What We Learn From Near-Death Experiences: Michael Lazerow Faces Ventricular Septal Defect

By Jaimie Dalessio

You may not know who Michael Lazerow is. It's possible many others didn't either until recently. Two months ago, Lazerow was just another rising tech star. A self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur, Lazerow had just landed the biggest deal of his life, selling the social media marketing company he built, Buddy Media, for $745 million.

In the middle of the chaos of excitement brought on by this enormous accomplishment, Lazerow did something quite unexpected. He settled into the quiet of his New York City office -- the kind of quiet that fills an empty office building on the weekend. The kind of quiet you seek when your dream is firmly in your grasp. The kind of quiet that makes you reflect.

He picked up his iPad and began writing.

He thought about those who inspired him: a friend, Jen Linn, who faced a rare sarcoma fearlessly until her cancer death a year ago at 40; Ben Breedlove, 18, who used index cards to tell the world about the times he'd cheated death in videos recorded the week before he died from hypertropic cardiomyopathy last Christmas. He thought about his wife, Kass, and their three healthy kids. He thought about how lucky he is to be alive and the congenital heart defect that nearly killed him, first as a toddler and again at 19.

Cheating Death Twice

Lazerow lived through a bout with heart failure at 18 months old, brought on by a congenital heart defect called ventricular septal defect (VSD), also known as a hole in the heart. The defect closed on its own, so Lazerow played sports and went to camp like any other kid -- uninhibited by his condition, save for regular check-ins with a cardiologist.

But at 19, doctors noticed Lazerow's VSD enlarging. Eventually he would probably need surgery to repair his aortic valve, they told him, but it made more sense to get it over with while he was still young. So they went in to fix it. And they thought they had. Eight days later, Lazerow found himself back in the hospital getting prepped for an emergency valve replacement. The valve that the doctors had tried to fix basically burst, he says. His blood pressure fell to zero.

Lazerow almost died. Without that valve replacement, he would have. His brush with death made him less afraid of living. He started his first company later that year. He started his fourth, Buddy Media, 13 years later. Having founded University Wire (the Associated Press of college newspapers) and GOLF.com -- now owned by CBS Corp and Time Inc., respectively -- Lazerow has established himself as a digital media leader.

"I've never been an incredibly fearful person, but I think a lot of the stuff that, as a young person, just gets to you… schoolwork, friends, dating, or whatever it is… a lot of the edginess just went away," he says of the calmness he felt after his valve replacement.

"No matter how bad, things just aren't that bad."

Appreciate The Journey

When Lazerow finished stringing his sentences together that day, he recorded his own video. He showed it to Kass.

"She's the one who said, 'This is incredible, you should put it out there,'" he says. So he did. Lazerow uploaded "A New Beginning –- Is Fear Holding You Back?" to YouTube. It's received more than 120,000 views. His message, clear and from the heart, has resonated with its viewers both healthy and sick: Appreciate the journey. Don't fear it.

Since it went viral, Lazerow has heard from family, friends, and strangers moved and inspired by the video and his story -- raw, vulnerable, and grateful.

More than 170 people have commented on YouTube. "What a great reminder to keep living; To keep moving forward; To keep 'being,'" said one commenter.

"I love this!! I too looked death in the eye and it obliterated my fear and my life changed forever and for the better. I've never looked back and I love my life... the good and the not-so-good parts, because they're all important and have taught me the importance of balance as well as the knowledge that fear is a useless waste of energy," said another.

"It took on a life of its own," says Lazerow. "It's out of your control... there’s no control in social media, you kind of put yourself out there. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t work, and this one actually worked and started to strike a chord."

He's glad it did.

"What's been interesting is that I started my first company when I was like 19, after the surgery, and so I've been kind of working at this for close to 20 years. A lot of success and failure comes just by working it day after day," he says. "There's no easy ride, no easy win. It's about whatever you do, doing it in a way you can appreciate the ride, which is sometimes hard."