Here's what happened.
I was unloading the car full of beer and chicken wings and chili dog stuff for the next day's Super Bowl party when I got a burning in my chest that felt like really bad heart burn. After it didn't go away for about a half hour I asked my girlfriend to take me to the hospital to get checked out.
The EKG was fine and the nurses were pretty convinced it was acid reflux and were just checking some blood enzymes before they released me. I was feeling as good as usual. The second blood test came back with a positive for an enzyme related to heart attacks. They decided to keep me overnight. I was extremely pissed and swore that I would have to be on the ground clutching my chest before I would ever get checked out again and that they better have me out of there by noon! I wasn't going to be late for my party because of gerd!
The next morning the enzyme had gone up and they decided I needed an angiogram on Monday. Super Bowl out! Possible stints and home by Tuesday. More cursing and mild threats.
The angiogram showed severe blockage in the main artery to the heart. The doctors had a cute little name for this particular blockage. They called it The Widow Maker! Seems this is the one that most people just drop over dead from. They needed to get the blood thinners out of my system and were cracking the chest for the big triple bypass on Wednesday.
Holy hell! I just went from a beer guzzling, pizza eating, partier to a decrepit old man with heart disease in three days! And to top it all off, I JUST MIGHT DIE!!!
Truth be told, the docs assured me that they do hundreds of these a month and that it's relatively easy and routine. But when it's YOUR heart that they are going to pull out of your chest, the term routine loses all meaning. This was big serious stuff.
Tuesday night before the surgery was like no other night. My girlfriend and I had some very close time together. There's nothing like impending doom to add some spice to a relationship. She left for home about 11:00 and I was alone with a ticking clock counting down to slice time. This must be pretty close to what it feels like to wait on death row for your execution, except that I had a good chance of coming out the other side.
There are very few times when fate closes in and the inevitable stands squarely before you. At 9:00 the next morning I was going to be wheeled into the operating room, I would be sedated, become unconscious and at that point I have no control over what happens next. Nothing was going to change that reality, it was inevitable.
One of two things will happen: either I will wake up or I won't. It's that simple. Needless to say I was more concerned with the "won't" option. I spent a lot of time thinking about what the "won't" option might actually entail.
If I were a Christian, it seems like there will be some kind of review of my life and a judgement. There's a lot of variations on that theme depending on which particular flavor of Christianity you're buying, but that's a pretty standard scenario. The most popular idea is that your life flashes before your eyes like a film and you assess each moment. How freaking annoying does that sound? Most of our lives are spent watching TV or bored to tears. I have to go back through all that again? I have to relive every embarrassment? Every time I bombed? Every lousy thing I did to someone? And then I'm going to be judged on this? Do I have to defend myself?
Because I really can't. I was an asshole a lot and there really is no excuse. Everybody's an asshole sometimes, some more than others. But the penalties for this judgment thing are Draconian at best and the whole thing is Pass/Fail. If I pass I go to a happy place where everything is always nice but if I fail, I get tortured and punished for eternity. Eternity is the mandated sentence, no plea bargains allowed. Now I've done some crummy things, but nothing that would warrant an eternity stretch. And depending on your particular brand of Christianity, the threshold on the crime ranges all the way from genocide to masturbation. Eternity for whacking off!
So when Christians are wheeled through the operating room door this is the stuff they have to be concerned with. Uh.. No thanks.
Judaism and Islam both have variations on this same idea with different window dressing, but it still boils down to reward and punishment which is a pretty heavy thing to be worried about.
Buddhists have a whole different idea, re-incarnation. The end of one life is just the beginning of a new one. You die here, you're born there. This would be great if there wasn't a sneaky little complication called Karma. Westerners oversimplify this to fit their crime and punishment theme but it's not that straight forward. What I understand it to be is that you are re-incarnated until you have experienced all possible re-incarnations. That sounds fun until you realize that the woman who was kept in a dungeon for 19 years by her father is a re-incarnation. All the people who burn up in fires are re-incarnations. Every birth defect and horrible disease is a re-incarnation. I have those things to look forward to? So when I go through this death door and get dropped on to the big Karmic roulette wheel I could drop into the Bill Gate's grandson slot or the Somalian refugee born with aids slot. It's a total crap shoot.
Too much stress.
What I think will happen if I don't wake up is.. I'll never know I didn't wake up. I won't be here to know. I won't miss anything and I won't regret anything because I'm not here. I have no responsibilities regarding my death. Nothing more is demanded or expected of me. No judgment, no rewards, no punishment. If there is something more, I'll deal with it but if not, it was fun. This is a comforting scenario. I can handle this.
And that's how I rolled through the operating room door and that's what I was thinking as I went under. It was still scary, but not terrifying.
There are those who will convince themselves that God let me live. Let me say this to you.
I am alive today because Galileo refused to give in to the Inquisition, and because countless brave doctors defied the church to dissect cadavers to build the science of anatomy, and because of all the midwives and folk medicine practitioners that the church burned at the stake, and because of every scientist, doctor, psychologist, and astronomer who pushed back against the ignorant superstitions that worked tirelessly to suppress reason and logic. And because of all who fight today to research stem cells and cloning and biotech against the punishing tide of ignorance and lunacy that would have us all living in the Middle ages many more will live tomorrow. I'm alive because of that quality of a rational mind that demands that it call Bullshit when confronted with absurdity regardless of the consequences. I'm alive today in spite of God.