Thursday, October 26, 2006

Chapter 1


I awoke with crushing substernal pain, just like the textbooks said. I knew what it was, immediately. I reached for the phone, dropped it, fumbled for it, found it again, and dialed 911. "I am Everett Sonway, in Apartment 308. I am having a heart attack. Please help me!"

"Stay on the line, we are sending a squad." I put the handset down by my head, and tried to stay conscious. The pain didn't let up, and I had trouble breathing. I wondered why I was trying to hold onto life...My life hadn't been worth much since Ann died. My universe had collapsed with her death. I drank too much, lost interest in my surgical practice, and generally went into the toilet. But now, as my life was ending, I found myself not wanting to let go.

When the EMT's arrived, they started an IV and put an oxygen mask on me. As the drugs started working, the pain dropped to an almost bearable level. I started to feel warmer, and had less trouble breathing. They didn't want me to talk, and that was fine with me. I wanted to tell them to take me to Rush, but I knew that they were going to take me to Cook County, anyway. The elevator ride and ambulance ride are a blur, but the entry into the Emergency Department is crystal clear in my mind. The team that descended on me were quick, competent and aggressive. I was stripped, intubated, more lines were placed, and IV pumps started. I was taken to the fluoro suite for cardiac catheterization, and then I died.

It feels very strange to leave your body, and see them working on it. I watched awhile, then was drawn away. The tunnel is sort of like a birth canal, with a light at the end. When I came out into the light and saw Galen, I knew instinctively that everything would be all right. He introduced himself and told me that he would be my guide. He looked like an angel, handsome, youthful, and dressed in white. He took me to the admission area, where I was to have a little corrective surgery. He told me that he would do the surgery, and I felt absolutely no fear. There was no pain, and little sensation of the passage of time. When it was over, I felt wonderful. Then it was time for me to go to work. I had always wondered what heaven would be like for a surgeon. It was, obviously, absolutely perfect.

There is a never ending supply of patients. The triage is perfect. Those that are assigned to a surgeon all need surgery. You never get tired or hungry. You never make a mistake. The last sentence isn't quite true, but the truth is pretty complicated. First of all, you really make a lot of mistakes, but you learn from them, and get to go back and do it over until you get it absolutely right. Your assistants only see you do it right. There is some sort of a time warp that allows you to go through all the possibilities and follow them to their logical conclusion, then go back and make another choice. The assistants have the same deal. You hold out your hand and they immediately put the right instrument in it, turned the right way. You never have to ask for anything. The end result is always perfect, and all our patients heal immediately without any pain. We have wonderful tools, that cut between cells instead of through them, and cement that glues the cells back together without any scarring. Galen assisted me quite a few times, then pronounced me fully trained. What a thrill it was to have Galen endorse me as capable and competent! I have never been so happy and proud. Galen had been a hero of mine since my first year in medical school. He was one of the most important medical scholars of all time. Hippocrates of Cos was perhaps better known, but Galen was probably a better surgeon in his day. I have had the opportunity to work with both of them, now, and there is not a shred of difference in their skills.

I had had an experience in medical school that had confused me until now. When I was in the third year, on the Internal Medicine service, one of the retired professors of Medicine was dying of cancer. Students were asked to volunteer to sit with him at night, to help with his care and to help keep him comfortable and oriented. I volunteered, and when I entered his room, he said "Galen, you are back!" I told him who I was, and he said "Oh, I thought you were Galen. You look just like him."

I sat with him three nights during the week before he died. Toward the end he was having visual hallucinations, which he recognized as hallucinations, but they were more vivid than real life. In one of them, he saw Galen, dressed in white, and he told me that it was no wonder he had confused us, because the resemblance was remarkable. Seeing Galen, I can see the resemblance, especially to the 24 year old me in my student whites. I asked Galen about it, and he remembered it well. He had visited the Professor twice prior to his death, and had accompanied him at his death. The Professor discourses regularly on the history of medicine, and has quite a following. I visited him once, with Galen, and he welcomed us cordially. He was delighted that I remembered some of the stories he had told me, when he was dying. Remind me some time and I will tell you the story of his return to France after a year in China, with vitamin B deficiency and persistence of the retinal image.

Work was not the only thing we did. There was plenty of time to enjoy music and discourse. I will never forget my first encounter with Ann. She looked wonderful, just as she had when I first met her. Being with her in heaven was a thrill of heavenly proportions. She was nearly as busy as I was, healing the minds of those who needed it, and spending some leisure time with me. One disconcerting thing about heaven is the inability to ask the wrong question or give the wrong answer. Not censorship, per se, but just like surgical mistakes, you end up learning not to do it by doing it wrong and seeing the outcome, then going back and doing it right. You never hurt any feelings and never look and feel like an idiot. You still find out what you need to know. And what I found out was what I had feared most in life. I didn't tell her that I loved her enough. We had been together for several weeks before I ever told her I loved her. Then I told her just about twice a day. I should have made it my mantra, because she really needed to hear it a lot. If I had it to do over, I would begin and end every conversation with a declaration of my love. And that is what I do, now.

Time doesn't mean much there. Subjectively, you may spend several years doing a tough resurrection, such as an explosion victim, but others may think it only took you a few minutes. We had a mass casualty situation a while ago, and I thought I had spent a century or two, but I saw Ann, later, and she thought I had only been gone an hour. Like they used to say, time flies when you're having fun. After about a thousand subjective years, and untold thousands of surgical procedures, I was beginning to feel pretty good about my skills. Sometimes I would do two or three cases in a row without having to back up and start over. Galen came to watch me one time, and told me that I was making good progress. He asked me to come with him, and took me to a place I had not been before. We sat in a beautiful garden, and in a few moments we were lifted up and brought into the presence of God. I was unable to speak, or even move, but I heard Him speak my name, and tell me not to be afraid. He said that I had served Him well, and that He needed my help. Jesus was returning to earth, as a King, and would need my services. "How will I be able to help Him?", I asked. "You will know what to do." And everything faded to black.