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I SHOULD HAVE DIED LAST WEEK

What do you say to yourself and others
when you’re living a miracle? When you outlast a lethal event with zero chance of survival?





By Stewart Stanton







I'm only 59.

I'm a college professor.

Last week I should have died. No exceptions. But I didn't.

"There's an embolism right there. It's a big one too. I don't understand why they didn't see it."

There it was, a pulmonary embolism in the right lung. My lung specialist was in my hospital room reviewing the first CT scans, ones taken before he joined my medical team. Finding the thing on the x-ray took him only seconds. Two clicks of the mouse later he said, "And there's another one." This one was even bigger.

"Isn't that on the other side", I asked?

What you need to know is that no one survives this large a blood clot in both lungs, yet there they were, one on my right and one on my left. I didn't understand that yet. The doc sat very still, intently studying the x-ray. His next words chilled my soul and I'll never forget them.

Watching the x-ray, he said, slowly, "You are a very lucky man, my friend," and then after a thoughtful pause, "I'm having trouble explaining how you survived this."

"You're surprised we made it to the hospital?"

"I'm surprised you made it into the house."

No one survives two like these. It took most of the day for that to sink in. In the end, it turned out that I actually had three.

I wrote the following letter to Leyla, a real cutie, my past student who is destined for medical school and great things beyond that. She listens to me. What I said is worth reading by Suddenly-Seniors who have a life yet to be defined. I couldn't write this as well today. But at that moment, the words came easily.

Here is my letter to Leyla.

    • Leyla, my beautiful and distant confidant, who gets to listen to my philosophies and itches;

      ... a lethal event, ... with zero chance of survival.

      Wow.

      It's sinking in.

      Everything looks so different.

      I'm am incredibly thankful to have a life in front of me.

      I got an e-mail from a friend, Steve. Steve and Shelli (Dr. and Dr.) are the reason I'm at KSU, thanks to a little summer project Shelli graciously included me in for two summers in 1998 and 99. These guys are religious beyond my belief system, and I said to Steve that I couldn't see how or why I survived. His reply was:

      Why is easy, for you to keep doing the Lord's work here on earth!!!! Luck didn't have anything to do with you surviving; I know you received multiple huge blessings from the Lord.

      We are so happy for you.

      Steve

    • My response was this:

      I would usually respond that I have a naturalistic world-view of the universe we live in and faith in a God who I believe does not suspend the laws of nature for the benefit of individuals. But in this case there appears to be no answer to how I survived using my "laws of nature". Thanks for your kind words and for your faith.

      Stew

      Leyla, this has been a huge dose of reality. I've said that before.

      Now I have the job of living that life in front of me, having been hit with that huge dose of reality, and I find the emotions interesting. And difficult. The fact of the matter is that there is no explaining what happened. It's not that there are so many ways that I could have died and didn't that's a surprise, but the utter lack of any possible avenue by which I could have lived. The means to support life were not there, with no alternatives available.

      We all have fantasies and mythologies that guide our lives. They are healthy and for the most part they work, but I believe in their inadequacies. These include our religious views. Our scientific views as well. How do we conceive of what is impossible for us to know? Truth is truth, but we embed truths in some pretty complicated and bizarre mythological constructs to make them work for us, for the most part, and I can't help but believe they are, by necessity, as disconnected from the reality of what really is, as those of the past thousands and thousands of years.

      The earth is not the center of the universe, and blood transfusions do not transfer the soul of one person into another. Stem cells are stem cells. The earth is indeed round and the pope probably doesn't speak to God any better than I do.

      So too, then, 2+2=4 and how sinusoidal signals propagate through the atmosphere are mythologies that work for us but surely these are inadequate and will change in their meaning as time rolls on, as we become wiser.

      Some mythologies will prove embarrassing when viewed from the future. And worse, too. Good God, we had crusades and did terrible things to each other to make cities belong to the "right" religion, as though that mattered in any way whatsoever. We are such stupid people when we believe in our mythologies too literally. But our mythologies let us act on the truths we perceive without really understanding the open ended infinity of mysteries outside of our reach. We don't know how to live without them.

      So this event shakes my mythologies. I see little evidence that God suspends the laws of nature for anyone, else we'd get along much better than we do. God isn't on anyone's side, and all of us are God's children, no exceptions. No favors. No favorites. No, we're all in this together and we'll just have to figure it out together. It won't work any other way. "God" knows that.

      So how do I build a mythology around me having a life in front of me? Inadequate crap is what it has to be. Yet I'm still here. That's the HUGE reality of it. Don't write it off as "one of those things", or talk about how inadequate medicine is or how resilient the human body is. There are certain things that the body cannot do without and hits the body cannot survive. This is "winning the Lottery" level survival, if I hadn't bought a ticket.

      Evidently my work is not done. I have a mythology for that.

      But Leyla, am I so incredibly important? If I am to believe in what I believe, there is lots of cheering for what we do, but it is our job to make this work, not God's.

      When we fall, we all hit the ground the same, whether we are good or bad, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, black or white, faithful or not. The responsibility has to be ours, has to be, in order for us to evolve as a worthy species.

      "Evidently my work is not done" is so shallow and meaningless as to be an embarrassment. And yet, it's all I have. Can you fill in the missing gaps? Can the girl from India walking down the hall in front of my office right now? Can Kamran, my student from Pakastan? Can the Pope?

      I guess the answer is yes. WE can.

      Every single one of us can. We use our mythologies to fill in such gaps, that is sure. I believe in the inadequacies of these mythologies, yet I nonetheless stand in absolute awe of the power and importance of these mythologies. Each one of us can fill in the gaps, explaining the reason for my continued life which defies our "laws of nature", selecting from within our mythologies, and then we use those mythologies to guide our lives. To guide us in how to live. To guide us in how to treat each other. To guide us in what we hope for and what we quest for.

      This is all the answer I'm going to get.

      "Evidently my work is not done" is soooo lame. It's so inadequate. But it's all I've got. Except for a life in front of me, of course.

      That is the huge dose of reality that I must translate, into ... into what? ... into ... life?

      Does someone want to tell me what I'm supposed to do now?

      Somewhere around me there has to be someone or something that is incredibly important, that I'm still around for. Someone I can give a little tidbit to that needs the help. Someone for me to cheer on. Someone incredibly important, for some reason, in some way. Perhaps it's you, Leyla. Perhaps it's Colina, or Kamran, or that Indian girl long gone from the hallway. Or some apparently insignificant person I will meet tomorrow, or never meet but indirectly influence.

      Or maybe not.

      My mythologies are SOOOooooo inadequate.

      Today and every day is such a brilliant new day.

      You wouldn't believe how much so.

      Stew

Stewart Stanton, PhD Associate Professor, Kansas State University Apple Distinguished Educator About Stanton: Dr. Stanton is a teacher and university researcher, a rebellious spirit who is embroiled in a lifelong, passionate quest for a nonlinear dynamic processor that operates in nature, to explain the mystery of modern chemistry.

You can write Stew at stanton@ksu.edu