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I Have Died Four Times: An Interview with Piotr Pogon


Żenia Klimakin
Piotr Pogon on Kilimanjaro, photo: K. Likus
Piotr Pogon on Kilimanjaro, photo: K. Likus

Last fall, the biographical work Umarłem Cztery Razy (I Have Died Four Times) appeared on the shelves of Polish bookstores. The hero of Julia Lachowicz’s book is Piotr Pogon, a man with one lung, who has fought cancer for 30 years. He has 94 scars on his body from operations. He survived being clinically dead. He was homeless. He lost those close to him. Nevertheless, he never stopped enjoying life and fighting for every minute of it.

After the operation where they removed my cancer-ridden lung, I did not regain consciousness for three days. When I came to, I ran out of the hospital, got on my bicycle and rode to see my brother – 40 kilometres. Then I slept for two days, and when I woke up, I realised that I could do anything.

Culture.pl’s Evgeni Klimakin spoke with Piotr Pogon about tests, the strength that exists in all of us, and the need to cry and enjoy yourself.

The first time in the cancer ward

Evgeni Klimakin: Your battle for life began when you were a teenager?

Piotr Pogon: Yes. When I was sixteen years old the doctors found a tumour. After one of a hike, my throat began to hurt really badly. My mother and I went to the doctor. He examined me and asked me to go out in the hallway. After a few minutes, my mother ran out of the office in tears. The tumour was so big that the doctor didn’t need any special tests to diagnose me. It was cancer.

What was life like after that?

I didn’t really understand what was happening to me and what the implications might be. I remember hospital windows. One looked out onto a dormitory for workers, where people would often drink too much and punch each other in the face, and a second one that faced a funeral home. No one paid special attention to me in the hospital. At the time of the biopsy, for example, I broke my jaw. When I went to have an x-ray, the table seemed to be faulty. The technician still ordered me to lie with my head pointing downwards. I only remember something squelching, blood pouring out and that’s it.

Then what?

I started to bleed heavily, afterwards my heart stopped and I was clinically dead. I should tell you that I didn’t see any tunnel or an old man with a halo or beard. I just became happy and felt light and then everything just stopped.

40 kilometres that changed a life

Piotr Pogon as a child, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection
Piotr Pogon as a child, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection

That was your first death…

Yes. I began sessions of strong radiation and the cancer receded. But in 1991 I went in for an examination and my left lung looked like it was blacked out. The doctors quickly decided to remove it. It was impossible to wait any longer. They feared that the metastasized cancer would spread to the second lung. Then – the operation, three days unconscious. After that, I fully understood the horror of what had happened to me. I was 23 years old; I had a beautiful young wife and plans. I didn’t want to exist, to feel defective. After the operation, I was very depressed…

Did you want to commit suicide?

Yes. But my will to live won out. After the doctors removed the stitches, I ran out of the hospital, hopped on my bicycle and rode from Kraków to Bochnia to visit my brother. Forty kilometres. I wanted to show myself that despite my illness, I could have a full life. I rode past a concrete plant, past a forest, I spat out blood, but I didn’t stop.

You could have died.

If I didn’t make it to Bochnia, then I would fall over somewhere on the way, yes. But I got there. It was the most important forty kilometres of my life. I went to my brother’s house and laid down to rest. I slept for two days. And when I opened my eyes, I understood that for a person nothing is impossible. Then time accelerated. As one doctor said, I began to have ‘oncological hyperactivity.’ For three or four years I did as much as some people do in their whole lifetimes.

What exactly did you do?

I started to work on new projects. For example, I participated in the opening of the first housing cooperative for people with disabilities in Poland. We built the first Polish apartment complex equipped for the everyday needs of people with limited abilities. In Germany, I saw dishes with the advertising logos of various companies and I decided to open the first such company in Poland. We had about two hundred big orders in a year. We produced plates and mugs with the logos of cafes, restaurants, airlines, stores and so on. We employed people with disabilities.

You became a businessman.

Piotr Pogon, photo: Mami Studio Kraków
Piotr Pogon, photo: Mami Studio Kraków

Yes. I worked twenty hours a day and became a very rich man. The success just ‘enveloped’ me. I was born into a poor working-class family, but now fortune smiled down on me! I could buy myself expensive clothes, cars and go to Italy for vacation. But fate didn’t pamper me for long. In 2000, a dark cloud gathered. My world was turned on its head when my older brother, Krzysztof, died. He was 39 years old. I had to tell his teenage son that his father was never coming back home. I became very angry. I couldn’t understand why God took Krzysztof and not me. I loved my brother so much. Even now when I close my eyes, I see how he taught me to raise the sails on a boat, how we used to go to scouts camp together. You could say that then, I experienced my own funeral.

Bankruptcy & vagrancy

Why did your company go bankrupt?

A large company that specialised in selling tea didn’t pay us for a very large order of goods. I began to repay debts out of my own savings and assets. My father always told me: ’Live your life so that on the day of your funeral, 388 people out of 400 will speak well of you.’ So I decided to settled everything myself, to make everything right. Today I don’t regret it, but this decision led me to go broke. At that same time, one of my coworkers took a hard drive with client information from our office and sold it to my competitors. My wife left me. I went from a very wealthy man to a bum. Then I made a very serious mistake.

What?

I told myself, that I could handle it all myself. I ‘handled’ it so well, that I ended up being homeless for four months. I slept in some strange, deserted, country houses. I spent nights in the street. I was a hobo. I drank heavily.

No one wanted to help you?

Some people, whom I had helped earlier, pretended that they did not recognise me in the street and turned away. But honestly speaking, I didn’t ask for help. I thought that I was strong. Now I would go to people and say: ‘Lend me a hand, I’ve fallen’, but back then this unnecessary masculine pride prevented me from asking for help. For me, as for all men, it was a very important period.

What helped you not lose faith in people?

My homeless period helped me to better understand other people. I wandered about and slept in the street with people who had once been engineers, university professors, literary scholars. These people sometimes just sat, said ‘Enough!’, Their circumstances had defeated them, and they went with the flow.

What prevented you from returning to a normal life?

Alcohol. A person who abuses alcohol cannot return to a normal life. An alcoholic has practically no self-esteem. Those who quit drinking more easily return from vagrancy.

What did you learn from that period?

Never shut down and hide from the outside world. Never turn into a snail. If you are in trouble then you have to ask people for help. My father taught me that a man must always be strong. He must be responsible for everything. He must fix all the unhappiness around him himself. This is an enormous mistake. Hardship and crises happen to everyone.

Piotr Pogon in the Carpathian Mountains, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection
Piotr Pogon in the Carpathian Mountains, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection

Life from scratch

What helped you return to a normal life?

One of my friends was acquainted with Anna Dymna, the actress, social and founder of the Against the Odds foundation. She told Dymna about me, and Dymna brought me to work. I taught classes for mentally disabled people. I woke up at 4:20 in the morning and went to work at the centre supported by Anna Dymna’s foundation.

And where did you live?

I stayed with my parents. They gave me a room. I’d come home at night, sleep and at dawn, leave for work.

How did it go?

Teaching helped me. I taught several different classes. Some people call these people insane, crazy, but to me, these people were very precious. I worked with them for eight months. It was a group of 26 people, aged 19 to 40. Every morning they kissed me on the lips. I said that adults did not kiss like that, but they looked me in the eyes and said ‘But we love you so!’ It opened a whole new world for me. We would go out together into the countryside. My God, they had so much fun running after the chickens on the farm, they pet the animals with such tenderness! What can I say, thanks to these people I recovered and learned to live again.

What is your most memorable moment?

My wife divorced me. I felt horrible. I went to work and asked Sabinka, a girl with a severe physical disorder, to draw what she saw out the window. It was raining, zero degrees, disgusting, but Sabinka, who had a mouth that never closed and was drooling all the time, drew a bright tree with leaves coloured with six different colours with crayons. Then it dawned on me. I understood that everything is all in our heads. ‘Sabinka, do you really see this?’ ‘Aaa,’ she confirmed. It hit me like an electric shock! I went to Anna Dymna and asked if she would allow me to do something that I could do well – like work with businessmen. So, I began to contact representatives from a number of companies to convince them to donate to charity. I became a ‘professional beggar,’ who collects money for non-governmental organisations.

Piotr Pogon at a press conference for Anna Dymna’s (centre) charity, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection
Piotr Pogon at a press conference for Anna Dymna’s (centre) charity, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection

You helped several different organisations?

Yes. Not long ago, we counted, that in the past twelve years I was able to collect 28 million zloty (approx. 7 million euros) for sixty different charity organisations. Now I’m preparing to finally open my own foundation. I have many ideas that I want to share with others. People trust me, therefore they can donate with a peace of mind.

The impossible is possible

You often arrange sporting events to raise funds for charity.

True, for instance, we organised a charity marathon for the children of soldiers who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. We organised the race and collected 300,000 zloty from sponsors for the orphans. I love sports in general. My father instilled this love in me. He is now 82 years old and five years ago he could still do the splits. When I was a child, from morning until evening we would play football, skate and in our free time, we hiked. Despite my illness, I never gave up doing these things. I remember, I found out about a group of blind Italians who had climbed Kilimanjaro. I immediately began to search for sponsors so that Poles with disabilities could also go on such an expedition.

Were you able to find any?

In 2008, a group of eight people went to Kilimanjaro. People with various disabilities. Someone without arms, someone in a wheelchair…

Climbing Kilimanjaro in a wheelchair?

There are special mountain wheelchairs. For the final stage, one of the participants of the expedition, Angelica, we carried in a specially-made backpack which had two holes for her legs. Four of the eight people reached the summit, though I believe that every participant was a winner. This trip did cost a pretty penny, therefore some criticised us, saying that these funds could be spent on a more noble cause. However, I saved a letter I received after our climb from a young man with paralysis of the limbs. He wrote, ‘Friends, thank you for what you have done. Now I am sure that someday I too can climb my own Kilimanjaro – I will walk on my own two feet to the sink.’ I understand, this cannot be overstated – hope is more dear than all the treasures of the world.

This was not your last climb?

Later I climbed Elbrus and came down on skis. I became the first person missing a lung to do it. The largest social media response was caused by my Aconcagua climb in 2011, it is the tallest peak in South America (approx. 6962 meters). I climbed it with my blind friend Łukasz Żelechowski.

Many people never return from that mountain.

Death was at our heels. As awful as it sounds, we were saved because another person died there. Before our climb, an Italian named Elena tragically died on Aconcagua and this girl’s parents financed the construction of a transit point on the peak of the mountain. It was finished two weeks before our climb. I really want to meet with these people sometime, because during bad weather, we were saved from death thanks to that very camp. Later National Geographic called our climb the ‘Event of 2011’.

You also run marathons.

Yes, my whole house is covered in medals. I’ve already participated in thirty or so marathons: in New York, Tokyo, Berlin and other cities. Anywhere with a charity mission. Sponsors pay for every kilometre I run, therefore I can’t not. I always run a minimum of 42 kilometres.

But that’s far from the most exhausting thing you’ve done.

Yes, there’s the triathlon. There, without break, you need to swim about 4 kilometres, bike 180 kilometres, and then run another 42 kilometres. The Ironman Triathlon is considered one of the most difficult one-day competitions in the world. From a medical point of view, a person with one lung can’t do it. It turned out that I could! I was able to complete it twice.

What was the wisest thing you’ve heard in your life?

The most important words I’ve heard were from a drunken lumberjack, when I stopped to rest during an exhausting 60-kilometre bicycle trip. I sat and began to complain about how tired I was. ‘What are you? A wimp?,’ asked the elderly man. ‘Remember, all difficulties and trials are knots in the rope of your life. If you twist about, your ass will quickly ache. But if you are wise, you will use the knots to climb higher.’

That’s great!

It’s true. Every new disease, new complication makes me stronger.

How do you feel now?

Because of a heavy dose of radiation I had thirty years ago, I lost the ability to distinguish tastes and now I am losing my hearing. I must have a cochlear implant installed, which will let me restore it. In 2015, I went to another triathlon competition, my third. I withdrew in the first stage. During the swim one of the participants of the competition accidentally kicked me hard in the face. That was a sign for me – I need to slow down.

Piotr Pogon, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection
Piotr Pogon, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection

Tears of sorrow & happiness

You said that after the death of your brother you were offended by God. When did you reconcile with him?

My brother and I had planned to go to the mountains to ski, but it didn’t happen. Three months after Krzysiek’s death, one of my best friends took me to Courchevel in the Alps. It was snowing heavily and we went out that same morning to ski. I skied and the whole time I cried. I looked around at the incredibly beautiful mountaintops and snow. I recalled my brother. I thought about life and roared. From sorrow, from happiness… A friend of my brother’s noticed I was crying and said: ‘Stop’, but I didn’t stop. A man can cry when he wants to. The mountains, which caused this stream of tears, helped me reconcile with God and accept the death of my brother.

Faith in God – what does it mean to you?

I refer to faith, to God ‘in Franciscan’: I try, like a holy Franciscan, to see the beauty in the details, in the surrounding world. For me God is a beautiful panorama in the high mountains. I see him in the smile of a girl, the opportunity to drink in the park in summer, in dancing. God appears in when a dog wags its tail when it sees me. Some call him Jesus, others Buddha, others something else. He is everywhere. He has never betrayed me. God is friendship. God is tears of happiness.

I see that you don’t shy away from tears.

Some say that tears are a sign of weakness. It’s completely the opposite. The inability to cry, the inability to see beauty – that is weakness. Our strength is in sensitivity and openness. In 2009, during a snow storm, my blind friend and I were climbing Elbrus. When the storm calmed down, we sat on the mountaintop and Łukasz asked me: ‘Tell me what you see. Describe what is around us.’ At that moment, the view was so clear that a panorama of the Caucuses was visible. For about 3 minutes I described the mountains, the sky, the clouds, the sun and then I broke into tears and said: ‘Łukasz, I simply don’t have the words. It is so beautiful that it takes my breath away. We are in the heavens! Thank you, for you, my blind friend, for opening my eyes. I see this beauty thanks to you.’

Piotr Pogon, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection
Piotr Pogon, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection

The most terrible death

When you think about your life, do you ever ask yourself ‘why is everything so difficult?’

I have my own pseudo-theological theory that God is a bit of a joker. He sits with Saint Peter and says: ‘Well alright, we’ll give Pogon one more life. But this one will be more difficult than the last! If he wants it so much, then he’ll have to take it to the next level.’ I have of course asked myself why my life is so vastly different from the lives of other people. I think that a higher power has a plan which is difficult for us to understand. We need to stop thinking about it because we don’t have the answers to these questions. There is a multitude of things that we can’t possibly explain. We don’t know why one person will die young and another live to old age. How can I explain a situation in which we were climbing Mont Blanc in the Alps, an avalanche buries us, all thirty people on the expedition survive, but our young instructor dies? Why him? Why not someone else who was older? Why not me? Why did his 10-month-old daughter have to become an orphan? These are inexplicable things. It’s all horrible, but it’s worth noticing that the young man died in the mountains – his favourite place in the world, doing what he loved.

When you think about your life, do you ever ask yourself ‘why is everything so difficult?’

I have my own pseudo-theological theory that God is a bit of a joker. He sits with Saint Peter and says: ‘Well alright, we’ll give Pogon one more life. But this one will be more difficult than the last! If he wants it so much, then he’ll have to take it to the next level.’ I have of course asked myself why my life is so vastly different from the lives of other people. I think that a higher power has a plan which is difficult for us to understand. We need to stop thinking about it because we don’t have the answers to these questions. There is a multitude of things that we can’t possibly explain. We don’t know why one person will die young and another live to old age. How can I explain a situation in which we were climbing Mont Blanc in the Alps, an avalanche buries us, all thirty people on the expedition survive, but our young instructor dies? Why him? Why not someone else who was older? Why not me? Why did his 10-month-old daughter have to become an orphan? These are inexplicable things. It’s all horrible, but it’s worth noticing that the young man died in the mountains – his favourite place in the world, doing what he loved.

Cancer is not a punishment

Have people who have been helped by your example reached out to you?

Quite often. Not long ago my doctor called and told me about a 33-year-old man who he had just diagnosed with cancer. Instead of getting upset, the patient said: ‘I recently read about this one case who survived several bouts with cancer and, with one lung climbed mountains and ran marathons. I’m not afraid, I will survive! I will fight!’ A mother of a young man with disabilities who had run with me in a marathon also reached out to me. She said that she didn’t recognise her son. He was full of optimism. He did not want to take off his medal even while he bathed. For things like that we live, we work, and we fight.

What do you say to people who suffer from cancer?

In 1984, when I first entered the cancer ward, the majority of the patients died. Now the situation has changed greatly. I tell people that cancer is a civilisational problem that we can deal with. Cancer can be cured. In each of us lies an energy, thanks to which it is possible to recover. The main thing to remember is that both success and defeat are all in our heads. From my own experience, I know that every person has the strength to handle this disease. I ran eighty kilometres with only one lung. This is impossible to achieve only through physical preparation. At the fortieth or fiftieth kilometre, your strength is already gone. Then your head turns on and starts to drag your body along. There is plenty of untapped energy in all of us.

Many people fear cancer. How can you not be afraid of this disease and its complications?

If it happens, it is impossible to be alone. Oncologists say that cancer doesn’t affect one person, but the whole family. The main thing is to not close yourself off, to not isolate yourself from the outside world. You need to talk about the disease. Don’t be afraid to talk about your fears. For me personally, the support of my family and friends has helped me so much and continues to help me.

The main thing is to never stop

Piotr, your life is the story of the strength of a man, who is constantly fighting and prevailing over the harshest circumstances. What kind of woman does it take to stand by you through this?

The last woman I dated told me when she left: ‘I thought that being near you would be like sitting around a warm hearth, but instead it felt like being in a burning forest.’ Unfortunately, women can’t handle being with me for long.

Piotr Pogon with his daughter Emilia, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection
Piotr Pogon with his daughter Emilia, photo: P. Pogon’s personal collection

Do you have children?

Yes. A son from my first marriage. He is now 23 years old. I hoped that when I reached 50 years old, I’d have one more child. Luckily, it happened. My little girl Emilia is almost three years old. Her mother and I broke up and we don’t live together, but two times a week I drive 200 km to pick my daughter up from daycare and spend time with her. Emilka already knows how to swim and skate.

What else have you taught her?

I don’t want her to just go with the flow. What stays in our memory? Interesting people, vivid situations, beautiful relationships, victories. We need to see and create such situations. Not everyone has to conquer seven thousand peaks. It might simply be a nice bus driver, a positive and friendly vendor and an honest plumber. I’m giving trivial examples, but we rarely tell each other ‘thank you’, ‘I need you’, ‘how wonderful it is that you are in my life’, but we have to. It warms our hearts.

How do you see your life right now?

I can’t stop. I can’t be satisfied with my life. I feel a constant hunger, a desire to do something. In 2016, my thyroid gland was removed after a tumour was discovered in it. The struggle continues. I sleep 24 hours a week. Three hours a night is enough for me. I wake up, brush my teeth at dawn and think about what will happen to me today. The main thing is to never stop going!

Interview conducted by Evgeni Klimakin, 6 Feb 2017; translated by KA, 2 Mar 2017 

P.S. At the end of the interview Piotr asked me to publish his email address. You can write Piotr Pogon at this address: [email protected]

Category: 
LIFESTYLE & OPINION