Monday, September 21, 2015

All Saints; one "none"

Godless at the hospital.
At All Saints Healthcare, five days before my awakening. Sill godless.
In my hospital records, my religion is listed as atheism. Leaving aside that fact that atheism isn't a religion, you would think that would've hung a big No Solicitations sign over my bed to clergy on their ministering rounds. But the day I awoke from my coma, I was visited by the nursing home's resident priest. He sat down beside me and asked me if he could hold my hand. I nodded, though I've always felt uncomfortable with physical contact with complete strangers, even when I didn't have dermatomyositis sore-covered hands wrapped in bandages. At least I wasn't an altar boy. Sorry, I had to make a crack. Now you know why I've always been afraid of saying the wrong thing around the religious.

As he gently took my hand in his, he said, "God is good." Oy! I fixed my eyes on him to prevent them from rolling. (He was the first of countless others who have called my recovery a miracle. I've probably the only atheist who has strengthened the faith of more believers than Richard Dawkins.)

"Do you remember me?" he continued. I didn't, but I nodded anyway, trying to be accommodating. I felt awkward around him. My tracheostomy tube prevented me from speaking, so at least there was no danger that I would accidentally blurt out something offensive. For that reason, among many others (hello...atheist!), I've always demurred when a hospital chaplain asked if I wanted to speak with them. This time, I couldn't just say no.

He smiled at me. "Have you thanked God for your life?" I was literally speechless. "No!" I wanted to say, but all I could do was vigorously shake my head. He looked as if I had slapped him in the face. What was I supposed to say? "Thanks, God, for saving my life after you almost killed me. Oh, that's right, I don't believe in you, anyway." He soon took his leave of this ungrateful atheist, but not before asking me if he could pray for me. As I've said of my friends' prayers (which I didn't yet know about), prayers are more for the prayer, so I nodded. It seemed harmless enough, and I still trying to remain polite.

I wanted to squirm, but I was so weak could barely move. It felt like he was praying at me, not for me. I didn't know why I was being subjected to this visit, and I couldn't wait for it to end. Certainly, my Jewish-atheist mother, who had been there for my awakening, hadn't asked for him. As I eventually learned, the nursing home where I had stayed for five days, after being transferred from the hospital, was called All Saints Healthcare for a reason. It's a Catholic nursing home. I guess No Saints Healthcare wasn't an option?

But this problem started in the secular Kaiser hospital where I spent the bulk of the six weeks of my coma. That story will be told in Wednesday's blog. You'll see why my attitude--at least when it didn't involve my friends' prayers--was closer Eric Wojciechowski's take in his essay, "Please Stop Praying for Me," which was paired with my essay, "Without a Prayer of a Chance," in the October/November issue of Free Inquiry.

Have you had a similar experience with hospital or nursing home clergy? Share your story in the comments section!

Click here for Part 2: Saving my life by saving my soul?

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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.