Jesse Stirling opens up about one very personal and terrifying experience that changed his life, and his outlook, forever
Jesse Stirling, the always neat-as-a-pin and put together host of NTV’s Meetings with Remarkable People, had a near-death experience last spring, and he’s only now ready to talk about what he faced back then. When asked, why now? He pauses briefly.
Removing the stigma
“I didn’t really make a big deal about it publicly or on social media, but I had a heart attack. And it’s interesting now that over nine months have passed and I’m finally talking about it, but my goal is really to take the stigma out of having a heart attack, because it really can happen to anyone,” he begins candidly.
It’s understandable why Stirling was apprehensive about opening up. For one thing, he’s such a positive person. Publicly, he’s all about posting adorable pictures and videos of his daughter, Olivia, or his furry friend, the adorable dachshund, Dilly. Another reason? Stirling lives such a healthy lifestyle, one that promotes meditation and clean living, that he feared, just a little, that he’d be judged.
“I keep my social media feeds light and fluffy, posting pictures of my little two year old girl, a picture of puppies, clouds or sunsets. This heart attack, it was such a big deal. I didn’t really know how to react to darker thoughts that would come in around that,” he admits.
His ‘brand’ is all about being fit, he shares, offering he felt more than a little embarrassed at first. “A heart attack just didn’t suit my image. I teach meditation and inner peace. And here you are having a heart attack? Who’s going to want to take a meditation class from someone that’s had a heart attack? All these thoughts went through my head.”
Stirling shares that with everything he had on the go work-wise and personally, from trips abroad, to family and business commitments, he kept his heart attack ‘low key.’ He finally knew he had to come clean when he realized that he had been given a second chance at life, and he couldn’t let any teaching opportunities pass him by.
Embrace the small stuff
“I felt I had this near death experience and everything had a new perspective after that. And it’s cliché maybe to say don’t sweat the small stuff, but life, it’s all about the small stuff.”
Stirling finally opened his eyes to some of the teachings he had long ago learned, many at the knee of his grandfather, the late Geoff Stirling. “Literally, that morning it happened I saw things differently and I saw how I was rushing all over the place. I’d try to be in the present moment, and talk about being in the present moment, but I wasn’t always true to that,” he admits.
Now, with the precious gift of hindsight, Stirling is embracing those early childhood teachings.
“It’s so uplifting and relieving to let go of worry,” he shares sincerely.
Stirling reflects on the morning his life changed. He woke with a start and took note of the time: 4:44 am. He instantly knew something was wrong.
“I felt crushing pain on my chest, as if there was a lot of weight stacked on my chest. And the first thing I thought is, I’m having a heart attack.”
He had some ‘classic’ symptoms. His left arm was numb, for one thing. Still, he doubted what was happening.
“I started to think, is this a panic attack? Is this what a panic attack feels like? Or is this super bad indigestion? I just knew I’d never felt that way before.”
Stirling did what no one should ever do under the circumstances, he cautions, because he refused to ‘make a fuss.’
“Instead of making a big deal of calling 911 or waking my wife or my baby, I said, ‘let me just give it a couple minutes.’ Which in retrospect was really stupid and not good advice at all.”
He slipped out of bed and had a bath. When his wife, Amanda, eventually woke, she knew something was wrong. “I said, ‘I think I actually just had a heart attack this morning.’ She kind of laughed and said, ‘you did not have a heart attack. You would have let us know you were having a heart attack.’ I said I was fine, but I really felt off. I felt weak.”
Two days later, Stirling finally went to a doctor. The diagnosis? Besides having had a heart attack, he was otherwise healthy, and his condition was likely caused by genetics.
His grandfather on his mother’s side had had a triple bypass at the age of 56. “This happened when I was 47, a couple of months before my 48 birthday. I’m a new dad. I need to take care of myself for Olivia, and for my wife. It was a real eye opener.”
Still, Stirling says there’s nothing he could ever go through compared to what happened to his daughter during last year’s Janeway Telethon. Stirling recalls what he calls the ‘worst three days of his life.’
“The Janeway Telethon is normally a weekend that’s full of positive feelings and feelings of helping out the community and it’s emotional and touching in all the right ways. Well, it turned into a nightmare. Amanda and Olivia dropped me off at the airport to fly here and she didn’t even make it back home, she had to take Olivia to the hospital.”
His daughter had a high fever and she experienced what’s called femoral seizures. It’s upsetting thinking back.
A lasting imprint
“It must have been so scary for Amanda to see Olivia that way, and they put her in a medically induced coma. Again, this was while I was flying. By the time I landed in Newfoundland all I wanted to do was turn around and fly back.”
As he waited to get a flight home, he was given some tragic news. “I’d been up about 24 hours at this point and the sun was coming up and the doctor said, ‘if your daughter wakes up…’ And I remember thinking, if??! It was the most terrifying moment of my life, yet it was so ironic that it was happening the weekend of the Janeway Telethon.”
Later, his homecoming was made all the more special when he walked into his daughter’s hospital room and heard her call out, ‘Daddy!”
“She had all these tubes in her yet all I could feel was grateful, and I had such a new appreciation for the Janeway and the work they do. You can talk about it and you can care about it, but you really can’t empathize with it on a deep level unless you’ve gone through it.”
Stirling says both experiences have left an imprint that won’t soon be erased.
“Olivia’s scare and my own brush with mortality has made me super locked in on what the priorities are in my life. And it’s absolutely this: being a dad is my number one priority.”
Stirling says opening up about what happened to him is important for a few reasons. Number one, he hopes to help others.
“I want to put a positive spin on this if I can, and help others feel comfortable facing their own illnesses. Pay attention to your body. Act, if you don’t feel well. A heart attack is not a sign of weakness. Get help.”
Stirling has a remarkable story he shares about the moments before he awoke that morning at 4:44.
“I heard this male voice I’d never heard before. Maybe it was my subconscious. Who knows? And this voice said, ‘do you want to live, or do you want to die? I said, ‘I want to live.’ Maybe, at another point in my life I would have said, ‘whatever you want, God, or whatever you want, universe. You decide.’ But in that moment, I saw Olivia’s face and Amanda’s face and I thought of my dogs and that I have a family to fight for. I have a lot to fight for here. So my answer was, ‘hell yeah! I want to wake up.’”
‘This is gonna really hurt’
The voice responded.
“I heard, ‘Well, wake up then. But this is gonna really hurt.’ Then I open my eyes and I remember thinking, yep, this really hurts. And then for a couple of seconds I thought, am I dying right now? If you’re dying right now, just be calm. Think of God. But I didn’t die.”
Stirling hopes others can learn from his experience.
“My advice to others out there is be smart and ere on the side of caution. I had all these thoughts go through my head like, ‘don’t bug your wife, don’t bug your baby, don’t create drama.’ That’s the worst advice you could get. I ended up being very lucky.”