Wednesday, September 9, 2015

For them, Heaven truly was for real

Not Heaven, but the view over the Alps as we flew back home from Sicily. The clouds eventually cleared.
I think I've given the impression in my most recent blogs that I'm obsessed with near-death experiences. But as a long-time atheist and skeptic, my interests are far wider. Indeed, my essay in the upcoming issue of Free Inquiry "Without a Prayer of a Chance" is about what believers think about my "miraculous" recovery...and my reaction to their reactions.

But that's not what this blog is about. I'm going to recount a tragic drama that occurred in a nearby bed in ICU. I wasn't conscious--covertly or otherwise--at this time, so I'm telling it secondhand based on Keith's memory.

In the bed lay a young girl who had also received a death sentence from her doctors. Her large extended family camped out beside her bed for extended periods, bringing snacks and pillows that they left in the corner of the waiting room for their return. I can't even begin to imagine the pain her family must've been in as the poor girl clung to life. We don't know her story, but it's apparent that they believed that her fight for life was at its end. The parents among my readers may already be weeping, and it brings a lump in my throat, as well. You might want to grab a box of Kleenex before I recount the short, wrenching conversation Keith overheard from the other side of the curtain.

One anguished relative said, "She's afraid to cross over." Another agreed, adding, "She was always afraid of the dark."

To me, this is as heartbreaking as it is illuminating. On the one hand, their faith was causing them distress because they truly believed that her fear of the dark was keeping her soul from "crossing over." [She was so young that she was still afraid of the dark--how heartbreaking is that?] But I think it was their deep faith that made them hope that she would get over her fear and reach the heavenly paradise they so fervently believed in. They of course wanted her to live, but since she wasn't going to, they wanted to take her hand, tell it's okay, and help lead her to her heavenly reward. They truly believed that she would be going to a better place.

I've mocked this idea countless times, but to them this must've been immensely comforting. Keith and my mother, however, had no such faith to fall back on. I think if her family had been nonbelievers, they would've been hoping against hope that she would defy the odds and live, much the way I did. Instead, they were praying that she would find the strength to leave this earthly veil.

Even though I think their faith was misguided, I can't help feeling glad that it gave them some comfort in this most unimaginably painful of times.

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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.