Before going to church two weeks ago, I raked my garden and swept my patio, feeling better than I had in weeks. Three hours later I was carried from my church pew in the arms of paramedics as they rushed me the hospital. Like a car with an intermittent problem, however, I was fine again when we reached the hospital. Contrary to rumor, I DID NOT lose consciousness and was NOT air lifted. All test results were normal. The doctors can’t explain what happened. Was I afflicted with one of the mysteries of the universe, or is this why physicians say they “practice medicine?”
Here’s what happened: Even though I’m no longer a pastor, I’m hard-wired for activity on Sunday mornings. Before church, I usually spend an hour writing or doing a project around the house. On this particular morning, I cleaned up leaves and branches that had fallen during recent storms, and pruned vines and herbs. As I did so, I reflected on that week’s being the 6th anniversary of my heart diagnosis and cheered that I’m not only alive but have a good life. I talked to myself and God about how wonderful all this is. It was glorious!
Still feeling great, I went to church, where the sermon spoke directly to what I was experiencing. It was as if a river overtopped a dam and rushed downstream in a torrent of powerful feelings. I began to feel heart palpitations and increasingly severe chest pains. Not at risk for heart attack, I didn’t worry about that possibility. I meditated to slow my pulse and relieve the pain. It didn’t work, but I didn’t want to disrupt a good sermon unless necessary. I just kept track of what my body was doing and tried to wait it out.
My body often does weird stuff that doctors can’t explain and I’ve learned not to worry about, but this was stranger than usual. When worship ended, the woman next to me asked if I were O.K. When I explained what was happening, she brought a nurse from elsewhere in the sanctuary. Eventually my body added cramps and nausea to its list of symptoms, followed by a sudden drop in blood pressure. The pastor called my husband who had just finished leading worship, himself.
I think of seemingly odd things at times of crisis:
- I worried about what type of floor the sanctuary has and asked for a wastebasket so I wouldn’t mess it up.
- As three strong, skilled EMTs smoothly carried me between two church pews to the stretcher in the center aisle, I wished I felt well enough to see how they managed. Awesome technique!
- Lying in the ambulance, I noted that Law and Order never shows an ambulance ceiling from the patient’s point of view. I wished I felt well enough to notice what the rest of the ambulance looks like.
- I decided I was less embarrassed by this ambulance ride than I’d been years ago when a ski patrol took me down a slope on a sled–this time no one could see who the person is for whom they have to get out of the way.
- When I pull my car over to let an ambulance pass, I always pray for the person in crisis and the EMTs. I hoped someone was doing that for us as we passed by.
- I remembered chocolate desserts I want to bake but whose calories I don’t want to eat. I decided to bake them for the EMTs and asked, through the oxygen mask, where these EMTs are based.
- And I thought about the fact that I think about odd things at times like this. Hmmm…it’s part of what makes me, me, I guess.
Later, feeling perfectly healthy, I stood for ages in front of my hospital window. Manicured palm trees, city lights and the silhouette of mountains against the evening stared back. After all my efforts to take care of myself, I was in the hospital and felt like a failure. What did I do wrong? What does my future hold if such a good day could go so downhill for reasons that no one can figure out? No matter how many times I asked the question, I had no answer…just a sense of failure.
According to the doctors, however, I really didn’t do anything wrong. Their best hunch is that my problems were medication-related, as all my tests were normal. Seemingly proper decisions merely came together in a suddenly dangerous way.
That’s both a relief and disconcerting. I’m relieved this didn’t happen because I “overdid it.” I’ve “overdone it” many times before without this result. The disconcerting part is that maybe my gardening, intense feelings, and response to scripture and sermon, combined with unexpected medication issues, tipped the scales into crisis. How do I deal with that: not take medication? not be active? not feel? not go to church? If I stayed home that morning, this may have happened anyway without anyone around to intervene. The doctors don’t know the answers, and neither do I.
At the end of it all, I say “thank you” to the church folk who took such good care of me; to the EMTs, medical staff and doctors; and to my husband who met me at the hospital and calmly stayed by my side all day. These people, the part of the sermon I remember, and my time in the garden are the good parts of that day.
The difficult parts are how vulnerable, powerless, mortal, and fragile I feel. I’m aware of the truth we all face about ourselves but don’t usually meet face-to-face: I don’t know what will happen next or what to do about it. If this problem was medication-related, the slow withdrawal I’ve begun should get me stable again. I’ll faithfully do my part and pay attention to what happens.
I feel like the torrent of water that knocked me over has subsided. I’m still standing in the river, though, unsteady on my feet, and trying to find solid ground on which to walk to shore. I’ll stand in the water a little longer until it settles enough for me partly to see my way forward. Patience and prayerful attention will show the way.
Learning: No matter what we do, sometimes stuff just happens. We’re not responsible for everything that happens, but we are responsible for how we respond to it.