Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Saving my life by saving my soul?

A representation of the scene at the hospital, with some creative license.
Part two of my two-part blog detailing the uncomfortable situations I faced with nursing home and hospital chaplains. Part one: All Saints; one "none"

Though it was a fair characterization to place my Free Inquiry essay "Without a Prayer of a Chance" on the "it's okay" side of the prayer issue, I make a distinction between sincere prayers offered by my friends and ones imposed upon me by people who don't know me and for whom it's not personal. Case in point, the probably well-meaning, but nonetheless mendacious chaplain at the Kaiser Permanente hospital where I spent the bulk of the six weeks of my coma.

You would think he had never come across a nonbeliever before. My mother, who is also an atheist, informed the hospital chaplain of my atheism the first time he came into my room while she was there. Joella already knew him, so this wasn't his first visit. My mom allowed him to pray over me, however. Even though she was uncomfortable with it, she felt it was relatively harmless--as I thought after my awakening (as mentioned in part one). It was a generic sort of prayer, God's love and all that.

Keith was raised an Episcopalian, with a couple of priests in his family. He's an agnostic, but his interest in the history of religion led him to become a religious studies major. His second interaction with the chaplain was memorably fraught, fueled by Keith's lack of sleep in those terrible days early on when I was hovering near death. The cleric entered my room, but Keith tried to wave him away. "We talked about this before. Stephanie is an atheist, and you said you wouldn't bother her." "Sorry, I didn't know," the chaplain replied. Keith, who isn't generally a combative person, called him on it. "Isn't there something in the Bible about lying?" Unlike many believers, he's actually read the Bible. That's one of the reasons he's an agnostic.

Now, I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but Keith had written in my records that I was an atheist. And he had reminded the chaplain repeatedly of this fact. You would think he'd want to check that before ministering to a patient. You wouldn't want to pray to Jesus over a Jewish patient or speak of heaven to the family members of a dying Hindu, perhaps offering them a little beef jerky as a snack. My mother is not the type to mince words. She made my beliefs (and hers) perfectly clear. Was it too much to ask that our beliefs be respected? Perhaps he thought he was lying for the greater good. God knows.

He promised Keith that he would stop coming around, but that was a lie too. Unbeknownst to Keith, my mother encountered him two additional times. On the second visit, she repeated that I was an atheist. He said that Keith had told him that, as well (but he neglected to mention his promise not to return). He again asked if he could pray for me, and she agreed despite her reservations. "May you take the lord's light into your heart and be healed," he prayed. My mother was offended by the attempted conversion and the implication that I wouldn't be healed without it. He should've saved his breath. It would've taken the profound brain damage my doctors thought I had for me to believe. The third time he showed up while she was there, she refused his request to pray.

I had one last encounter with the minister, this time personally, after my awakening. I had returned to the hospital to repair a hemorrhaging ulcer caused by my feeding tube. The cleric asked if he could he could pray for me. I nodded reluctantly. But I quickly changed my mind, with a sharp shake of my head. Like the priest in the nursing home, he looked stunned. It was as if the previous encounters with Keith and my mom never happened. Yes, it was weeks later, but given the conflict with him and my relative youth, you would think my case would've stood out in his mind. Was he shocked that I hadn't taken God's light into my heart and was still healed?

To me, his prayer request felt like an imposition--like he wasn't praying for me, but at me. By then I knew my friends had been praying for me. I appreciated the feelings behind their prayers, but it wasn't personal for the chaplain. Why should I have to be subjected to this? And why was I worrying about saying no; didn't my feelings enter into this? It wasn't as if I could get up and walk away.

Yes, I believe all prayers are pointless, but some prayers are more so than others. My friends' prayers were a deeply personal gesture. To them, prayer works, so it was the most effective way they could help me. Forget my feelings about the efficacy of prayer; to them, this was the deepest form of support they could offer.

When Keith told the chaplain--in answer to his question--that he was an agnostic, he said, "Good, there's still hope for you." He wasn't kidding. But Keith isn't an agnostic because he can't make up his mind, but because there's no way to prove the existence or non-existence of God. This comment leads me to believe that the chaplain was indeed trying to save my life by saving my soul. God help me.

Before he left, the minister asked if he could visit me again. I shook my head once more. I'm sure his presence is a comfort to believers, but I just wanted to be left alone.

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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.