In the valley of the shadow
My brush with death and how it transformed my life
I lay on a gurney, on my back, in the emergency room. There was a nurse on each side of me, an IV line in my arm, and an oxygen mask on my face. Now and then a doctor would come by, check my vital signs, and frown with disappointment. Anna, my wife, sat next to me, teary eyed. In a broken voice she told anyone and everyone, “He’s a father. We have two young boys who need him.”
Just hours earlier I had been fine, a healthy 31-year-old who rode his bike every day, ate well and had mostly good habits except for the occasional cigarette. Now my lungs were full of fluid, I was gasping for air, my blood pressure had crashed, and my blood was low on oxygen.
I asked a nurse whether I was going to be OK. She looked at me sympathetically and said, “You’re very sick, honey. You have sepsis. We’re doing everything we can for you.”
She turned to another nurse and asked her to insert a second IV line in one of my arms and to use the large-gauge needle. She said I had nice veins and the needle should go in easily.
Fluid rattled in my lungs. I coughed up a bolus of sputum and spat it into a tray. It made a disturbingly large puddle of pink, frothy, toxic sludge.
“Is that blood?” Anna asked in a whimper. “Are you coughing up blood?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, trying to ease our nerves. But of course it was blood. The nurse said it was common with pneumonia patients and that I should cough and spit up as much as possible. So I coughed, violently, like a dying man.
Just a day before I’d been living on Happy Street. It was a beautiful spring day, and my life was good on all levels. At home that evening I wrestled with my boys. Coleman, who’s 4, threw some decent karate kicks, and Sawyer, who’d just turned 3, charged me with punches and a wide-open smile. I flirted with my wife and whipped up a brown-rice stir-fry dish with a lot of ginger and garlic.
In the middle of the night Anna and I woke up for the same reason: I was shaking uncontrollably from the kind of chills that are the flip side of fever. Anna, visibly worried, dressed and went to the store to buy a thermometer. But the fever never climbed over 101.5, so I reasoned that my condition couldn’t be too serious.
Later, Anna told me that my shaking rocked the bed all night long, keeping her from sleep. At about 5:30 I surfaced from a deep unconsciousness under 10 pounds of blankets. I wasn’t shaking anymore, but my back felt like it had been struck with a sledgehammer. And I was thirstier than I’d ever been in my life, as if I hadn’t tasted water in a week.
I pulled myself to my feet and struggled to stay upright, my head swaying, and shuffled to the bathroom. I drained a small cup five times and still felt thirsty. That’s when I realized I had to get to a doctor.
We knew Immediate Care opened at 7, so we waited. The kids were up early, as always. I lay in bed in darkness, listening to them eat cereal in the infinite distance of the dawn.
At Immediate Care I was seen for about two minutes. The doctor’s eyes widened after she checked my vitals, and she stepped back a few paces. She said my blood pressure was extremely low and my heart rate was too fast. I was ordered to the Enloe Medical Center emergency room without hesitation.
At the hospital, I walked into the ER like someone trudging through a nuclear winter. My reflection in the tinted-glass doors was of a dead man walking, my skeleton covered with gray, rancid meat.
The triage nurse checked my vitals and put me in the front of the line, and within 10 minutes I was on my back on the gurney.
Lying there, I thought of the martyrs who were placed on red-hot iron chairs, tortured to death, because they wouldn’t proclaim that “Caesar is Lord.” I thought of Job, whom God allowed Satan to curse, just to prove that a faithful person won’t curse God even when life seems hopeless.
The nurses went to work, and I lay in submission to the will of God. I didn’t have a choice.
“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”
Father Yale asked me this question in front of the altar during Easter vigil at St. John’s Episcopal Church, just five days before I landed in the emergency room. This was my baptism, a crossroads, the end of one path and the beginning of another.
It had taken 12 years to get me there, a journey that started when I was 19 and a self-professed atheist but nevertheless had a powerful encounter with God in an apartment bathroom. Since then I had seen miracles and met ascetics who walk the Earth in exile among us. God had led me to Asia to learn about trust, and had led me to my wife to live in love. I had drawn close to God and strayed from Him for 12 years in a fight over control. But God finishes what is started, and my brokenness was revealed, repeatedly and with deepening sting, until I was ready to forfeit my visions for my life, abandon my ambition and become one of Christ’s disciples.
The faces in the church were illuminated only by the candles that we all carried. This was a holy day, the night before the dawn of resurrection. I thought of all the forces of spiritual wickedness that I had encountered. Over the years I’ve become painfully aware of my own rebellion, mourned over it, and now I was finally ready to renounce it.
“I renounce them,” I replied.
“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?”
I remembered a time, when I was 4 years old, when I came home from Sunday school with a manger set made of clothespins. I cherished the baby Jesus clothespin, and it sat like a holy relic on my dresser, pushing away the darkness in my room.
My family moved to Chico shortly thereafter, and I lived a happy life outside of church, but gradually my cynicism became rebellion and my pride turned into atheism. The first 12 years of my grappling with God were spent far away from churches of any kind.
I learned eventually that churches are not all the same, and that without a community of faith I slip and become consumed by the trappings of the world and of my own delusions.
I bowed my head over the bowl of holy water.
“Alec, I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The water cascaded over my hair and around my face and trickled down my nose.
Anna and I felt like we were brought home from the wilderness. I had finally responded to the call that had been constant inside of me for years. I was ready to play my role, to love others, to judge not and to die to myself, with God’s help.
I hadn’t been in the ICU for longer than a half-hour when I desperately needed to move my bowels. Problem was, every time I moved the oxygen alarms would sound, and sitting up was impossible. My body’s systems were out of my control.
The ICU nurse, a strong woman named Peggy who was a veteran of life-and-death situations, rolled me on my side and placed a bedpan under me.
“I know it’s unpleasant but this is where we are. We’ll just have to get through it together.” She was showing me that we all lose our dignity sometimes. When she wiped me, I gazed out the sealed window at the windy spring day and thought, I’ll be here again someday; this is like a preview. There was peace in knowing that eventually all of us will end up having our asses wiped.
Anna came into the room to visit me and talk with the nurse. I had been in and out of consciousness for hours. The hiss of the oxygen drowned out a lot of background noise, and when Anna discussed my X-rays with the nurse, they were turned away looking at a computer screen. I strained to see the images and listen to their conversation.
“You see this here, that’s the fluid in his lungs.” I could see the milky fog on the image that she pointed to. I could see why it felt like I could use only a quarter of my lungs. “See what’s concerning here is that it’s a very fast-moving pneumonia that has spread since his X-ray this morning in the ER, which was only six hours ago.”
“That’s not normal? Why is that happening?” Anna looked exhausted; I just wanted to rest her head on my shoulder like always.
The nurse explained that it wasn’t normal for pneumonia to spread so fast after the introduction of antibiotics. She explained that she didn’t know what had happened to me and that I had probably contracted a really nasty bug. She told Anna that I was young and healthy, so my body had a lot of fight in it and they would watch me around the clock. This is when I asked the most ridiculous question I’ve ever asked.
“Should I be concerned?” The question was muffled through my oxygen mask, but my fear was almost palpable. Anna and Peggy looked at me with sympathy.
“Any time you end up in the ICU you should be concerned,” Peggy replied. She understood that I was asking whether I would live, and I understood that she had confirmed that I could die.
I was septic. The bacterium that had invaded my lungs had spread to my bloodstream overnight, infecting my entire body. After the bacterium spreads to the blood, it begins to infect internal organs, and they shut down. I learned later that half of sepsis patients die.
The nurse braced Anna and then told her that if I got any worse they would put me under, shove a tube down my lungs and ventilate me. She didn’t say it that bluntly, but that’s what I heard. What if, drugged, I slipped away in the middle of the night? I couldn’t imagine a worse death.
Anna sat down and leaned into me until our noses almost touched. Her eyes were flooded with fear. “You have to get through this,” she said, commanding me to get well.
I nodded to her. “I will. I’ll be OK.” I don’t know if I believed it.
When Anna left, I turned to the nurse. “What do I have to do to avoid the ventilator?”
“You have to oxygenate better.”
So I closed my eyes, focused on stillness and entered a desperate meditation on breath. Nothing else mattered at that moment but to breathe through the pain of my fluid-filled lungs so I could see my boys again. I breathed for them and then drifted into a type of sleep.
There was no pain. There was the warmth and vastness of spirit. My soul drifted, tethered to my body by a little broken root, like a 6-year-old’s loose tooth. The God of Love watched over me through the walls, through the nurses, through my wife and even through the bacterium that was trying to kill me. I was just a small part of his dance, like a falling autumn leaf on The Esplanade.
I opened my eyes and saw Anna sitting next to me. “Hi,” She said, “I love you,” and my eyelids crashed. There was no fighting it, and I drifted away again.
I woke up alone, sensing movement behind the privacy curtain at the door. Through it burst Peggy, the ICU nurse.
She placed her hand on my leg and gave my knee a squeeze. “Hi Alec. You’re going to be OK. I’m going to take good care of you.” The spiritual light of being near death had left me extremely sensitive, and she was a powerfully positive force. She walked with the graceful confidence of someone who is in total harmony with her life’s purpose. Peggy was on the case, and with her there I felt like maybe I could rise again.
My dad, who had hung out with me for hours, came into my room. I was still only half conscious.
“Hey Al, there’s a man of the cloth here. Do you want to see him?” I nodded, and a few moments later a priest walked into the room. Apparently Father Yale was in Washington, D.C., on vacation, so they had sent me someone else.
The father held my hand and put his other hand on my forehead. He prayed that I be restored. Angels were summoned. He read the 23rd Psalm, one of the most beautiful songs ever written. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul… The scripture was so relevant to me that I felt like I lived inside of it. I slept hard and had vivid dreams.
In one dream I was frantically searching for my wife and two boys in a city that was all but abandoned. I sped through charred destruction in an old car until I slammed the brakes at a road blocked by what looked like enormous metal sea urchins. I abandoned the car and ran through the streets and through charred buildings. I sped up rooftops, through broken windows and twisted hallways. I came to a large hall with a door at the other end. The floor of the large hall was covered with writhing naked figures, the only people left in the world, like an image of the damned from Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. I ran through the sea of flesh like it was fire and burst through the door into an empty room where my wife was tucked under a knit blanket with the sleeping boys. The room was covered in ash, and the blanket was the kind my grandma made for the recliner, too small for snuggling under but full of the smells of Grandma’s house. My wife had made do with the tiny blanket on the dirty floor. She was an icon of sainthood: a life given to the service of others in a world destroyed by the worship of flesh, selfishness and nihilism. I stood in awe of her beauty.
After I’d rested for two days, I opened my eyes. I could see clearly; the walls seemed more solid, and I was heavier in my bed. I felt hunger pangs. My neck was sore, and I had to go to the bathroom. I had an unbearable headache, my lungs screamed at every breath, and my armpits stank. I was back in my body, and all of its signals were with me again.
My first bite of food was a bit of orange-flavored hospital gelatin. When I sipped from a cup of apple juice, the nutrition seemed to break waves of energy from my stomach to my toes and fingertips. That’s when I knew my body would restore itself.
I graduated from the oxygen mask to a little nose tube. I was thrilled to have my face back. When Anna came to visit that morning, she squealed and told me how good I looked, “looking good” being relative at this point. She gave me a sponge bath with hospital towels as I sat in a chair for the first time in days. It was a great act of love. The beauty of our marriage sanitized me as Anna washed my withered body clean with soapy water, aided by rays of sunlight that beamed through the window. I flopped back in bed in bliss that I would rejoin the land of the living.
A day and a half later I was released. When Anna picked me up, I walked out of the hospital very slowly but on my own. My breath was short, my legs unsure and my arms bruised from IVs. I was 15 pounds lighter than when I went in four days earlier.
Anna and I walked out of Enloe together and into the sights and sounds of Chico. The smells of spring brought the memories of 10,000 bike rides and the hope of bike rides to come. Sunlight embraced my face, and the trees swayed in the wind like a legion of angels. Creation danced. I wept for the beauty of it all.
When I walked into our house, I spotted my older boy across the kitchen, and I got on my knees to hug him. He was just old enough to have been scared about not seeing me again, and I could see the stress he was feeling. We held each other and I fought back tears. My younger boy said, “Hi Dad,” hugged me and then went back to playing with his toys.
That afternoon, I lay on my son’s bed with my head next to the open window. A spring breeze blew in, carrying smells of dirt and trees. The birds sang, and in the living room my children laughed and played. The sounds and smells of my home and back yard combined, and I closed my eyes in peace.
In the evening, Anna fed me delicious food and brought me glasses of ice water. I summoned her over to me on the couch, and she straddled my lap to bury her face on my neck. Her curls tickled my face. She too had lost weight from the ordeal, and I could feel her ribs through her shirt. We remembered how in love we were, one flesh indeed. There were tears and sighs of relief.
Now when I do pushups on the floor I push hard to do more every day in a sort of celebration. Anna and I work out together daily, and our time together now seems so short and precious. The idea of smoking a cigarette again is repulsive; the act seems so careless and arrogant, as I have been so many times in my life.
Thomas Merton said that peace can be found only in the deepening of the present, and the present has never felt more peaceful, now that I’m not getting in the way of it as much.
I entrusted my body to Enloe, and it was saved. The rest of me has been cleansed by fire and baptized by spirit.