Death on St. Valentine’s Day, Slow Resurrection
By Jack Hoehn | 30 March 2018 |
“Christ is the first of those who rise from the dead. When he comes back, those who belong to him will be raised.” 1 Corinthians 15:23
On Wednesday, February 14, 2018, I was taken up on top of Cherry Hill.1. My hair from neck to toes was shaved off so I felt not only bare but quite naked. They attached tubes to my artery, bladder, and various veins, so I had at least eight tubes attached to me before I went to sleep, and more after. They gave me drugs and cut open my chest from neck to belly, using a saw to split the sternum. My rapidly, irregularly beating heart was then stopped for several hours while I was kept alive on a mechanical heart-lung machine. The arrhythmia had started during the night of December 29 and had never quit jumping around in spite of trials of drugs and electrical shocking. Tests showed a leaky mitral valve causing this dysfunction.
My chance for healthy life required me to lay down my life on a surgical altar. Cardiac surgeon Dr. Patrick Ryan, an associate born in Salzburg, and lots of women and men (one turned out to be a nephew of my college roommate, his Uncle Fred!) kept me alive without a heartbeat and then patiently nursed me back to life.
The surgical team opened my still heart and placed sutures to put the mitral valve back together in a way to let it not leak back blood. They also made long wavy scar lines in my left atrium forcing the impulses from the heart’s natural pacemaker to take a longer circuitous route to the AV node to help return order to the impulses and eventually return me to sinus rhythm.
The day after surgery I was still intubated and unconscious. With concerns for bleeding the attending surgeon prepared to go back into my chest and stop whatever was leaking. Happily, an ultrasound probe in my esophagus showed no blood collecting around the heart, so I was not opened up a second time.
On the third day I began to ascend from my little experience of hell, and as they lightened my drugs before removing the breathing tubes, I began to have scenes from recent and distant past flash before my closed eyes. I don’t remember the content of most of the visions, but they were vivid. I remember knowing there were exactly 58 of them (the only association I can think of is it has been 58 years since I was baptized at age 13). My mind at this time told me, this is what happens when you die; your life flashes before your eyes, so I concluded I was dying.
I had no visions of Jesus, no bright lights from heaven’s doors, no messages echoing down from Heaven’s gates, “Not yet! Not yet! Not yet!” Instead, I found myself fighting with the ICU nurses, paranoid that their high-tech tubes were killing me and pleading with gestures for my wife, Deanne, to get them out of my throat. Doctors are not noted for being good patients but when fully conscious I did my best to go along with everything they asked me to do.
Drugs given for anesthesia and intubation were the hardest thing to recover from. My eyes at first saw things no one else in the room saw. When I closed my eyes, instead of relief and darkness my brain manufactured bright and active mosaics in twisting twirling patterns. They quickly became oppressive and I’d have to open my eyes to make them go away. This made sleep impossible. On the fourth day I began to have the visual aura of a migraine headache but this arc of blurring was bigger and thicker and moving counterclockwise in a full circle, not just an arc. And it lasted for nearly 24 hours, instead of the usual 30 minutes.
Chest wall pains from the surgery were mild and controlled with one or two Tylenol every 4-6 hours. Thankfully, I did not need narcotics and didn’t want them because of the things they had done to my mind and vision.
My “resurrection” was attended by very wise and experienced nurses, by phlebotomists, by physical therapists showing me how to protect the slow healing fractured sternum in getting out of and into bed. The first steps were weak and unsteady but now by the fourth week I am able to walk for an hour at a time, and small hills no longer make me breathless. Blood chemistries and cell counts are doing well. My medicine list is getting smaller. Prognosis after open heart surgery is 80% recovery by two months and back to normal by three months.
Lazarus and Temporary Miracles
So this Easter, I find myself thinking both of Lazarus and of Jesus. Lazarus, because he was dead for several days and then brought back to life again by Jesus’ miracle. But if you travel to Jerusalem, Lazarus is not there. His miracle was a tremendous but a temporary blessing. He was brought back to his mortality, not to immortality.
All the daily miracles that give us life and healing and power to go on are daily miracles. We get daily bread. The manna was a miracle food, but it went rancid if stored longer than a Sabbath. Take no anxious thought for the morrow; sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Jesus tells us to ask for and expect miracles, but understand that miracles are temporary blessings, not eternal. We can be miraculously cured of cancer and die of a blood clot. We can be saved from a car wreck and die in a train accident. My heart is beating better, until it stops again. Lazarus was resurrected to die a second time.
Then Jesus. When he was made naked and fastened to the tree trunks with spikes there was no general anesthesia. He was offered a weak drug that he first declined as he continued to process our salvation. At the end Jesus asked for the wine vinegar again and took a sip before declaring, “It is finished.” Dying for longer than a few hours on a heart-lung machine, his hell of suffering ended as he rested in Joseph’s grave. Did Jesus see the top 30 events of his life flash before his eyes? I cannot imagine what death was like to the eternal. But I think I now know more about what it is like to the mortal.
This Year Easter Is Different
My brief surgical “death” and slow recovery makes me readier this year than ever to celebrate not just the cross of Christ, but more his resurrection. At my youthful baptism the church sang, “Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand….” And I do remain standing under that cross.
Because of my waking up from temporary death, a German hymn now means more than ever before:
In finstrer Gruft er lag, Jesus, mein Heiland! Komm, Auferstehungstag, Jesus, mein Herr! [In darkest grave he lay, Jesus my Savior. Come, Resurrection day, Jesus my Lord.]
Rollt ab den Stein! Jesus lebt! Aus dem Tode sich der Herr erhebt. [Roll back the stone, Jesus lives! From Death the Lord lifts himself.]
Jesus lebt! Es hielt ihn nicht des Todes Nacht, denn der Lebensfürst
bezwang des Todes Macht. [Jesus lives! Death’s night can’t hold back the Prince of Life from beating down death’s power.]
Jesus lebt! Jesus lebt!
Halleluja! Jesus lebt!
Bring on Resurrection Sunday.
Bring on the rolled-away stone. Bring on the carefully folded grave clothes. Bring on Thomas’ fingering healing wounds. Bring on the women first to proclaim the great gospel truth. He is risen, indeed!
And yes, yes, yes: bring on the spring with its little yellow chickies and baby rabbits. Let yellow and green and purple eggs abound. Let chocolate rabbits dance over marshmallow Peeps. Let the praise band drummer play his happiest rift. Clap your hands, sing, and if you know how, yes, dance. Play and feast, for he is risen, risen indeed!
And he that believeth in me shall never die. Sleep—yes; sick—yes; accidents—yes; cancer—yes; heart surgery—yes; amputations—yes; grave–yes. But also, resurrection–yes!
The death of the best man is one thing. The participation in death by our God is another. But the resurrection of that Man-God is now to me the greatest thing ever.
For ever and ever, for ever and ever, for ever and ever, Hallelujah, Amen.
Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA/Religion major from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the SDA church for 13 years when serving as a missionary doctor in Africa.
1.) Swedish Hospital, Seattle, Washington, Cherry Hill Campus.