartening enough, the doctor said it as he was walking out of the room, giving me no time to respond or even react. Continuing the WebMD analogy, this would be like joining a live chat with a real doctor, only to have it end like this:

DrMatz6969: btw u might have leukemia LOL
YabaDabaD00: …
DrMatz6969: owned
Dr. Matsumoto has left the chat

How am I supposed to use that information? At the time I was totally out of commission; I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t walk in a straight line, and certainly couldn’t go to work. I had never been sick like this before and I have little knowledge of health and medicine, so whether someone had told me I had two weeks or two years to live, I would have believed it.

Sitting alone in a hospital room after being told you could have cancer may sound like an ideal time to contemplate one’s own mortality and/or make a badass bucket list, but the truth is that neither of those things entered my mind. My immediate thought was something along the lines of, how am I going to tell my mom? I had already purchased a flight ticket home for summer break, which was only six weeks away. How can I casually slip this news into dinner conversation without killing everyone’s dinner vibe? Truth be told, in this situation, I thought about everyone I know except myself.

Before you roll your eyes at how self-righteous that sounds, let me explain that I am not trying to say I’m a selfless person - in fact one time I had dinner plans with a friend who decided she didn’t want to eat at the restaurant I was in favor of, and instead of being flexible, I cancelled our plans entirely and then went to eat there by myself. I chose a bowl of soup over a person. It is actually quite the opposite; the sudden realization that your life could end sooner than you’d previously thought actually makes it a lot easier to enjoy and savor the present moment because the trivialities and pressures of adult life no longer matter. I certainly didn’t want to die early, but I didn’t feel sad about it either. Here’s why:

I’ve had a pretty good run

I’ve seen The Cure, The Pixies, and Deftones perform live - on the same day. When I was 15 years old I spent a week hiking and camping in the mountains of Montana, at one point reaching an area so remote that helicopters couldn’t land there. I once had lunch with a US senator, though to be honest the only thing I remember of the experience was how delicious the crab cakes were. A New York Times correspondent fed me fried chicken with her hands after we watched a baseball game in Tokyo. I got to watch a baseball game in Tokyo. I got to live in Tokyo.

I’ve experienced Tinder in several different countries. I studied a second language long enough to achieve a level of proficiency that could be described as “pretty ok”. I got to work at the medical campus of a major Japanese university. Last summer I got really drunk in Los Angeles and challenged my friend to a taco-eating contest; we both lost. I have family in various parts of the country and the globe, and most of them still allow me to visit.

Again, I am not trying to make a case for bragging rights; instead, this is just a list of reasons why I am grateful for the life I was given and the experiences I have had. I could die tomorrow and say confidently that I did not go gently or quietly. Life is, indeed, a gas.

The pressures of adulthood no longer apply

People love to say that age is but a number, and that’s true. It’s also the only number whose changes bring with it a slowed metabolism, harsher hangovers and pestering from your relatives to make babies. No other number has ever caused me so much trouble. Certain members of my family were fully expecting me to be a homeowner, a husband and a father by the age of 30, and as the end of my twenties approached, I could start to feel that pressure creeping in.

And do you know when I was admitted to the hospital? On my 30th f*****g birthday. The nurse literally laughed in my face when she saw my birthdate written on the form, but I didn’t mind. If I really did have only a year or two left, I certainly wouldn’t need to worry about saving for a mortgage, a wedding ring or a pair of baby shoes. Besides, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to get married with a guy who writes under the pseudonym “Chickenboy”, so it would have given me a convenient excuse for my extended bachelorhood. I would have stopped paying off my student loans too - what’s the point? Sallie Mae is a hoe.

I had a greater appreciation for the ephemeral nature of all things, or some s**t

Everything is better when you realize that it is temporary. Have you ever left a situation you hated - a job, an apartment, a city - only to start recognizing the more positive aspects of it when you were down to the last few days? This doesn’t always happen, but it can, and even the minor annoyances and peeves that made you want to leave in the first place begin to take on their own charm. I can’t say I loved my first job (professional dishwasher, age 14), but I did feel a certain melancholy hanging in the air on my last day of work. I still go to that diner for breakfast whenever I visit home.

Now extrapolate that sentiment to life in general. I certainly wasn’t hoping for the worst case scenario, but if that’s the one I was given, I wouldn’t be spending the rest of my days with my head hung low.  I thought of all the ways I could go out guns blazing; the friends I would visit around the world, places I would travel, parties I would throw, and loans I wouldn’t pay back. This state of mind lasted about two days, and it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

The diagnosis

Then the doctor came with my test results: Mono. The post-prom, under-the-bleachers kissing disease I previously thought only high schoolers could catch. God d****t, f*****g Tinder.

© 2022 Dave Afshar

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Added on January 3, 2022
Last Updated on January 3, 2022
Tags: Japan, Travel, Healthcare, Hospital, Ill


Dave Afshar
Dave Afshar

Los Angeles, CA

Tales of ratchetry and philosophy from my old life in Tokyo and new one in Los Angeles more..