The tropes concerning what people see when/after they die are well-worn; bright lights, the spirits of dead relatives, out-of-body experiences looking down at oneself, an eerie sense of calm luring us away from the life we are also struggling to retain, among others, are commonly reported by people who’ve been revived from clinical death.
It’s rude to dismiss their claims out of hand, but it’s also pretty much impossible (at least, as of this writing) to parse through them and determine legitimate visions from the effects of a lifetime of media messaging. If you’ve been told since childhood that death is a tunnel with bright, deistic light at the other end, your brain might project that familiar construct onto whatever it was you were actually seeing.
Again, this is all very abstract, theoretical stuff, and I don’t have the education to sway the conversation one way or another. But I do have something to add to it.
Back in 2012, local artist Ian Hesford died on stage during his band’s CD release party at Rams Head Live! before a packed house. He was revived with CPR and spent three weeks in Mercy Hospital, the details of which were covered by Citypaper and the Baltimore Sun. Now, as we close out this year and begin a new one, it seemed appropriate to check in with Ian, now three years removed from dying, to see what perspective he’s gained from the experience.
Photo by Philip Laubner
I met up with Ian at One World Cafe, and didn’t recognize him at all when he arrived. In his Telesma body paint, Ian cuts an imposing, almost alien figure, but in regular clothes he looks so aggressively normal that, to quote my mother, I wouldn’t have known him from Adam.
For the unaware, Ian is a founding member of the band Telesma, which he put together after attending the 2002 Starwood pagan festival in upstate New York, where a communal atmosphere, some sick fireside jam sessions, and a few psychedelic experiences inspired him to put something together.
Upon returning to Baltimore, Ian threw himself into open mic nights at the Carriage House, at that time a hub for the arts in Southwest Baltimore, and put Telesma together with Jason Sage and Joanne Juskus, who joined up after an open mic session at the 8×10. The group gathered more members after performances at the Creative Alliance, eventually blooming into a heavily percussive, visually strange, and free-spirited band with a deceptive gift for composition.
“Charmed moments led us on our path,” Ian told me, speaking proudly of the band’s overall spontaneity. “We never plan anything.”
Ten years later, in 2012, Telesma held the aforementioned CD release party at Ram’s Head Live. Five minutes into their set, Ian’s heart stopped and, in his own words, “I just dropped behind my [barrel] drums.”
A fair amount of the audience either didn’t notice or thought it was part of Telesma’s infamous theatrics, but Ian’s friend Sarah Sococcio hit the stage and administered CPR. Tom Swiss, another friend of Ian’s, joined her, breathing into Ian’s lungs while Sarah gave him chest compressions. Between them, they managed to revive him until more EMTs arrived.
Sadly, I couldn’t get hold of Sarah or Tom before this article went to print, so to speak.
The band had to stop their set and break everything down in short order as Ian was taken to Mercy Hospital, where his heart did not beat on its own for 93 minutes. He stayed in the hospital for three weeks, and spent two of those unconscious.
What happened to Ian and his recovery would be remarkable even without the ironies and coincidences therein. For one thing, Sarah was dressed in Day of the Dead garb when she revived him, which Joanne Juskus described to the Baltimore Sun as “watching death personified pumping life into Ian…it was the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen.”
The album they were celebrating used the life-death-rebirth cycle as its major symbolic structure, and some of the lyrics they’d written didn’t make sense to Ian until after his ordeal. He recited part of the song “Here Now” from memory during our interview, specifically this portion: “we’re on a cloud/and we’re sailing by/at the speed of our own mind/I wave to you and you smile at me/we are realigned.”
When Ian finally came to in Mercy Hospital, he smiled at Joanne, who waved at him in response.
“It would make an interesting movie somehow,” Ian told me, in what might be the understatement of the decade.
He still isn’t sure what stopped his heart; the battery of tests was inconclusive. One theory is that a viral heart infection, of all things, inflamed his heart until it was too large to beat, but that would require a biopsy to fully examine. Thankfully, Ian isn’t ready for one of those just yet.
He also doesn’t remember any of what happened to him, and could only recount to me what he’d heard from eyewitnesses. Matt Davis from 98 Rock has offered to perform a hypnotic regression on Ian to fill in some of his memory gaps from that night, but as of now there was no light, no tunnel, no helpful ghosts escorting him by the arm to Heaven’s cotillion. He compared it to a light switch flicking off.
That comparison isn’t uncommon, either. Current WWE color commentator and semi-retired pro wrestler Jerry “the King” Lawler suffered a heart attack on live television the same year that Ian collapsed on stage, and he basically said the same thing.
It’s clear from Ian’s bearing and energy that he isn’t dwelling on what could have happened, though. He’s a “whole food vegan” now, and a runner, and still making music with a renewed sense of purpose. All told, he’s a much happier person now than before the incident.
“Every day is special,” he said. “Be here now, be present, live in the moment—that’s real. It’s a miracle that we are sitting here alive right now in this moment.”
That last sentence came as I scooped a handful of nachos into my mouth, which was somewhat humbling.
The community response to Ian’s health issues did a lot to shape his current optimism. His hospital stay turned into something from Burning Man, as friends and well-wishers poured in, often with musical instruments. Benefit shows, fundraisers, and a trust were organized to help him wade through medical bills during his recovery.
“When I came to and went on my Facebook page and saw the comments, I was overwhelmed by it,” he said. “This was my opportunity to see how much people cared, and then come back to experience it.”
Better still, Ian’s periodic bouts of depression—the black lung of the arts—have lessened. Ian and I talked about what Hunter S. Thompson described as “dead-end loneliness,” and the resulting fear that whatever drives us to create makes our lives impenetrably solitary. Ian admitted that, for a long time, he felt that lingering question of whether or not people actually liked him, or just his work.
As of now, that question has been answered, and Ian’s much happier for it. He feels much less alone now, and his depressive troughs are much shallower than before. “I wouldn’t take any of that experience back for any amount of money.”
While I admired Ian’s centeredness and optimism about all of this, I still wondered if he’d ever thought about the possibility of really dying on that stage, of not coming back.
“I’d be okay with that,” Ian told me, citing another Telesma lyric: “If I die tomorrow/I will still be here today.”
I said at the beginning that Ian didn’t experience any of the usual near-death stuff when his heart stopped in 2012, but those tropes I listed have been coming through since then, in fits and starts. He got a chance to see the vastness of his life and the people he touched, a life he was guided back to by friends, and he has a sense of serenity that was absent beforehand. Ian’s life after death is real, and tangible, and he is making the absolute most of it.