THE BLOG
12/23/2014 08:09 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

The Christmas I Died -- Briefly -- Only To Wake Up With A Greater Sense Of Purpose

'Twas the day after Christmas and all through the house, happiness reigned. The year was 1968 and as usual I was busy with clients on the phone, when suddenly, a headache, like I've never had before, struck me. I went upstairs to lie down and rest with my young son watching over me. Then to the hospital I went and my life to heaven, for I died, to awake with new purpose and intent.

Yes, died. A Cerebral Hemorrhage destroyed my brain and my life was brought to an abrupt end. I was lost, couldn't think, couldn't speak, couldn't walk and could barely move. The medical staff at the hospital threw up their hands, "make him comfortable, the body's paralyzed, the brain is gone. There's nothing we can do." Common knowledge of the time said that that was it, and my wife was advised to make arrangements, including my obituary for the newspaper: Richard Burns, 38, television and advertising executive who dressed grown men as fruit for an underwear commercial, had an airline paint smiles on their planes, and brought those smiles to millions of children around the world, died suddenly the day after Christmas.

Hold on a minute: is this all I have accomplished during my time on this planet? I must have something better to offer than TV ads. And, I guess the Almighty agreed, because I didn't die. The next morning arrived and so did I. It was a long and slow road to recovery, but I had the will to live. I had been given a second chance at life. Muscle control and motor functions were destroyed, some temporarily, others forever. Balance and coordination; I had to learn again. It took a lot of time and practice, practice, practice. Teaching the motor functions how to do what the mind thought and communicated was not easy. There were times when I felt, that nothing could work. Then there were times when I was beside myself with joy of being able to do something well. I had to prepare for the good days and bad. The medical people had said I couldn't do it and I just looked at it all like the game of life and went for it, having learned that life, too, is hard work and it, too, had rules and rewards. You always feel better when you work hard toward a solution. I learned so much from my journey. My life and values changed with each step I took to heal myself.

If you don't learn to laugh at life, yourself or your problems, you'll have a hard time coping. Particularly with disabilities (I prefer the term opportunities.) I've learned to express the feelings, attitudes and thinking, so essential to life and recovery. I hope to inspire others with what to expect, how to define the problems, (I prefer the term opportunities), with humor and always with hope. At times the solutions are simple. They are, but the secret is that you must take one problem (opportunity) at a time, one challenge at a time and work with it until it's fixed. Nothing is hopeless. You can work miracles -- if you know how.

I've learnt that there is a way to come out of all this, as a better person. A better person to serve yourself and your loved ones -- better. First, look at your former life. Mine was the fast lane: smoking too much, drinking too much, eating unwisely, not enough rest, too much money, no self discipline, too much fame, ego was rampant and there seemed to be little time for others (including a fine family) and life. TV's Mad Man stands for Madison Avenue Man -- in reality, for a very Mad Man. As my friend Louis Armstrong used to say to me, "Life is for the living, if you live it right." As a result, I developed a saying: "It's not how you handle something, it's what you do with how you handle it, that counts."

I found that if I didn't try for the top, push for the best I could be, I'd never get anywhere. Like life. Especially now. I discovered that I owed life. I owed because I learned (often the hard way) that one can't buy life by throwing money at it. I had to work with it. Nurture it. Cultivate it. Make it grow and bear fruit. Make it mean something for those who follow and otherwise would be left to find their own way, alone. I had to reach out and up, extend a little more. I found that feeling sorry for myself just didn't "cut it." Because when my feet or legs or arms didn't work right, I put myself in the place of the man who had no feet, no legs, no arms. There's always someone out there with something more of whatever, more physical deprivation, more adversity, and if I wanted to be better, I could make it better. It's not that hard and it leads to a better you.

You, or someone close to you, has had medical problems. Not just stroke, but cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, the perils of life go on and on. The facts are scary. Every 45 seconds someone has a stroke. That's a half million a year. And, it's kind of the same with other illnesses.

There's an old Japanese saying: Fall down seven times, get up eight. I got up. I'm still here to do things and do things better and make living mean something. To fulfill the opportunity I have been granted. You can do as well, and probably better.

I'm grateful to be here to celebrate another Christmas! Just remember, it's not just how you handle something, it's what you do with how you handle it, that counts.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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