As I pulled hard on the buckthorn tree that was hung up in the branches of another tree, a pain suddenly went through my jaw as if it were being squeezed in a vice. Surprised by the intense pain, I released the tree and started walking toward the house when lightheadedness started coming over me. I made it into the house and flopped into my chair while calling to my wife Judy, “Something is wrong! I’m dizzy and my arms are tingling.”
Then the pain came.
The most intense pain I had ever experienced spread from my chest through my whole body, a searing, tearing pain that felt like my body was being torn apart.
I didn’t know if Judy heard me or saw me or responded, but I couldn’t call again. The pain was so intense that nothing else in my body would work. I curled up in pain and prayed aloud, “Jesus help me!” over and over. I didn’t care what the help would be; I just knew that I needed help. If this was my time to go to the Father, I needed Jesus with me to help and support me. If I was to stay here on earth, I needed help to bear the pain and to work through whatever was going to be needed for recovering. Whatever happened, I needed help and I was pleading for it.
Meanwhile, Judy had heard me and was responding with speed and clarity. My pleas to Jesus for help were coming through to her loud and clear. She called 911 and had an ambulance on the way as quickly as possible. Next, she called our children who all live nearby and let them know what happened. While she was still on the phone, the ambulance and one of our sons arrived at the house at almost the same time.
During this frantic time, Jesus helped me by letting me fade out of consciousness. The first thing I was aware of after pleading for help was the face of a stranger looking at me and apparently talking to me. Then I realized that Judy, my son and his wife were there and a police officer as well. The pain was gone and I was confused but I knew something bad had happened and the concern in the faces of everyone around me reinforced that idea.
The stranger was one of the EMT’s who had come to bring me to the hospital. On seeing that I was awake, he asked me if I could get up and step over to the gurney that they would use to transport me. With one of them holding each of my arms, I tried to stand up but my legs immediately buckled. So they moved the furniture around, got the gurney next to me and hoisted my limp body onto it.
Apparently I was drifting in and out of consciousness. I remember the EMT asking which hospital I wanted and suggesting that Fairview Southdale would be a good choice if I was having a heart attack. I assume I agreed since the next thing I remember is being taken from the ambulance to the emergency room at Southdale and seeing several of my family members already there.
I have no recollection of the emergency room or any of the activities there. The next thing I remember is lying in a bed in a regular hospital room with several of my family around the bed. Everyone was assuming that I had a heart attack and they were waiting for the results of the blood test for confirmation. Then a doctor came in and said the tests were negative. My symptoms all said heart attack but the blood tests showed there was no heart attack.
The doctor said they would keep me overnight for observation and that I would probably be going home in the morning. Father Wilson had come and given me the sacrament of the sick. It seemed that everything had settled down and the entire incident would soon be in the past. I ordered food for my dinner and the family decided to go out for something to eat and then return before going home for the night.
When Judy had called All Saints church to get one of the priests for me, that call alerted all of the prayer warriors to my situation. Just moments after her call I had dozens of people praying for me and the army grew as the news spread. All of the daily mass people, the Emmaus men, several mens and womens groups and all of my friends at All Saints as well as the Emmaus men from St John Neumann were praying for me. In just a day I had hundreds of people asking God to watch over me and care for me.
Now those prayers were being answered. My room was dark, too dark for the time of day, and there seemed to be a number of people there but I couldn’t identify anyone. There was a tray of hospital food on the stand next to my bed, untouched. As I lay there wondering where I was and what was happening a man clad in bright yellow, almost glowing, walked through all of the dark forms and came to the bedside.
“Hello, I am Adam.” He said to me as his only introduction. “I would like to listen to your heart if that’s all right.”
I don’t remember responding but I must have given him the ok. He was moving his stethoscope around on my chest, stopping several times to listen intently.
After a moment or two, he stopped, “I think you will be fine but I would like to get a CAT scan, just in case.”
I said that would be fine and a moment later there was a gurney next to my bed and a couple of people lifting me on to it. They wheeled me to the room where the scans are done and transferred me to the platform of the scanning machine. The platform moved into the tube and the machine began humming and clunking. I was slowly moved in and out of the tube twice.
When I came out the second time the room was filled with people. I was immediately moved onto a gurney and, almost running, they took me to an operating room. The room was already buzzing with activity as they prepared for an emergency surgery.
A face appeared next to me, completely surrounded with operating room protective covering. I could only see a small circle of a face with the eyes, nose and mouth visible. “I am Doctor Kelly. You need an operation that has high risk but must be done immediately. We have a highly skilled team here and I think it will go well for you but I must not minimize the risk. It is a serious and high risk procedure.”
I think she said more but I don’t remember what it was. I drifted off into unconsciousness as the anesthetic took effect. This was about six PM on a Saturday afternoon.
The surgery was in progress long into the night ending at about three AM Sunday. During this time, my family gathered in the hospital meditation room and prayed the chaplet of divine mercy with one of my grandsons leading the prayers. I later found out that more than ten people were there praying for me that night.
Sometime on Monday (as I was told later) I awoke slightly and briefly. I vaguely recall seeing Judy and others from my family standing at the end of the bed looking at me. As I was lying there, I had the most wonderful feeling of peace and joy. I had a vague memory, almost more of a feeling, of having been in a beautiful, peaceful and joyful place.
Tuesday I awoke enough to begin responding to the world around me and recovering from the surgery. I had survived an aortic dissection, something that kills four out of five people who have one before they can reach medical help.
I could have easily ignored the initial pain in my jaw since it only lasted a few seconds. In which case, I probably would not have made it into the house and Judy would have later found me dead in the yard. As it was, I only made ten or twelve steps into the house before I was completely debilitated by pain.
And then, Judy could have been away shopping or visiting with someone. When she returned, she wouldn’t have seen me unless she came into the living room. If that was some hours later, it would have been too late.
I could have been taken to Fairview Ridges which is the nearest hospital to my house. They would have had the same result of the blood tests for heart attack and would probably come to the same conclusion – keep me overnight for observation. But Doctor Adam would not be there to correctly diagnose my problem. Perhaps they could have had someone on staff who was able to diagnose it but then I would have needed a transfer to Southdale for treatment. The delay and the additional transporting would probably have been too much for me to survive.
Adam, that is Dr Adam May, should not have been there since he was substituting for another cardiologist. He was not a member of the hospital staff or the University of Minnesota Physicians group. He had very recently completed a training seminar on diagnosing aortic dissection. If he had not been there to correctly diagnose my condition, I would have been found dead in my hospital bed that night.
The surgeon, Dr. Kelly, should not have been there; she is the department head and happened to be on call that weekend. I should have had a less experienced and skilled surgeon, increasing the risk that I would not have survived the operation.
So, why did I suffer an aortic dissection and with all of the reasons why I should not have survived it, how is it possible that I am still alive?
God has a purpose for everything and my experience was a part of His plan. While I certainly don’t know God’s plans, I believe a person can sometimes understand His intent by prayerfully looking back at what has happened and trying to see the results. Some results may not be seen for a very long time but some become apparent quickly.
In my case, clearly it was not God’s will that I should die at that time; there is still some reason that He wants me to remain here for a while. But there was some reason why the event needed to occur at all.
One of the quickly visible results of this incident is that my faith in the effectiveness of prayer was greatly strengthened. I prayed for help from Jesus but I didn’t try to tell him what I wanted Him to do. Whatever God wanted is what I wanted but I knew I needed help to do it and I prayed for whatever help was needed.
When I prayed for that help, the pain ended almost immediately and it never came back! I had no pain as the ambulance bumped and jolted over the roads. There was no pain when I was moved to the emergency room or with any of the other moves that I had before surgery.
After the surgery, I had no pain. That was partly due to the amazing medical technology we have today but even the best technology does not completely eliminate pain. They had oxycodone ready for me but I declined it because I had no pain other than a slight ache in my back. I took the Tylenol they offered so I would be able to sleep but I declined even that after a couple of days because it was not needed; I simply had no need for pain treatment. I was not being the “macho man” and toughing it out to show the world I could take it. Truly I felt no pain even though my body had been shut down and my chest had been split open and the doctor cut away crucially important parts, attached an artificial pipe to my heart and wired my rib cage back together. I had Jesus to thank for that amazing blessing.
My amazingly fast recovery has also demonstrated the power of prayers. When the physical therapist came to the house to help me get moving, she saw what I was doing and told me to keep it up. She wouldn’t be coming back since I was already doing great. WIthin a month of the surgery I was nearly back to normal. I have to thank the army of prayer warriors for that blessing.
There is another result that I have not seen yet but I know is coming. During the time I was disconnected from the world under deep anesthesia, I was with God. I remember waking with a deep and long lasting feeling of spiritual consolation. Saint Ignatius described spiritual consolation as “some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord”. God gives us consolation because He loves us but also to draw us closer to Him and to strengthen us in our faith.
That wonderful feeling of peace and joy is still with me ten weeks after the surgery. That consolation had to come from God; peace and joy are usually not the result of medical emergencies and surgery. When I have received a consolation as strong as this, I can only assume that God has something important for me to do and is preparing me for the task.
I am ready Lord! Whatever it is that You want me to do, with Your help I will do it.