by Jennifer F. Helgeson, Maryland

In the past seven years I have travelled nearly a million miles, literally and figuratively. It all just sort of happened; most of it I could have done without, but if it had to be this way, I think it has been (nearly) the best it could be. Some amazing people have come into my life and helped me heal without ever being aware of the events of my past. Other people, sometimes very close ones from my past and even extended family have of their own volition been the opposite of supportive; and I will never understand why this is the case; but, I have come to accept that it is the case.

In a body of freezing water, a person with my physical characteristics is estimated to survive about 15-18 minutes. I am not a strong a swimmer, so I would defer to the lower estimated threshold.
The sudden loss of my only sibling, and having my own health questioned, equated to being plunged into freezing, dark waters. And I needed to travel a lot, spatially and spiritually, towards acceptance and peace before my “fifteen minutes” of rescue time expired.

On 25 May 2005, two days after my university graduation, I found my brother dead in his room from Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) during the night. He was the picture of heath and the pride of our family; and my best friend. He was my side-kick for 18 years; from playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to deciding what to get mom for Mothers’ Day. Andrew was exactly three years and two days younger than me and 9.5 inches taller. He maximised on our Norwegian genetics, with the look of a real Viking.

So, at the age of twenty-one, I learned the fragility of life in a somewhat brutal and scary manner. And as modern medicine has not caught up to heart health, doctors wanted to take all kinds of preventive measures so I would not share Andrew’s fate, though all indications are such that my heart mis-beats about as often as the average person on the street. Thus, one month later on 23 June, I found myself on the operating table getting an Implantable Cardio Defibrillator (ICD) fitted in my chest. In nearly seven years the device never went off until a recalled lead broke about a week ago and I was shocked repeatedly on a London side-street…but that is another story…

By the end of summer 2005, I was deep in the freezing water in need of an escape plan. I had been awarded a Fulbright Grant to live and research in Norway for the 2005/06 year and against much of my protesting, my parents got their passports and took me to the small village of Aas, Norway, just outside of Oslo, where I would learn to swim against the frozen tides. I could write a novel about my adventures there, so just suffice to say here that from reindeers and hitch-hiking to wacky roommates, crazy bike-rides and fishing, I waded the engulfing waters. My closer friends and housemates there knew what had happened just a few months before, but most did not. Sometimes I would take the train into Oslo and walk around those streets; I would see Andrew all over – tall, blonde young men. The only trip he ever took abroad was to Norway with me and my father a few years previous. And in a country so far away, it was strangely comforting to walk places I had with him before.

Ironically, I met the kindest people I would (in aggregate total) in the coming seven years in Norway. I came out of that year on a small canoe in that freezing water I would say, but I made it out before my fifteen minutes.

In the following years there have always been tests of perseverance that rocked the canoe, leaving me exposed to the freezing waters. When I was at the University of Oxford the exam system and level of time dedicated to my research sometimes left me wondering why do this if life is so short; why not just enjoy ourselves more?

And sometimes out of nowhere I have received correspondence that just left me in awe of the insensitivity of people, especially those who are rather fortunate themselves. I have been told “welcome to the only child club” rather than, “so sorry for your loss.” And a relation wrote the following at a very hard time: ‘My brother and I discussed being in touch with your family (mother) and this will sound insensitive, but it is VERY difficult to hear talk of Andrew. I hope I never know the heartache your parents have experienced, but it is difficult to be an honest listener.’ Well, it is natural for me look at this and feel like screaming: “gee, it is nice you have a brother with whom to discuss. And maybe while you are with your own son and grandson you could give a thought to my poor mother!!” But people like that live in an alternative universe and nothing I say will change how they act. I cannot change the circumstances of my life, but rather just the way I respond.

In the end, when I look back over my longest journey, the most important lesson has been to hold those who care about me close; to love and support them in return. As for the others who have nothing kind or supportive to add, even if they are blood relations, let them live their selfish lives, be careful not to wish them ill, but hope that they realise one day the power of compassion and become self-aware of their limitations.

We all have problems on some level or other. Sadly, some close friends have now also lost parents and siblings, battled illness themselves, etc. And since my first Norway adventure year I have lived abroad in the UK and travelled all around Europe, as well as getting as far as Uganda and South Africa for work. I like to think that I have really touched lives in a positive way in the field of environmental management. And in all the travels, I have found just this: there is always some truth to cultural stereotypes, but people are the same everywhere: some really loving and good; others selfish and unkind.

I know that post vita most people’s memories are idealised excessively by family and friends. But, the number of people who came forward as being touched for life by Andrew during his short 18 years in this world is proof that he was angelic in nature. The truth is he was much cooler than was I in high school (I wish I had just told him); that attribute combined with a big heart made him lovingly known as “Helge.”

Almost exactly seven years later, I am back at my family home to await an impending operation. Memories flood back and though I cannot say I am at peace with the fate dealt to my brother, I am at peace with how I can handle this challenge and scar that will always be with me. But soon it will be time to travel again, both physically and figuratively. There is a new chapter opening before me and it appears to be the most exciting yet, with love and support waiting. And well, I have found it to be true of many who suffer great loss, myself included: I have a lot of love and support to give to those who deserve and welcome it. I made it out of the water in time; and I thank the Universe every day for those who have helped me along the way.

Richard Andrew Helgeson Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) Public Charity, to raise awareness of Sudden Cardiac Arrest in children and young adults.  P O Box 4024, Silver Spring, MD 20914.
Contact: 301-236-0448; and

I am a curious, cautious guy.
I wonder what life will bring.
I hear the sunrise.
I see tomorrow’s destiny.
I am a curious, cautious guy.
I pretend not to care.
I feel fear about what is yet to come.
I touch my crystal ball.
I worry about what I may miss.
I am a curious, cautious guy.
I understand actions have consequences.
I say I will make is fine later.
I dream that I will be successful.
I try to make the wrongs right.
I hope I will end up content.
I am a curious, cautious guy.

R. Andrew Helgeson, Jan. 2004

Posted on: May 25th, 2012