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How facing death changed life of professor: "I see people in a grateful way"

December 13, 2012
Dell Rae Moellenberg

There is no doubt that facing one's fears can be revolutionary in how one lives their life.

Jenn Matheson After facing death over and over again during a five-month hospitalization, Jenn Matheson, a Human Development and Family Studies professor, changed. Perhaps some of the most profound changes are in how she teaches CSU students and interacts with the people around her.

After a birthday cruise to Alaska, Matheson faced a mysterious illness that caused her to be induced into a coma twice for treatment, as well as face the probability of her own death in 2009. Read her story.

Today@ColoradoState talked with Matheson about how this ordeal shaped her life moving forward, as a human and as an educator.


Today@ColoradoState: How did this illness change you?

Matheson: I’m much better at not sweating the small stuff. Facing an illness of this magnitude took away all of my fear of dying. I am no longer afraid. The process of dying was horrible, but I know that death won’t be that horrible. That is one of the biggest gifts I walked away with.

Today@ColoradoState: How does this experience make you live differently?

Matheson: I have a more realistic view of the world. I no longer panic about the idea that things may be different if I am not here. I made it through something so hard; I know now that I can make it through anything else. I have a sense of calm. I don’t waste energy worrying about death or illness. I lost a lot of innocence about my health. I don’t take for granted being healthy.

It also changed my relationships, like my relationship with my husband. I don’t take one day for granted. I am grateful for the way my friends and family demonstrated their connection to me. And, I have a new level of gratitude toward human beings. I see their capacity to put themselves second and help someone who is in need. I see people in a grateful way, and I’m a lot less critical. I accept who people are, and I am grateful for them.

Today@ColoradoState: How did your illness impact those caring for you?

Matheson: I learned a lot about relationships, which was interesting to me. My job is relationships, but now I see that if they are cracked, a huge crisis will likely break them. If they are relatively solid, a more loving open and real relationship will emerge.

One of the things I learned is that a medical crisis like the one I faced has an impact on entire systems. It doesn’t only impact your family, it also impacts doctors, nurses and the entire balance of a hospital and medical system.

Many of the people who cared for me told me later that I changed them as well. That I, my family and friends would not give up reminded them of the power of not giving up on a patient, not becoming cynical. The spirit of people who would not give up on me was amazing.

Today@ColoradoState: Did this experience change the way you teach or what you teach about relationships?

Matheson: I do notice how different I am as a teacher. I have more compassion. Sometimes life gets in the way; that’s life, and we all have to attend to that. I think about what everyone did for me while I was vulnerable to this cruel world, and I try to channel that energy to my students now. I think about what I can do to make life easier for a student who is struggling, because I am thankful someone yielded to me when I needed it. And I pay it forward to change the life of someone else. I witness my students’ struggles, and I try to give them something they need.

Today@ColoradoState: What advice do you have for others about how they might live their life differently?

Matheson: Be present in the moment. You can get so caught up in what happened in the past or what might happen in the future; be aware of what you can control at this moment and then only devote energy to what you can do this moment – not even an hour down the road. When I was in the hospital for five months, I focused on “What can I do right now?” because if I focused on my illness, I would be overcome with anxiety. Instead, I focused on exercising  hands or worked with therapy bands tied to the four corners of my bed for strengthening. That was all I could do. While the ventilator, drugs, and the care I received saved my life, I saved my life, too, by being in the present moment. I still live that way now more than before. I use the memory of my experience to remind me to stay in the moment.

Today@ColoradoState: Is it hard to make sense of what you went through?

Matheson: I’m very philosophical about it. I think most things in life don’t make sense; we make our own meaning. Every time I asked, “Why did this happen?,” I found a deeper understanding of life, its vulnerability and fleetingness. For me, life’s meaning is about loving other people and being grateful and generous. I am more that way than I ever would have been able to be without experiencing this life threatening illness. My compassion for people is different. I’ve always had some compassion for people, because I’m a therapist, but now I’m more grateful than before, and that’s very calming.

I owe a lot of people a gratitude that I cannot repay. The only thing I can do is to try to be the best person I can be today and repay that debt by helping others somehow –to pay it forward. Everyone who cared for me did something that changed the outcome for me. I would not be here if not for every big and tiny thing that they did. Even tiny actions to help others are meaningful. For me, it’s all about gratitude for even the tiniest effort that everyone put in.

Going through such an experience heightens the human condition and everything about life, to a point where you can really see life for what it is. When life is normal, it is hard to see it clearly. Now, I’m grateful for my past illness. I’m grateful because it made me more generous.

Contact: Dell Rae Moellenberg
Phone: (970) 491-6009