CEOs show how cheating death can change your life

Alfred West, CEO of SEI Investments seic, said he got back some inaccurate tests on his heart 16 years ago and for several days believed he had but a short time to live. Likewise, Greg Babe, CEO of Bayer USA, told USA TODAY that he went through nine months of medical testing for a heart condition. It turned out to be less serious than first feared, but it was a stressful time, and "all of my employees know that I have a closely held philosophy that balance in life is very important," Babe says. "That was an outcome of the experience."

Perry Massie, chairman of Outdoor Channel, scuba dives and has carried a Smith & Wesson Magnum to ward off grizzlies in Alaska. But his close call came from an allergic reaction to eating shellfish. Joshua Gentine, president of Cholive gourmet chocolate, was hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in 2004 when he developed such a serious altitude sickness he had to be rushed off the mountain.

"I did not walk off that mountain with an epiphany, but it certainly put into focus the balance between adventure (risk) and wisdom," Gentine wrote in an e-mail.

Out of body experiences

People who recount pure NDEs sometimes say they are accompanied by out-of-body experiences and trips toward a light. NDEs are described as both pleasurable and not. A Gallup Poll found that about 8 million Americans have had a near-death experience. That number is surely on the rise, because victims of cardiac arrest — which kills 1,000 people a day in the USA, according to Cardiac Science — are increasingly being saved with automated external defibrillators.

There are CEOs who have had pure near-death experiences, but people of success are less likely to talk about them openly for fear of being "branded as crazy" and lumped with those who say they have been abducted by UFOs, says Jody Long, webmaster of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation.

Of the 250 CEOs surveyed by Grant Thornton, 3% said they have been brought back to life after having died. Another 3% said they did not want to respond to the question.

Ned Dougherty, once a millionaire real estate broker who owned popular discos in New York and Florida, went into cardiac arrest two different times in 1984 but did not go fully public with his near death experiences until 2001 in his book Fast Lane to Heaven. He says he met deceased loved ones and was enveloped by the light of God. A casual drug user and an alcoholic who always had his first drink before noon, Dougherty said he was suddenly cured of addiction.

Dougherty says those who ditched into the Hudson River have had a spiritual experience that they will have to come to terms with over time. He says he has lost all interest in business and money. Where he once was angry at God for "ruining the party," he now considers his two trips into death a blessing. Like most who have NDEs, he says he no longer fears death.

Not every CEO who has been frightened by the prospect of death has found it to be life changing. Lloyd's of London CEO Richard Ward said he was caught in a rip current 200 yards offshore when he was in his 20s. "The friend I was with ... thought that was it," and for an instant Ward feared for his life. "I was fortunately a strong swimmer and able to make it. It was not life-defining."

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