MOST of us have only one serious brush with death and many of us will not survive it.
Author Maggie O’Farrell, however, has survived several – 17 in fact – and detailed every one.
Maggie, 45, has scraped through her own, but also been beside her nine-year-old daughter in a series of 999 alerts linked to her extreme allergies.
The author will speak about her book I Am, I Am, I Am at the Boswell Book Festival today when she will remember how her own childhood – and adulthood – was impacted by a medical emergency.
When she was eight she was rushed to hospital with encephalitis.
“That’s the one that changed me the most,” said Maggie.
“I was very sick for a long time and had to undergo a lot of horrible procedures.
“A lot of my relatives came to see me and I know now they were coming to say goodbye.
“I still remember a nurse in the corridor saying, ‘There’s a little girl dying in there’. It took me a minute to realise she meant me.”
Maggie, who was off school for two years, was also told that she’d never walk again and would never be able to hold a pen to write.
Only the determination of physiotherapy staff, who ignored advice that she was a hopeless case, spared her from spending the rest of her days in a wheelchair.
“Since then, I’ve always felt like I was the luckiest person alive,” the Irish-born mum-of-three says simply.
“I didn’t just get out of one fate – dying – I found a loophole out of another, a life of incapacity and dependence.
“Ever since then, I’ve felt I’ve lived on borrowed time.”
Maggie’s teenage years and beyond saw her take a lot of risks.
A combination of those, such as an ill-advised leap off a harbour wall, plus medical emergencies, including a haemorrhage during childbirth, saw the near-death tally mount.
One, though, still sends a shiver down the spine.
She was working abroad after leaving school when a walk in the mountains put her in fearful danger.
Alone and with no help anywhere in sight, she was approached by a man who said he was a birdwatcher and slipped the strap of his binoculars round her neck.
“From the moment he stepped into my path I knew straight away that I was in trouble,” said Maggie.
“I kept talking about birds and saying that people would be looking for me and that I had to walk back.
“Thankfully, I managed to talk my way out of it and I reported it to the police.
“They didn’t take it seriously but a couple of weeks later a girl was raped and strangled with a strap.
“The police showed me photos then and I was able to point out the man who’d confronted me. It was too much of a coincidence for it not to have been him.
“I have always felt that I was the lucky one, the one that got away.
“It was so awful that I didn’t tell anyone, not family or friends, when I came home. I can’t imagine a worse way to die than how that girl died.”
It was a secret Maggie kept for years, sharing it only with her then-boyfriend and now-husband Will.
And speaking about it for the first time only came about in the most extreme circumstances, in the aftermath of having a machete held to her throat during a robbery while travelling in Chile.
“The man pinned my arms to my side and held the weapon at my neck while demanding money,” said Maggie.
“You don’t argue – you just give him what he wants.
“It wasn’t quick, he wanted to go through all our belongings and it must have lasted about 10 minutes.
“I think he was sleeping rough and was on something, so I just kept thinking that I had to try and keep him calm.
“It was a very nasty situation and you have to try and be the calm one and just think, ‘How do I get out of this?’”
A life of adventure, risk-taking and pushing boundaries was tempered when Maggie had children and had to try to ensure she’d always be around for them.
But the brushes with death have continued as her nine-year-old daughter has a range of potentially-fatal allergies.
The risk of lethal anaphylaxis is such that the family have been told they must always know a good hospital is close by.
Nuts of all kinds, seeds, eggs, dogs, bee or wasp stings and tree pollen are just a few of the things that can send her into anaphylactic shock.
She also has an immune disorder that means infections that most would shrug off without thinking can be really dangerous.
Every moment is spent checking, planning, warning and monitoring her every moment. Despite that, Maggie has lost count of the blue light dashes and the runs down hospital corridors.
“My daughter lives a life where one week she’s doing the times table and the next she’s in intensive care.
“She’s had many more near-death experiences than most of her classmates.
“Her health is very precarious. Sometimes it’s a daily upkeep, at other times daily emergencies.
“But it’s important for her to know she’s not the only one. We’ve all had them and there is a way to carry on living.”
It was her daughter’s health that made Maggie, who has previously only written acclaimed works of fiction, to reflect fully for the first time on the mortality that has followed the family.
Having faced death on numerous occasions herself, Maggie thinks there is an understanding and a bond of shared experience.
“I know what it’s like to be in hospital, I know what it’s like to be different in school,” she said.
“So perhaps that helps. I want her to feel less alone.
“And I’ve always said to her that everyone has something – perhaps not as dramatic as anaphylaxis – which they have to live with.”
Despite what she has lived through, Maggie tries to ensure her children aren’t wrapped in cotton wool, still allowing them to take – hopefully considered – risks.
Having spoken to others since writing the book , Maggie believes most of us have had near-death scrapes at one time or another.
But having had more than most, she admits it’s something that makes you a different person.
“Life doesn’t go on as before. They do change you. When you are taken to the brink you come back different, wiser, sadder.
“You can try not to think about them – although I have had sleepless nights – but they always have an impact.”
Maggie appeared at the Boswell Book Festival boswellbookfestival.co.uk