A year of recovery only resulted in more and more pain killers swallowed with bourbon. Though I used this period to give public lectures, often in a wheel chair, I was not getting any better. I decided to consult a couple of physicians. I could not go on this way.
I went to the cardiologist who had cared for me in Hoag Hospital. He agreed with me and right there in front of me called several doctors and asked each who they would go to with such back injuries. He did this again with a physical therapist well-known at Hoag. He asked him which orthopedic surgeon had the least problems in recovery. The answer was the same in every case: Charles Bonnet in Fountain Valley.
There were, of course, blood transfusion considerations, for this kind of surgery, over so many hours, results in loss of blood. This was not a problem for Bonnet for he operated on numerous JWs and the Fountain Valley Hospital was receptive to the wishes and faith of JWs. Bonnet would implant what are called Harrington Rods into my spine to strengthen the shattered vertebras T6 and T7. My blood would be recirculated without being “stored” (something JWs abhor) and returned to my body.
In 1980 I underwent this delicate, eight-hour surgery. Titanium bolts and nuts and a lattice work of bone shavings from my pelvis were to be constructed to strengthen my spine from T3 to T10, about a foot long. The work was a masterpiece admired to this day, 17 years later, by physicians. Evidently a video and a book were to be authored about this, but I did not give my permission. To this day I do not know why. But, something was to happen following the surgery: a near death experience, a NDE.
Despite my emotional and spiritual depressions, my faith in God was immense. I had a perfect hope in the resurrection that should I die I would be instantaneously in the Presence of God. This hope was to change later. I knew this was a difficult and dangerous surgery. I knew enough about my work with hospitals over the “blood issue” that many things can go wrong in hospitals. I was completely prepared for that death I had always sought.
On this matter of a “death wish” I must make a comment here. Some close friends had often jokingly accused me of having “a death wish” and an examination of my life might judge that correctly. I had half a dozen serious “brushes with death,” both in cycling at speeds of 60 miles an hour, severe rock climbing, and dangerous body surfing. All knew I had what JWs call “a heavenly hope,” as opposed to that “earthly hope” of the large majority of JWs. Some saw this conflict between my hope and my sporting life as “a glorified death wish,” as one climbing partner put it.
After such a surgery the patient must be completely mobilized for a week or more, until a degree of healing can occur. This is done by placing the patient in a Striker Frame, a rotating sandwich-like turntable. Two hours face-down with the head and spine completely mobilized in this waffle-maker-like contraption. Then a painful rotation to face-up for two hours, when the compressing envelope is removed. Each two hour period features a good dose of morphine to help with the pain. It is agonizing at best. There is a forced meditative experience because your body is attached to tubes, removing and replacing fluids, monitoring body activity.
Much of the pain comes from the regular injections of morphine. Usually administered in the thighs or hips, this becomes an agony. On the one hand, the pain from the surgery is excruciating, and on the other the pain from the injections becomes more and more an agony itself. This is virtually total body-mind deprivation. If one sought a perfect environment for a deep meditative experience, this is it: both drug-induced and mental deprivation. But, something else was to happen.
A few days into this torture, a hospital error, possibly traceable to my nurse (for she begged my forgiveness in tears days later), or to some other unknown event, I died during a powerful morphine induced hallucination. It is possible I was given two injections too close together. The last thing I remembered was begging for the next injection to be given in my arm instead of my thigh or hip. I cannot tell you of this agonizing pain. I begged my nurse, and now I believe she did this; and then shortly after, another nurse, not realizing this had been done, gave me another injection too close to the previous. It was to send me on a trip difficult to describe.
Between this mistaken injection and my resuscitation, itself a terrible experience, there is this period of two minutes, which seemed like an eternity. I have told this story in a 600-page poem centered on this near-death encounter entitled Across Infinity which I am planning to rewrite and attempt to get published. It recounts the experience of a man who goes through my own “trip” and then meets, as it were, some other lost soul floating around in this psychic cyberspace.
What was this like? Was it that pleasant vision many report during their NDE: a funnel or tunnel of light with welcoming beings from another plane? No. Hearing my story some would suggest I went to hell where every good JW belongs!
Imagine staring down day after day at the tiles on a floor, your vision riveted to just those tiles. Tiles and nothing but tiles, day upon day, hour upon hour, minute upon minute, everlasting second upon everlasting second. Unknown to you the morphine overdose is beginning to take affect in this position without escape, with not a soul knowing what is about to happen. You must endure this completely alone accept those inner calls for God’s help. In two eternal minutes I was to be punished for every wavering sinful thought in my life: my desire to commit suicide and deny my God! Only He and I knew that! In affect God said: “So, you want death? Well, here it is!”
Imagine watching these floor tiles as water begins to slosh across them: sea water. Imagine the sensation you are suddenly on some boat. You can feel the port-hole open and cold sea water crashing in as the boat rocks violently. Was this a flash-back to that crossing of the Atlantic in a hurricane? Soon, flotsam washed back and forth across the floor tiles as the ship heaves to and fro. There are chickens in bamboo cages. Then bodies! Children and adults! All Asians! I am on a Hong Kong ferry and it is sinking. I feel a complete loss, for I am a trained lifeguard, a water safety instructor, and I cannot save these people. I feel no danger to myself, but only that impotence of a person trained to save others, but cannot help, only watch this disaster.
My eyes would fixate on certain forms on the floor and these would begin to take shape as black, featureless creatures (demon-like is all I can describe) as they begin to struggle out of the flotsam to climb the legs of the Striker Frame. They head toward my face, my eyes, ears, nose and mouth, any orifice, like ants on a victim covered in honey and tied to the ground, immovable. My body was invaded.
At this moment, my body was to have its two-hour rotation. Now I can look up at the ceiling, feel the water wash through the port-hole as the ferry sinks. Every image on the waters and ceiling becomes such a tiny black “demon” crawling toward my body. I cannot defend myself. I can only scream that silent psychic shriek, one long, unheard, noiseless, elongated cry of abject desertion. Later, I wondered if this was the feeling of Messiah, when he cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Evidently someone knew what was happening for I was visited by two Latin American “brothers” who had experienced this same drug overdose on purpose before they became JWs. They seemed to know what I was experiencing and they began to massage me and talk me through this shattering experience. Both of these genuine Christian souls were to be disfellowshipped later for reasons I do not know. No one every questions such excommunications and if ever one asks the reason they are told it is none of their business.
I tried to listen to them, to concentrate, to fight off these “demons.” Little helped, but I did know someone was there with me. Surely nurses and doctors also knew what was happening? I do not know. They surely knew I was hallucinating badly. As if things could not get worse, they did. For now was the moment of “death.”
Images and experiences are erratic, chaotic, completely disconnected. I have written about these in Across Infinity as I tried to reconstruct some of this. For it is difficult to determine where one thing ends and another begins. I can report that I had no such NDE as reported by some. Here was a JW who believed he was going to heaven immediately upon death. One would think this deep-seated belief would affect these hallucinations. How much was under demonic influence? How much was chemical hallucination with brain waves gone amuck? I do not know. I only know when I came out of it during resuscitation.
My first thought was of great choking as doctors and technicians were trying to revive me with electric shock and vacuum tubes forced down my mouth and throat. Where the little black “demons” crawling into my mouth, eyes, nose, and ears, and where this real-life resuscitation enters, I do not know. I know I never want to go through that again. Death was a misery, but the return to “life” was just as bad. I will never view death quite the same way again. Not “death” itself, but the process. I knew reports of death may be pleasant, particularly those of drowning. But, this was not, and I cannot recommend it. Was this what I was to learn? Meant to learn?
I came back to life after this “code blue.” It was later explained to me to be the result of a heart irregularity which is a nice generic way of saying I died. There is little information on such an experience and the thought of suing the hospital or doctors never crossed my mind until years later. A few remarks made by CPU technicians suggested some major error on their part. For the second time my wife and family were to think me dead.
At any rate, I recovered, to the attendant remarks of Bonnet that it was something of a “miracle.” He said that I was a very strong man, and evidence of the body’s enormous powers to endure so much and yet recover.
During my two week stay in the hospital, a young woman came to visit me, the Irish lass from the college photography classes. I do not know how she learned of this. This beautiful red-head with lovely complexion and long hair, was to visit me several times, during and after my hospital stay. Her dream was to open an orphanage in Ireland and she later wrote me of her success. Funny, though, I don’t remember anyone who saw her. She was the image of kindness and I could not discover a reason why she was so kind to me. I never heard from her again.
Nazarene Commentary 2000©
Mark Heber Miller
©2000 All Rights Reserved