If you know me well then you know my wife had a cardiac arrest in 2013. It was a very close call followed by five weeks of rehab. I’ve written a book on the subject (Suffering: the heart of the matter) that will be ready in a few weeks. Keep an eye on this site for details.
History repeats itself, in a manner of speaking. We spent some time in the hospital again recently (in fact, most of this blog post was written beside her bed in the ER as she sleeps) and this experience has led, once again, to some self-reflection. This time I was pondered just how insulated we are from so much of reality as we go through our daily lives. We live in highly a sanitized bubble, well separated from the full human experience in all its ugliness.
Our first extended stay at Hotel Healthcare was a major eye-opener for me. I marveled at how much goes on in a hospital that we never know about in the “real world.” As we journeyed with Denise through the cardiac intensive care unit we were pleasantly surprised by her dramatic recovery, but the patient in the next room wasn’t so fortunate. We were able to witness how the First Nations culture processes the loss of a loved one, and we were there at her passing. Elsewhere in the hospital I saw so many people with so many ailments and afflictions that I would never normally see out in public.
We deal with these issues in the privacy of a medical care centre and by the time we go out into the “real world” we brush our hair, put clean socks on our feet and a smile on our face. If we have any lingering health issues outside the hospital we do our best to hide them. And if we cannot hide them, we become self-conscious about them. Embarrassed.
In the three years since Denise’s first visit to the ER (and the ensuing five weeks of rehab) we managed to get back to “normal” life. We almost sort of forgot about the whole thing. So when we found ourselves here again (under far more favourable circumstances this time) it feels like I have to relearn all those lessons over again.
Sobering, frightening, lessons.
And how quickly those lessons get learned when I have stare into my wife’s eyes as her heart instantly and unexpectedly jumps into the potentially fatal Ventricular Tachycardia (VT) rhythm and her face shows pure terror because she can feel it in her chest. Helpless, all I can do is hold her hand while her heart plays “chicken” with death. How much more helpless must she have felt! Helpless and far more terrified.
But that terror and that helplessness is not part of “normal life.” We fool ourselves into thinking that health and longevity are just par for the course because such horrors are kept from view. They take place in the seclusion of a hospital instead of interfering with the comfort we take for granted in our “normal life.”
Fortunately, that terror did not have the final word for Denise. Thank God for ICDs!
But my lessons extended beyond my wife’s situation. ER is busy tonight; two separate traumas have passed through the very same trauma bay – the very same bed – where ER doctors saved Denise’s life three years ago. Talk about bringing back bad memories. I didn’t deliberately snoop, but “protection of privacy,” though a noble ambition, is a bit of a joke in the closed quarters of a hospital ER. Both cases involved a lot of medical staff (never a good sign). One of the patients left behind a small pool of blood and a mess of used medical supplies on the floor. The other patient required chest compressions just as Denise did back in 2013. Again, my medical ignorance doesn’t prevent me from grasping the gravity of those situations; life in the balance. Reality, once again.
I’m told another patient, also in critical condition, is inbound. Reality just won’t hide tonight.
But the time will come when we go home again. Plans are in the works for longterm treatments which, if effective, will once again shelter us from reality. We can go back to our comfortable home, our comfortable life, where death and terror are held back by the impenetrable brick walls of the hospital. Please, keep it all confined there, don’t let it spill over into our backyard.
We can go back to our lives where meat just magically appears in the grocery store without us having to end an animal’s life. Somebody else hid that reality from us.
We can go back to our lives where the neighbours down the street, and our friends on Facebook with the smiley pictures, are not actually suffering under the weight of depression, considering suicide. Social media can be an even more impenetrable wall than the brick sides of a hospital.
We can go back to our lives where slavery is something confined to the history books, not something that impacts millions of people right now (I’m working my way through the book, The Locust Effect).
We can go back to our lives where the money we donate to charity always makes the world a better place instead of exacerbating poverty and institutional reliance (I read the book When Helping Hurts a while ago).
In short, the day will come when we can once again re-emerge from reality, and the full breadth of human experience, and confine ourselves to dipping our big toe in it from time to time as a short break from our fantasy world. And oh, how I crave that fantasy. How delighted I would be to never again see the look of death in my wife’s eyes as I sit by, helpless, watching her slip from consciousness.
Real reality sucks, which is why we (and yes, I include myself in this group) prefer to keep the full picture of reality hidden from view as we go about our daily lives. But there is a danger in avoidance. Many dangers, in fact. A significant part of my motivation for writing “Suffering: the heart of the matter” is related to one of my discoveries during Denise’s first stay at the hospital. Suffering sucks, but there is something about suffering that is glorious. Not in a good way, but in a noble way. Not because we enjoy the experience, but because through the experience we become more fully human. Or at least we can, if we let it.
My wife and I decided that we are not going to sugar-coat her medical challenges with our kids. Most kids will never go through the experience (three years ago) of visiting their mother in the hospital when she’s in a medically induced coma; tubes and wires coming from places on her body that you never realized tubes and wires could even go. Did we traumatize them? Are they scarred for life? Perhaps, but I can honestly say that these experiences have formed a backdrop for many life discussions and it guides their interactions with others. Through this experience they better understand what other people are going through during hard times and can respond appropriately. And I see a depth of character in them that even some adults I know are lacking; a depth that wouldn’t be possible without enduring such an experience.
And therein lies a challenge for all of us. Will we (me included!) continue to actively distance ourselves from the fullness of the human experience, warts and all, and limit ourselves to a clean, sanitized, Photoshopped, Facebooked, smiles-and-clean-socks version of existence? Will we avoid reality as it really is? In doing so we miss out on depth. We miss out on significance. We miss out on a picture of humanity that is both traumatizing on the one hand, and inspirational on the other hand. A profound existence instead of a comfortable existence. The highest of highs combined with the lowest of lows. They come together, unfortunately; a package deal.
Living in a protected bubble is such an easy default position to slip into. We must actively work to escape it. Will we put in the effort?
I’ll have more to say on that in Suffering: the heart of the matter, when it’s ready for publication. Stick around.