Monday, June 15, 2015

Miracle Girl


Now that my Skeptical Inquirer article, "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," has come out, I think it's a good time to address the issue of whether my recovery was a miracle or not.

If you're coming to this blog from the article, you probably come down on the same side of the question as I do.

After I awoke from my coma, I began posting responses to the well wishes of my friends on the dulcimer website, Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer. They had been lending Keith a great deal of kind support when it looked like I would almost certainly die. They continued to support me through my recovery. In one post, I jokingly called myself Miracle Girl because so many people had told me my recovery was a miracle. Many of my dulcimer friends were among them.

Knowing me, my friends undoubtedly knew that my Miracle Girl reference was sarcastic. And I did mention that I didn't believe in miracles. But I don't think they realized how thoroughly my skepticism colors my outlook, and how deeply ironic it was that so many people thought I had experienced an authentic miracle of God. You know, the kind they canonized saints over. I talk much more about this in my essay, "Without a Prayer of a Chance," which is tentatively scheduled for the October/November issue of Free Inquiry.

At any rate, while my recovery was indeed very unlikely--even my own doctors told my loved ones to give up hope--it's perfectly explicable medically, as I detailed in the SI article. Though I've had many nurses tell me my recovery was a miracle--including ones that treated me during the coma--I've never had a doctor tell me that. When doctors say there is only a one percent chance of survival, a few people are lucky enough to be in the one percent. I won the Golden Ticket. I remain amazed by my good fortune, however.

But didn't Kate Bainbridge deserve my special Golden Ticket, too? After all, I also drew the (eventual) Get out of Recovery Free card.Though she's very fortunate to have retained her mental capacities, as I did, she will never get the opportunity walk through beautiful gardens to further her recovery, something I've come to love. I'm sure she would even welcome the drudgery of riding an exercise bike six days a week. Kate cannot speak; I only lost that ability for a matter of months. She lost her fiance when she was still in a vegetative state, while my boyfriend has been my invaluable partner during my recovery. Her "miracle" sadly came with many caveats.

But faith isn't about evidence, and I personally don't have a problem with people having their faith strengthened by my recovery, especially the sincere people of faith who were praying for me. I imagine many atheists wouldn't feel that way. As I say in my most recent essay for the humanist market, "Sympathy for the Devil-Believers," to my believer friends, praying for me was the most meaningful form of support they could offer for me.

For non-believers, my survival holds a different lesson. I've emerged from the coma and my recovery a stronger and better person. I remain someone with many personal flaws, but I'm dealing with them better than I ever have. A big part of that is my severe case of ADHD. But I now realize that my ADHD is only an explanation, not an excuse. I'm exercising regularly and plan to keep it up after my recovery is over. I'm writing far more than I did before the coma. More importantly, I've finally taken charge of my life.

The lesson for non-believers is you can turn your life around, without God and without a brush with death (though that's what it took for me). Hopefully, most people won't require such a terrible slap upside their heads. You believe that you only have one life to live, so live it that way!

Just as my body healed itself, my true miracle came from within.
The self-affirming message reads, "I am strong and beautiful." Hey, I didn't write it--but I am strong, at least. The photo was taken on one of our rehab walks.

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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In July of 2013, I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died. When I awoke from the coma, I could barely lift my head. It has been a hard road to recovery. The doctors advised my loved ones to give up all hope for my full recovery, but while they were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of consciousness, I was telling them grumpily to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep...in my coma-dream. I was experiencing covert cognition, and the coma-dream was my version of a near-death experience. I'm a skeptic, so I saw surreal images instead of spirits or dead loved ones. According to my research, as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders have covert cognition.

Not a miracle recovery, but a miracle of modern medicine

In 2013 I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died after I contracted legionella. The Legionnaire's disease was in turn triggered by immunosuppression caused by the prednisone I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis.

I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain when the sepsis caused my blood pressure to plummet. I fell into a deep coma. My kidneys and lungs began to fail, as my body was began dying one organ at a time. My doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. They expected me to die, and even if I somehow lived, I would remain a vegetable or at best left so hopelessly brain-damaged that I would never be same. But unbeknownst to them, while they were shining lights in my eyes and shaking their heads, I was telling them in my coma-dream--my secular version of a near-death experience--to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep. I was experiencing what is known as covert cognition, the subject of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," which appeared in their July/August issue.

But it wasn't a miracle--despite what so many continue to believe--that I recovered so fully. I owe my life not to God, but the miracles of modern medicine, as well as the nature of the watershed-area brain damage I suffered, as I detailed in my article and in this blog.