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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Standing On the Edge: A Near Death Experience

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Through the latter part of April of 2003, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t feeling well. I was tired all the time and was experiencing some twinges of pain in my chest. Like so many others, I lived in a bubble of self-denial. I kept silent, even from my wife, Cheryl. The chest pains became even more acute, to the point where it was difficult to walk any distance at all.

I was working at Caterpillar, doing a job that regularly involved mixing chemicals. Two days after one such mix, I was struck by a really intense bout of pain, which essentially immobilized me. I finally had to acknowledge that something was very wrong. I was driven to Boone Hospital in Columbia, about 30 miles away.

At the Hospital, they did some tests, which turned up negative for chemical exposure. They gave me some steroids and sent me home. The next day, on my way to the company occupational health doctor, the short walk into his office from the parking lot left me collapsed in the waiting area, gasping that my lungs were on fire. I was taken back to the ER. This time, they contacted my regular Doctor, who ordered a CAT scan. The results revealed the presence of six blood clots in my left lung. I was immediately admitted.

After six very long days in the hospital, the medication broke up the clots and I was released We came home on a picture perfect spring afternoon. I remember sitting in a lawn chair in the back yard, while Cheryl puttered around caring for her flowers. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, the breeze soft and fragrant. I sat in the sun-dappled shadows of familiar trees feeling very lucky and thankful to be alive.

Over the next three weeks, however, the chest pain got worse. I suggested to the doctor that perhaps the pleura, the lining of the lung had become inflamed, but he wasn’t buying it. Growing more concerned, he scheduled me for a cardiac stress test.

I remember going into the lab and telling myself that the test results would be negative and everything would be all right. I had to take the test sitting down, because it was too painful to walk. Big mistake. That drug they give you to simulate the right kind of heart activity was absolutely the scariest thing that’s ever been put in my body. I felt like somebody had opened me up and poured in 10,000 fire ants. My entire body thrummed with a fight-or-flight urgency that flooded me with a mindless panic. My brain refused to function and all I wanted to do was jump out of the chair and run as far and as fast as I could. The test only lasted four minutes. It felt like four days.

I got the call about three days later. The cardiologist told me that the test had revealed two blocked arteries, and that I would require a heart catheterization. This sent chills of fear down my spine and for the several days, I peppered my poor wife with hundreds of anxious questions, most of which started with the words, “What if….”

I need to explain something here. I am absolutely the biggest wimp when it comes to pain. I was in fact less afraid of having a serious heart problem than I was of experiencing pain during the procedure. I requested a drug called Versed, which takes away memories of whatever you’re going through. As a result, the memory of the actual procedure is a jumble of disconnected images and sensations. I do remember the Doctor telling me about the two arteries that were almost completely blocked. He went in to inject the dye, but the artery was so badly clogged that the entrance of the dye into the blocked area caused my heart to go into an arrhythmia. I remember seeing the heart monitor begin to show a lot of zigzags. I called out that I was feeling light-headed, and then I faded out.

The Doctor had to shock me twice to get my heartbeat back into its proper rhythm. After taking a minute or so to get things calmed back down, he called Cheryl down to the Cath Lab. He told her what had happened and gave her the option of either taking me directly to surgery for a full-blown bypass operation or allowing him to go back and try to place the stents again. He told her that the risk of the latter choice was that if my heart stopped again, there was a chance that he wouldn’t be able to bring me back.

Cheryl already knew, having spent 25 years working in surgery, that cardiac bypasses have to be re-done about every ten years or so. I was only 48, so she was reluctant to take that drastic course of action. She chose the stents and, as she told me later, prayed as she had never prayed before that she had not made the wrong decision. Apparently, the Lord was listening. When the Doctor went back in, he was able to successfully place both stents.

Now this would have been a remarkable story in and of itself, but it was in that never-never land between this life and the next where the real miracle occurred.

We have all heard stories from people who have returned from the brink of death. The common thread of these testimonies involves descriptions of tunnels and white lights. Some say these visions are the result of the frantic activity of a brain desperately trying to stay alive. But others have come to believe that these visions are actually glimpses of that existence we have come to call “Heaven.” For me, it was an astounding and life-changing experience.

Once the sights of the Cath Lab had faded from view, I found myself standing on a balcony in a large, high-domed very ornate-looking room. It had the look of a set from Lord of the Rings. As far as I could tell, I was alone, for I couldn’t see anyone else around. Down on the floor I saw a tunnel leading in from the wall, ending about halfway across the room. Emanating from the entrance to the tunnel was the glow of a beautiful white light. An instant later, I was on the floor standing at the entrance to the tunnel. Standing there, bathed in that white light I experienced an epiphany. I realized that what I was seeing wasn’t a light at all. It was instead the physical manifestation of the love of God, a love so pure and so powerful that it was actually visible.

A few years ago, I was at the wedding of a couple of friends from college. I remember that particular moment when the congregation rose and the bride began coming up the aisle. I looked at the groom and saw that his eyes had filled with tears at the sight of his lovely bride. The remarkable thing, and why I bring this experience up, was that the love that flowed up and down that aisle between those two was not merely an emotion; it was an actual physical presence, as if you could reach out and touch it. Standing at the entrance to that tunnel, I felt and saw the love of God as a physical presence, shining on me, enveloping me, inundating me. At that moment, I felt a sense of peace, tranquility, and joy beyond anything I thought possible to experience. It was a supreme moment of spiritual affirmation.

Central to the structure of my faith is the belief concerning eternal life. I have long believed that for a disciple of Jesus Christ, death does not exist; it has no power. Our mortal remains will cease to function at some point. However, that essence of life which is truly us, our soul, lives on forever. In that moment, I knew God had shown me that what I had come to believe was the truth.

I also believe that I was shown that this was the nature of Heaven. The insight that I was granted enabled me to realize that Heaven is not a place, per se, but a state of being where we are surrounded, penetrated, and inundated with the power and purity of God’s love.

I also realized that Hell was the antithesis of this. The scriptures define Hell in many ways, but most compellingly as a separation from God. I knew in that moment that separation from the light of His love leaves one in the darkness of isolation and separation, a state of lonely desolation beyond any possible comprehension.

Another sense manifested itself. I can relate it to the experience of having an appointment on Thursday afternoon, but showing up on Tuesday morning. I heard no voices that I could identify, but the feeling was strong that I was there too early. The common accounts of near-death experiences at that point indicate that people are given a choice of whether to go on into the light or go back. I was given no such choice. I knew that I had to go back, that my task whatever it was, remained unfinished.

An instant later, I opened my eyes to a room that had undergone a marked change in atmosphere. The crew, who had been laughing, happy, and jovial at the start of things, was laughing, happy, and jovial no longer. There was a tension in the air that puzzled me. Still under the effects of the Versed, it took awhile before my brain began to process the earthly reality. Later, after the events were explained, and I had a little time to process elements of my own experience, I began to understand.

I knew in my heart that I had been shown a great truth. But, despite that experience, I found that in the days that followed, I still had some things to discover.

When we stand in front of a minister or Justice of the Peace with the person we have chosen to share our lives with, we repeat the vows of marriage to each other. Throughout our lives together, Cheryl and I have certainly had good times and bad; we’ve had times when we were richer and poorer, and had sickness and health. But it was in that moment of seeing her smile and the light in her eyes as I was wheeled out of the elevator and in her tremendous efforts over the next few months that I really discovered what a wonderful, precious thing a marriage is. I can’t imagine having to go through a sequence of events like that alone. She has been an absolute rock.

I’m not an easy person to live with, even in the best of times. But despite the extra work entailed in taking care of me, and the extra work she had to put in at the hospital to make up for the loss of 40% of my income while on disability, she shouldered these extra burdens with stoicism, never allowing me to see how over-extended she was during this time. In my moments of self-pity, I would ask her why she did all this, why she would wear herself out over me. She would turn, gently smile, and whack me over the head and say, “Because you’re my husband, you numbskull.”

This experience has made our marriage much richer, our love infinitely deeper and sustaining. We now know how unpredictable life can be and consequently we make a much stronger effort to treasure and cherish the times we now have together.

In the weeks after these events, I encountered some things that really set me to thinking. A friend at work lost an uncle to a blood clot in the lung. Another friend lost his mother to a heart attack. I was depressed about these events because of the sorrow they caused in the lives of the families involved. But, I began to ask questions. The uncle had only one embolus. I had six. The mother had only one blocked artery. I had two. By any reasonable calculation, I should have died twice within a month. I had a hard time understanding why others could fall victim to things I had survived. My question to God was, “Why me? Why am I so special? Why did I deserve to go with this life when others could not?” I was also very worried. If I had been spared for something, it had to be something pretty big and probably very difficult. The source of my insecurity lay in this question: When that moment presented itself, would I be able to deliver? Or would God have wasted a perfectly good miracle on someone who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get the job done?

Many of us fear the idea of death, mainly because we’re a little afraid to trust our faith. Before this event, I had gradually begun to lose my fear of death because of what I had come to believe about the promise of eternal life. That day on the Cath Lab table finally closed the door on the last of that fear.

In losing my fear of death, I discovered I had also lost my fear of life.

The biggest fear about life that humans have, after all, is the fear of losing it. But once I had given myself completely to the belief in God’s gift of eternal life, I found that all those things I had been reluctant to do, all those activities I had been afraid to try, and all those choices I had avoided for all those years suddenly became doable. And that is really the secret, I think, to our time here.

We all have a work to do in this lifetime. Some of us know already what that work is, some of us don’t yet know. But when that moment of knowledge is upon us, we must not give in to the fear of life. And if we act upon our faith in the gift of eternal life, death will never hold the power of fear over us. Since death is the root of fear, fear is thus conquered as well. This was the supreme gift of knowledge I received.

For in that moment when I stood on the precipice of transition from this life to the next, I felt many things, but the one thing I NEVER felt was fear.
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