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“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed forever.” – 1 Corinthians 15:51-52
We were not meant to die. We were meant to live. We were meant to live forever. That may sound absurd to many, given that we all do, in fact, die. But as a Christian I believe death is an intruder. I believe it is the wage of sin (Rom 6:23) and an effect of living in a broken, fallen world. (Gen 2:17, Rom 5:12) I don’t believe this is a blind faith either. As a pastor I spend time with many grieving people, and one prevailing emotion they all seem to share is that the death of a loved one feels wrong—like it’s not supposed to be this way. I believe they’re right and I believe the way our bodies fight to heal themselves when they’ve experienced something traumatic supports this idea that we were not meant to die, but to live.
A few weeks ago I had open-heart surgery. Something happened to me while I was on the operating table that has me thinking about how we were meant to live and not die. No, I didn’t talk to an angel or spend five minutes in heaven or have a prophetic vision. I had a stroke—a small one known in the medical world as a reversible ischemic neurologic deficit, or RIND for short.
RIND’s last from 24 to 72 hours before the symptoms, which include paralysis, mental confusion, and slurred speech, begin to resolve. Once the symptoms do resolve, there are rarely any lingering side effects.
RIND’s are caused by a disruption of blood flow to the brain. Blood wants to clot when it comes into contact with anything outside the body. Since my surgery required that I be hooked up to a heart and lung machine, my doctors put me on a blood thinner before starting the procedure in order to keep my blood from clotting when it passed through the pump’s plastic tubing. Usually the blood thinners do their job, but the body’s design to protect and heal itself means that sometimes even a blood thinner can’t stop a tiny clot or two from forming when human blood comes into contact with a man-made material. Most likely this is what happened to me. A tiny clot formed when it hit that tubing and then traveled up into my brain where it got stuck and shut a few things down.
Coming out of the fog of sedation is very disorientating. I remember opening my eyes and seeing my wife and my parents a few hours after surgery. A nurse asked a bevy of questions to determine my lucidity. Did I know where I was? Did I know why I was there? I answered her as best as I could before drifting off again.
A couple of hours later I woke, this time much more aware of my surroundings. The nurse asked how I felt.
“I can’t feel my left foot,” I told her.
She asked, “What do you mean? Like it’s asleep?”
I said, “No. I can’t feel it at all.”
She asked me to wiggle my toes. I couldn’t. Not even a little. It wasn’t just numb. My left foot was hanging limp off to the side like it didn’t even belong to my body.
This presented me with a greater issue than just a lame foot. Without that foot I wouldn’t be able to begin the slow process of rehabilitation in the way they wanted me to. One of the early steps in recovering from heart surgery is to get back on your feet as soon as possible. I couldn’t do this without my legs.
Not only was I unable to walk, I was unable to stand up on my own. Since my sternum was now a broken bone held together by titanium wires, I wasn’t able to use my upper body to push up out of a chair, which is how most of us perform that task without a second thought. I needed my legs to do all the work and I didn’t have them. It took three nurses to lift me out of bed for the first time, and two to hold me up as I tried to walk the five feet between my bed and the chair.
Though I was in the care of amazing doctors and nurses in one of the best hospitals in the world (for which I am nothing but grateful to God and all involved) anyone coming out of open-heart surgery is, by definition, a mess. Add a little stroke to the mix, and when I woke from surgery I was even more messed up than I might have been otherwise. At the risk of sounding like I’m piling on, for the sake of the point of this article permit me to mention a few more complications and symptoms I experienced during this process.
I experienced a loss of basic motor skills. The day after surgery, I tried to reach for a cup of water sitting on a table to my right. I needed it to wash down a small handful of pills. It was easily within reach and both of my arms worked just fine. But in that moment, as much as my brain was trying to tell my arm to reach for the cup and pick it up, my arm would not obey. It was as though my arm and brain were no longer communicating to each other when it came to the matter of picking up that cup. I could do many other things with my arm just fine. I just couldn’t reach for that cup.
I also experienced a loss of speech faculties. During the first couple of days when someone would ask me a simple question, I couldn’t always speak the answer I was thinking. When I meant yes, I’d say no. When I wanted to say I was thirsty, I’d say I wasn’t. Some of these symptoms were due to the RIND and some to the sedation and medications in my system. And some, no doubt, were simply by-products of the trauma of open-heart surgery. But this was the picture of my reality for the first couple of days after surgery.
How did my body respond to all of this?
It fought with abandon. It fought like it was meant to live.
Within a matter of hours after discovering my paralysis, I was able to wiggle the toes on my left foot. Within a day, I could move my ankle. Over the course of three days, I went from being unable to sit up on my own to walking the hospital halls with a walker and a special boot. On the fourth day I ditched the walker. On day five, I got rid of the boot.
My arms soon fell in line and began to obey my brain’s commands. My answers to peoples’ questions starting representing what I was actually thinking. The five-inch scar down the middle of my chest began to heal and the soreness in my throat from the breathing tube went away.
Are you impressed? Do you imagine the hospital staff gathered at the foot of my bed in awe of my progress? While they certainly were pleased, they were far from calling me a miracle. Why? Because my recovery was progressing precisely as they had expected. They’d seen guys like me bounce back like this a hundred times over. They even told me before going under the knife what the first five days would hold for my recovery, and as it happened they were spot on. They said I would get exponentially better with each passing day. And guess what. I did.
How did they know this would happen? They knew because this is what a body does when it goes through a traumatic ordeal. The first thing it does is fight to put itself back together as quickly as possible, opposing anything that might stand in its way. The walls of my heart have begun covering my internal stitches with scar tissue to strengthen what the surgeon’s scalpel had weakened. My body has applied the nutrients from the food I’ve eaten to calcify the break in my sternum, leaving it stronger than before. My brain recognized the clot and immediately began to dissolve it.
Even my pain has played a role. Pain is the body’s way of enlisting our cooperation in the healing process. Had my natural curiosity led me to want to touch my scar, I could have infected it easily. But it hurt to touch, so I didn’t. Even now, it hurts when I try to use my upper body to push myself up out of a chair. That’s because my sternum is still fusing together and doesn’t want me undoing what it’s done so far. Out of habit I just use my legs now. (Happily, my left leg has fully recovered.)
Over the course of these past few weeks I have been living in a body at war with itself, and in my case my body seems to be winning the fight to heal.
Sadly not everyone wins this fight in the flesh, like my friend Alice. That’s part of the brokenness of our condition. Death comes for us all. Still, even the weakest among us fight against death in a host of ways. With every attempt to eat, they fight to supply their body with strength. With every fever they fight against disease and infection. With every sensation of pain, they push against the darkness closing in and feel the battle raging in their flesh and bone.
For every person I’ve ever known who has died, they died fighting death. And this, I believe, is because we were meant to live.
C.S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Even though I know that everyone dies in the flesh at some point, nothing about that seems right to me. Nothing. The longing in me, and I’d wager in you too, is that we would not die, but that we would live—forever. This world, as it stands, cannot satisfy that longing. All it can do is sound the distant echo of another world—one where, though I die, yet shall I live—and that by faith in the Son of God.
We were meant for this.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).