Death Can Positively Impact Your Life | Valdis Zatlers | TEDxRiga

Translator: Ilze Garda
Reviewer: Denise RQ It’s a great honor as well as a challenge to talk to such a distinguished
audience today. Everybody, perhaps, expects that the former president of a country
is going to talk about politics, or at least about topics
very closely related to the policy making. I’m sorry. I will not talk about politics. I will talk about how death can have
a positive impact on our lives. I have not been
a politician [all] my life, I have played basketball,
I have played in a rock band, I have served in the Soviet Army, my life was full of various temptations,
challenges, and experiences. But most of my life, 30 long years, I have spent in an operating room
doing surgery as an orthopedic surgeon. And being a physician
is the essence of my life. Ladies and gentlemen, there are only two moments in our lives,
we will never be able to remember. The first one is our birth,
and the other one is our death. Of course, you all celebrate
birthday parties every year, thanking your parents for this brilliant possibility
to be alive and enjoy life. And, of course,
your dads and moms remember every detail of this definite date
when you were born. But you don’t remember anything
because you can’t. Death is a mystery, very often a topic
which is looked upon as taboo. Many of you are afraid of it. Because nobody knows the exact date and time of our death. We don’t know anything
about how it is going to happen. But to fully appreciate
the value of our lives and to fully understand
the meaning of our lives, I would suggest people in their early 20s to experience two things: at least one childbirth
and at least one death. I’m not talking about the funeral, I’m talking about the moment
when the person is passing away. The first time I met a dead body was when I started
my medical studies at the age of 18. During an anatomy course,
we had to dissect cadavers. A scary, but very exciting story. I enjoyed understanding
the structure of the human body and learning the very complicated names
of muscles and nerves, but there was nothing personal. The cadaver was
just a teaching tool for me. I took this as a reality. I didn’t think about that this cadaver
once had been a living person with his own joys and sorrows,
with his own successes and failures. It was just a teaching tool. A year later, I saw a person passing away;
I was working in a hospital. And even I had the duty to transport the dead body
to a specific cadaver storage facility, there was nothing personal to me. It looked like something
what I had seen in movies, or what nowadays, people experience
playing computer games. There was no evidence
of the presence of death at that moment. But things changed suddenly two years later, when I was 24. There was an episode in my life which suddenly changed
entirely, totally, and significantly my attitude towards death: my patient died in my hands. And it happened in a few minutes
because of an allergic reaction. I didn’t even understand
what is going on, but the patient, very clearly,
whispered to me, “I’m dying.” And he died. That was a shock to me. I was supposed to treat this person, I was supposed to get him
back to a healthy life, but instead of that, he passed away. And I couldn’t do anything to help him. That was devastating. But what I learned from this episode [is] that human life is very fragile; a thing which needs
to be protected all the time. Death became a very personal issue to me. The next experience
with deadly situations was Chernobyl. On April 26, 1986, a deathly, devastating explosion in a nuclear power plant in Ukraine created the most disastrous
nuclear catastrophe in the history of mankind. Only two weeks later, I, as a reserve officer
of the Soviet Army, was sent to this contaminated area
for a rescue operation. There was no concrete plan how to stop
the deadly radioactive contamination. The Soviet Army
was prepared for nuclear war, but the Soviet Army
was not prepared for an accident in a peaceful nuclear power plant. Rude jokes replaced
argument-based commands. There was an invisible danger
to our health, to our lives all around. Because radioactivity
as a danger, as a threat has no warning signs. You cannot feel, you cannot see it,
you cannot hear it, you even cannot smell it. You can really recognize it
by your knowledge looking at the display screens
of radioactivity measurement devices. But these devices were available
only to medical officers; too few for the scale of the catastrophe. And we, medical officers,
had to convince the others that there is a danger around threatening their health,
threatening their life expectancy. But people could not resist eating the ripe strawberries and cucumbers from the fields of abandoned villages. These tempting berries and vegetables had [a radioactivity level
at least two times higher] than the area surrounding them. But the people couldn’t resist
because that was an invisible danger. When I came back home after Chernobyl, I decontaminated myself
as fiercely as I could. In the nearest shop,
I bought all new clothes, in the nearest barber shop,
I shaved my hair, I called my family and said, “I’m going to sauna to clean up my body
as thoroughly as I can because I don’t want to bring
as a souvenir to my family a radioactive particle.” So what did I learned from Chernobyl? The first is that the danger
or the threat could be invisible. This is not relevant
only for radioactivity; there are, at first glance, very innocent
actions we are doing very often: careless driving, smoking,
diving in unknown waters, and the list is much, much longer, and we didn’t know
we approached the threat of death. The second thing I learned
is that people have to protect each other. Those with the knowledge or, let’s say,
a guess about what’s going on, have to prevent the others from the strings and arrows
of outrageous fortune attacking them. When I became a president of the country, I had to sign a parliament vote
for sending our troops to Afghanistan. A very substantial decision,
a very substantial responsibility. When I visited [our] troops
in Afghanistan, I asked the soldiers, “How can I, as a president
of the country, protect your lives?” I expected that they would answer, “Better guns, better boots,”
or maybe something else. But they just said,
“Build schools and drill wells. That will make the relationship
with the local people better, and that will protect our lives.” Very simple. A few months later, I participated in a funeral
of a soldier killed in battle. I knelt down in front of his parents and said, “I’m sorry for your son.
We will all miss him. He’s a hero.” And there were tears in my eyes because I couldn’t protect him,
because this is not always possible. And when I had learned about death, invisible threats, when I had learned
that we had to protect our lives, when I had learned that we had a responsibility
for ourselves and others, to prevent the danger, and when I had learned that a personal approach to death
was of great importance, death became
even much more personal to me. I had got a cancer. Wow. What a shattering news. I have been performing
tumor surgery in my surgical practice. I had the experience [of talking]
to cancer patients and their relatives. I could easily accept the radical
treatment plan without any hesitation. That’s true. But there was still a question, “Why me? What was wrong with me? What have I done wrongly in my life?” These questions became a priority to me. I tried my best, but I got the answers
in about two or three months. [One day, I just] remembered another day when I came back home from my job,
very tired, very exhausted. I sat down on a sofa,
and I said to myself, “I have had a very successful
professional career. I have had a very successful
political career. I have done a lot
of good things in my life. My children are grown up,
I’m satisfied with my life. It’s so easy to give up and just die.” And that was the mistake,
that was a terrible mistake. Because you can say you have done
everything in your life, there is no sense to live anymore, and God blesses you
and prepares you for passing away. I immediately corrected this mistake. I decided never to say it again,
I decided never to think it again. I decided to live
a long life, to enjoy life, to work, to create new ideas, projects
and keep on going [with] my life. As a doctor, I like prescriptions. That’s a part of my job
to prescribe something to my patients and to myself too. And there are only three prescriptions
which will make your life successful and which will make you
to accept the invisible presence and understand
the invisible presence of death all through your lives since your birth. The first prescription is: never say you have done
everything in your life. Keep on working, keep on creating,
keep on making your life better, keep on making our life
or our world better. The second is: never say you have learned everything
and you know everything. Keep on learning, studying,
exploring the world around you. And the third one: never say
you have lost the sense of life because the sense of life is just living. That is so simple. My friends, the dead body
has only two fundamental rights: to disappear and to be remembered. We are all alive. We have to go on working, growing, feeling, enjoying life, and then, we will be remembered. Don’t let the fear of death paralyze you. Don’t be afraid of that because this is just a reminder of the great potential
we all have while we are alive; [it’s rather an] everyday motivation to feel, to enjoy every moment of life. And that’s what I wish you. Here I stand, trying to inspire you. I hope I did well. Thank you. (Applause)

5 thoughts on “Death Can Positively Impact Your Life | Valdis Zatlers | TEDxRiga

  1. This is a wonderful man!!! Someone who knows lives matters and is precious. The best type of person to be in charge of a country!! Can't help but notice that the elderly people from this area look very good and age gracefully. Maybe that is due to what they have done which has made them humanely human.

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