Amy held my right hand and the nurse had my left. My body vibrated, I was so racked and twisted by pain that it must have looked like a scene out of “The Exorcist.” The one where Linda Blair levitates off the table as the evil spirit practically tears her apart while being yanked out by the Catholic priests. Amy later told me that she was certain I was one breath away from a heart attack. Pulmonary Embolisms, better known as lung-bound blood clots, kill 300,000 people a year and having just one pass through the heart and lodge in the lungs is often enough to kill a healthy person. Lucky me, I was about to pass six.
That Saturday evening we had guests to dinner. I had felt exhausted for most of the day, a little short of breath but we had a nice steak dinner planned as a thank you for our friends that were so good to us during recuperation from my knee surgery. As afternoon turned to evening, my exhaustion turned into shoulder pain of the pulled muscle variety so I asked Amy for a bag of ice. The ice helped me enjoy our friend’s company but I turned in early. I lay down and slept unsteadily until I woke up with what felt like an ice pick in my chest. And that’s when Amy declared we were going to the ER. When I tried to put on a shirt and lifted my left arm, the pain rifled through me as if I had been struck by a metal-tipped whip and I screamed in agony. My son started the car, helped me outside then gingerly hugged me.
When we checked in to the ER the nurse asked me why I was on crutches.
“Knee surgery.” I gasped. “Five, maybe six weeks ago.”
“Uh huh, and describe your pain.” So I did. His eyes popped open and he quickly stood up.
“OK Mr. Malik let’s get you in that wheel chair and we’re gonna get you into the back in just a second, OK? Just bear with me.” He stuck his head around the corner and issued quick instructions and just as he promised, someone quickly collected me and rolled me into the back. Vital signs were taken, information was given and my pain increased tenfold. I needed an EKG and chest x-ray first. As I struggled to breathe, I was rolled back and forth by nurses that smiled, patted my hand and offered encouragement. In an ER, protocols have to be followed and a diagnosis has to be certain, so the staff couldn’t just dump painkillers in me. They were fairly certain I had at least one blood clot in my lungs. Yet I also had a tremendous desire to breathe and a narcotic would have lessened that desire so they let me fight without narcotics until the proper diagnosis could be made.
Carried by the rush of blood, the clots were passing through my heart and settling in my lungs where a tidal pool washed across them every few seconds or so, the clots, or Pulmonary Embolisms, tumbled across the lining of my lungs, scraping and catching on capillary walls or settling in the tiny sacs known as alveoli which also happens to be the most sensitive tissue in the human body. Amy tried to soothe me with calming words but by then we had heard the muted whispers of the staff, “embolism, PE, clots.” There was a very real chance I might not survive the next sixty minutes. My heart beat raced as Amy gently ran her fingers through my hair and whispered to me how much she loved me. At every opportunity she showed me her phone and the messages of prayer were pouring in and growing exponentially.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but I did see my family without me and I thought of my children, my 15 year-old son and 14 year-old daughter. Had I been a good dad and are they strong enough to carry on to adulthood without me? Yes, they are but they still needed me and I wasn’t ready to go. As the level of pain skyrocketed, I felt something else. I heard the voices and felt the touch of dozens and dozens of our friends. Brief snippets of encouragement and quick glimpses of faces, they quickly passed through my subconscious. Mike squeezed my shoulder, Lauren blew me a kiss, Suzanne touched my cheek, Allen patted me on the arm, Karen smiled, Barbara squeezed my hand and on and on. It was then, when it felt like I had a twisting knife stuck in my chest and Amy thought I was this close to a heart attack; that I knew I would be OK. I felt the prayers of our many friends reaching out to me. Carried on their words of encouragement the warmth wrapped around me and for a little while, I could feel the energy; my skin tingled from it.
The EKG negated a heart attack, a test known as a d-Dimer got us close and the x-ray came back to the on-call doctor and showed an area of congestion. With most of the variables eliminated, I was quickly prepped for a CT scan then had morphine pumped into me, two doses. When that didn’t assuage my pain they went with Dilaudid and after the second dose, I finally started to settle down. Maybe thirty minutes later the results of the CT scan were in front of the doc. Heparin, a blood thinner was quickly administered along with another shot of Dilaudid. After several hours of agony I was finally able to relax. I was rolled into ICU where I was quickly attended to by a pair of lovely nurses. Amy collapsed into a chair as the staff doted over me.
About nine am the on-call physician came in and introduced himself. A tall, handsome, gentleman from the Caribbean, with tightly groomed hair and skin the color of cappuccino, he was the internal medicine specialist for the hospital. After introducing himself he folded his arms across his chest, lifted one tired eyebrow and carefully asked me in his warm, island accent, “Mr. Malik, would you mind telling me why you are not face down on the sidewalk instead of lying in this bed smiling at me?”
My breathing was very shallow, and all I could say was I don’t know.
“Well my friend, one PE, uh, one Pulmonary Embolism can kill a healthy man and you sir– survived a banana boat load, multiple embolisms in both lungs.”
I blinked through exhausted eyes and thought of my friends and family, the prayers that lifted me up at the most challenging moment of my life and the thought of a loving God that, on occasions, answers prayers quickly.
“Yes.” I gasped. “I did.”
I know some of my friends don’t believe in God. And honestly, if you take it at face value, there’s a lot of craziness to accept. The thought of an omnipotent God that is everywhere at all times, with anyone and everyone that asks for his presence certainly takes a lot of–faith. It’s easier to believe in the tangible things that don’t require so much faith such as trees, stars, the earth, a fast car, a stack of cash. And there’s a bunch of truly bizarre stuff in the Old Testament; people turning into pillars of salt, talking, lava-spewing volcanoes, bread falling from the sky, wooden staffs turning into snakes and that’s just the first couple of chapters. Yet the words of Jesus Christ, born to a simple stone mason, sent to live as one of us, to walk this dusty earth, endure temptation and betrayal then die a violent death at the hands of an unruly mob whipped into a frenzy by frightened religious leaders, all while never straying from his message of peace and forgiveness, are timeless.
These days the word Christian is practically a put down. We have been launched like so many clay pigeons with the keen eye of the media, press and politics bearing down on us. Of course there’s always going to be the handful of loudmouths that are labeled as mainstream then held up as an example as what you could turn into, if you drink our Kool-Aid. Yup, one sip of Christianity and you’ll be waving a rebel flag, sucking on a jug of shine and belching out scripture as you shoplift from Wal-Mart. Well I’m sorry but that’s just not accurate. You’re welcome to call me simple, crazy or naïve. I’ll forgive you.
So why did I survive a half-dozen of the sort of thing that is capable of killing in a single visit? I had the good fortune to get into the right ER, I have a very strong heart and most important, I was the recipient of a miraculous gift from a loving God.