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Near-Death Experience

1You’re ten years old and a sound sleeper, so it’s already unusual that something has woken you up in the middle of the night.  You go out into the hall to investigate.  There are strangers in the house and flashing lights out the window.  Your father tells you to go back to bed.

When you wake up the next morning, your mother has disappeared from your life.

It’s 1970, before school counselors or lettered conditions like PTSD.  Your father means well, but he’s not the communicative type, not one for expressing his feelings to others or eliciting others to share their feelings with him.  He’s from the Depression Era, and he barely saw his own father growing up during those desperate years.  He’s a veteran of the Second World War; difficulties are part of life.

He’s also dealing with his own trauma, as his wife lingers between life and death.

You get shipped off to stay with friends, or with your grandmother.  Very little is explained to you, and you understand even less.  Years later, there won’t be much that you remember, aside from the indelible images of that first night.

You won’t remember waking up the next morning to find your grandmother home with you instead of you parents.  You won’t remember when they took you to visit your mother one last time because no one thought she had much time left.  You won’t remember shouting at her for having abandoned you.  You won’t remember the outgoing, cheerful little boy you were before that cold, winter’s night.

You only remember how hard it was for you to talk to people from that moment forward.  You remember how easily you cried during the years that followed, and how much you hated yourself for crying so easily without understanding what made you that way.  You remember how you considered taking your own life, but always managed to convince yourself that you could do it tomorrow.

A decade passes before you really recover.  In some ways, you never recover at all.

My mother had gone in for her annual checkup when a routine chest x-ray revealed a tumor the size of a pea on one of her ribs.  It turned out to be benign, and the surgeon removed the tumor without incident.  The doctors sent her home early from the hospital.

A few days later my mother returned to have the stitches removed.  She remembers a distracted intern taking her into a supply closet to remove her stitches without first washing his hands.  She thought nothing of it at the time.

The next morning she could barely get out of bed, and barely made it back to bed once she was up.  Her temperature spiked and she couldn’t unclench her hands.  The ambulance took her to the hospital about midnight.

11916It was 4 AM before she was taken off the gurney.  Her temperature was over 105 and her blood pressure was 0.  They wrapped her in an ice blanket and put her on an IV.  She didn’t eat or drink again for two months.

The doctors diagnosed her with consumptive coagulopathy, now better known as disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC).  It’s sort of the opposite of hemophilia, where the body’s clotting mechanism accelerates until the victim’s blood turns into molasses and refuses to circulate.  My mother was the sixth case at UCLA medical center.  The first five had died before any course treatment could be determined.

One doctor told my grandmother her daughter’s life wasn’t worth a plugged nickel.  Another told my father there was no hope.  For the next six weeks, he steeled himself every time the phone rang, expecting to hear the worst.

But one doctor didn’t give up.  Larry Johnson, head of infectious diseases, told his colleagues that he wasn’t going to let a 42-year-old woman die without a fight.  They replied that he was wasting his time.  He ignored them and put my mother on a new drug called Vacumiacin, then began administering massive blood transfusions.  It was 1971, two year before the first AIDS contaminated blood appeared at UCLA.

From the shock of the disease, my mother’s kidneys shut down so that she needed three five-hour dialysis treatments each week.  Fluids built up in her body until doctors restricted her to two teaspoons of ice per day.  She developed thrush, like a baby, and her veins collapsed like an octogenarian.  Her hair broke off like straw.  She couldn’t talk and began hallucinating.

My father almost never left her side.  The nurses told her later they had never seen such devotion.

At the six week mark, my mother turned a corner.  Body functions started to return.  New fingernails started to grow under the old, cracked ones.  She couldn’t stop drinking fluids.  They brought her cottage cheese and Jell-O, which tasted better than anything she could imagine.

Her muscles had atrophied, so she had to learn to walk all over again.  The drugs had scorched the cilia in her ear, and she never fully recovered her balance.  From the blood transfusions, she contracted hepatitis and spent the next six months in bed.  At five-feet, seven-inches tall, she weighed 107 pounds when she came home.

The doctors never did determine how she became infected.  The head of hematology dropped by to wish her well and say how happy he was that she would be going home.  He said he never believed she had a chance.  It was the first time she knew how close to death she had been.

Larry Johnson, who saved my mother’s life, died of a heart attack a few years later.  He was barely 50 years old.

My mother, she should be well, turns 88 next month and is sharper than ever.  She has lived to see her 50th wedding anniversary, to enjoy her four grandchildren, and to attend the wedding of her oldest granddaughter.  She spends most of her time playing mah-jongg and bridge, and cursing the incompetence of Washington politicians.

She says that when her ordeal was over, she resolved to take more pleasure in life, to enjoy all the good and not let little things upset her.  She says that her resolution wore off almost instantaneously.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

As for me, my entire personality changed… or so I’m told.  It would be easy to mourn for the person I might have been, for the life I might have lived had I retained my youthful self-confidence, escaped the curse of hyper-self-consciousness, and remained emotionally unscarred.  But that little boy turned off onto a different fork in the road and disappeared from the world many years ago.

the-road-not-takenWho knows what might have been?  My mother once told me that everyone has to pay dues, and that if we pay them early we may not have to pay them later on.  Fate and fortune reveal themselves over time, not in the moment.  That’s why at least half of lottery winners eventually say that riches ruined their lives — which doesn’t stop the rest of us from buying tickets.

When there are no cattle, says King Solomon, the manger remains clean; but much harvesting lies in the strength of an ox.

Navy SEALS only become Navy SEALS by going through pain.  The pain of childbirth is what brings us all into the world.  People who overcome obstacles often recognize that early challenges prepared them for later success.  And we all know how pointless it is to cry over spilled milk.

But that knowledge rarely guides our reactions.  When we miss a red light, instead of cursing our luck shouldn’t we be grateful for the traffic system that keeps us safe?  When an amber alert interrupts the movie we’re watching, instead of cursing the network shouldn’t we offer up a prayer for the missing child? When our favorite mug slips from our fingers and spews coffee and ceramic shards across the kitchen floor, instead of cursing our own clumsiness shouldn’t we be thankful that we didn’t stain the carpet, and that we have another mug in the cupboard?

Isn’t it mortifying to contemplate how many trivial inconveniences we equate with the end of the world, which are so often symptoms of our prosperity?

But what if it’s something bigger, like a tree crashing through the roof or a truck broadsiding our car?  Still, shouldn’t we praise the guiding hand of Fate that allowed us to escape with only a few scrapes and bruises?  Isn’t it proper to acknowledge that a cut finger isn’t a broken finger, that a broken finger isn’t a broken back, that a broken back isn’t the end of a life, that the end of life is something we will all have to face sooner or later?

Indeed, even if we feel that the past has dealt with us unfairly, if we’re happy with who we are now, would we dare risk changing a single detail of the history that brought us here?  One tiny change or one minor revision could so easily transform the flapping of a butterfly’s wings into a tempest that whisks us away to an alternative existence much different from our own, and perhaps much worse.

And what if we’re not happy with who and where we are?  It doesn’t matter, since we still cannot change the past.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t change the future by taking charge of the present.  After all, one heroic doctor wouldn’t accept the conventional wisdom of his peers, rejected the consensus of the experts, refused to stand by and let a woman die.  Instead, he saved a life and changed the world.

To whom could I feel gratitude if I could change the past so that none of it had ever happened?

As unimaginable as it might once have seemed, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.  And looking forward, who knows what changes the future may bring.

Published in this month’s issue of the Wagon Magazine.

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