Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Breathtaking Necktie

I love the Christmas season for many reasons.  One thing I enjoy is going to church and seeing the astonishing array of holiday neckties worn by the men and boys.  I have always been intrigued by neckties—who invented them, why do we wear them, and what purpose do they serve?  I used to have quite a collection myself that I enjoyed wearing, but many years ago I traded them all in for just one “breathtaking necktie” that I wear daily. It became a permanent part of my attire following my body surfing accident.

This breathtaking necktie connects me to my mechanical ventilator which pumps 12 breaths of air into my lungs per minute. I love every one of them.  Without this necktie that connects me to my life support system I would not be here.

Over the past years since my accident, my life support has failed me several times.  All but one of those times, Jo Anne has been able to bring me back from a state of unconsciousness without getting the medical world involved by using the “trusty Ambu bag” on me.  By squeezing it, she pumps life saving oxygen into my lungs. She does this over and over again until I come back from the dead (so it seems) and reconnects me to a back up ventilator or has managed to get the one I was on working again.

 The one time Jo Anne could not revive me, I was in a coma for eight hours requiring the assistance of police, paramedics, and hard-working ER/ICU professionals, accompanied by much prayer. I have no recollection of what happened before I went into the coma. When I finally awoke in the hospital the last thing I could recall doing was eating a hot dog at Costco. Was it the Costco hotdog that almost "done me in?" Although I don't seem to enjoy them as nearly as much as I used to, Costco will be relieved to know it wasn't a tainted hotdog that nearly killed me, but a malfunction of my life support system.

It is a humbling experience to absolutely know—not in theory, but in actual fact—that if you are disconnected from your life support that death will quickly follow within a few short minutes. I am no medical doctor and have not researched the subject, but I would imagine that most people die because they quit breathing. Let me share with you another episode that I remember in vivid detail.

One evening, a few years ago, Jo Anne and I went out to dinner with our good friends.  We went to a Mexican restaurant where the food is usually pretty good.  My taquitos this night, however, were buried in some kind of red sauce which made them soggy and mushy and hard for me to get down.  It turned out not to be my favorite dinner, but the company was enjoyable and salvaged the evening.

We got home about 8:30 p.m. and Jo Anne set me up on the TV in my bedroom to watch the Dodgers/Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game which was in about the sixth inning.  The score was tied at two runs each and a warm feeling began to swell within me that perhaps this evening the Dodgers would not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as they so typically do.  I had watched but a short time when the Arizona Diamondbacks began to hit everything the Dodger pitchers were "throwing up" to the plate.  Before I knew it, the score was five to two in favor of the Diamondbacks with two men on base.  At that very moment I heard a very loud screeching noise, like a high-pitched siren, and my ventilator went completely dead. 

In the many years I had been on a ventilator, I had never heard that noise before, nor had my ventilator ever just quit working without any warning.  I, of course, panicked when I realized I wasn't breathing, but then tried to be very positive in my mind thinking that Jo Anne would rush into the room any second, discover the problem, and get me breathing once again.  I waited but she didn't come -- and she didn't come -- and she didn't come!  I then entered into a state of resignation knowing that she was not coming and that I would soon be entering the spirit world. 

The sad thing about the entire experience is that as I began to enter the twilight zone -- half alive and half dead -- I was still watching the baseball game.  Just as I was slipping into unconsciousness, an Arizona Diamondback hit a three-run home run over the deepest part of centerfield off of Joe Biemel, a journeyman left-handed relief pitcher that nobody but the Dodgers wanted.  In the foggy recesses of my mind came the voice of Vince Scully saying, "And now the score is eight to two in favor of the Diamondbacks."  What a way to go into the spirit world I thought; a bad Mexican dinner in my stomach and the Dodgers being hammered by the hated Diamondbacks. 

The next thing I remember, Jo Anne was standing over me weeping and hollering at me while trying to get me to come back.  All I knew is that I needed more air and was saying as loud as I could, "Bag me!  Bag me!" Awakening out of my catatonic state, I did not realize she was doing just that with the Ambu bag with all of her heart while trying to dial 911 at the same time.  The more she bagged, the more the life came back to me, and she was soon able to move my wheelchair over to the bedside where she hooked me up to my backup ventilator that I use at night.  How long I had been out I have no idea, but I so easily could have slipped into the spirit world and it would not have been a painful experience except for the memory of a bad Mexican dinner and the Dodgers/Diamondbacks game.

I know of no more humbling thing than not being able to breathe.  When you can't breathe, nothing else matters at all!

Recently I was visiting a good friend of mine who has been in the hospital and on life support for a few months due to an accident.  As we were visiting, his respiratory therapist came in the room and saw me.  He was amazed when he learned I had been ventilator dependent for 20 years.  He told me that for many years he had worked with a number of young men on life support and that most of them had not lived more than a” couple of years.  He was astonished at my quality of life.  Talking to this respirator therapist and his reaction to me, made me realize how fortunate I am to still be here.

 I have often referred to my situation as “living on the edge.” Each time I have a “brush with death,” I consider it another incredible wake-up call.  With every encounter I have reinforced into my mind and heart how precious the gift of life is and how quickly it can be taken from us.  For me comes renewed motivation to live each day as though it were my last.  I also notice that Jo Anne treats me a little better – at least for a while. 

There are times I have felt and been tempted to just vegetate and take it easy.  After all, who could blame a poor paralyzed man on life support for doing that?  Thankfully, I have realized that coasting requires little effort and is usually down hill. I have come to understand that dying is easy—it is the living that is hard and demanding.  Also feelings of gratitude have welled up in my heart for the love I have felt from God, and my family and friends.  Family and friends have said things to me that are usually reserved for one’s funeral service.  I am grateful to have heard them while still alive though, because I do believe it is better to be seen and spoken to than to be “viewed” and talked about.

My rather unique situation has helped me to understand and appreciate the truthfulness of what Jesus taught his apostles just before going into the Garden of Gethsemane that night of nights as recorded by John. "I AM the true vine...Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me... I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing."  [John 15: 1-5, emphasis added]

I believe John recorded very accurately what the Lord said to the apostles on that occasion.  Jesus didn't just say he was "the vine", but that he was the "true vine."  The implication is that there are other vines we can attach ourselves to -- false philosophies, precepts, organizations and etc. -- but unless we attach ourselves to the "true vine" we will not be able to bring forth "much fruit."  As the Savior said "... the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine."  Unless we are attached to our spiritual life support -- Christ -- we can do nothing!"

I am convinced that in a spiritual sense we are as dependent on Christ each minute and hour of the day for our spiritual life support as I am totally dependent upon my electrical and mechanical life support system to keep me alive physically. I know with a sure knowledge that if I detach myself from the "true vine" that unhappiness, depression, and despair will surely follow.


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