I bear on my body the marks of my affliction. By my count, I have six new scars on the outside of my body, and four on the inside. My four internal wounds consist of a broken sternum, an incision in the outer wall of my heart, another making a passage from there into my left atrium, and another on my mitral valve itself. There may be others, but those are the four I know.
My six external scars include a half-inch hole in the center of my abdomen where a drainage tube used to be, a small incision on the right side of my chest through which electrodes were inserted into the wall of my heart in case it needed to be shocked back into rhythm, a five-inch zipper scar down the center of my sternum, and three puncture wounds from heavy-gauge needles—one in my right bicep from the PICC line, one on my right wrist from a cardiac catheterization, and one in my neck from the IV multiport monstrosity they gracefully refer to as “the Swan.”
All ten of these wounds are in the process of being covered over with scar tissue. Once they are fully healed, they will be stronger than before. I find this to be poetic and more than a little satisfying. Watching them heal is fascinating. I do not ask my body to do this. It just does.
Because we were not meant to die. We were meant to live. That may sound absurd, given the fact that we all die. But I believe death is an intruder—the wage of sin and an effect of living in a broken, fallen world. I believe in a power greater than death, and I do not believe I am naïve to think this way.
I believe the way our bodies fight to recover when they have experienced something traumatic supports this notion that we were not meant to die, but to live.
My own experience supports this.
When I woke from surgery I was a mess. I had a broken sternum, a malfunctioning brain, gallons of medications pulsing through my body, a puncture wound in my chest from the drainage tube, and the thick fog of sedation still hovering over me. Pain, confusion, immobility, and neurological short-circuits owned me in those first hours after waking up. I had never felt so fragile
As I lay in my hospital bed sipping water, I felt the need to relieve myself. This was good news, the nurse told me, as she set a small plastic pitcher on my table. When we go through trauma, our brains, in order to conserve energy, go around to certain rooms of mental and physiological function and turn off the lights. Entire systems of our bodies more or less power down until we have the strength to resume our normal processes.
“So congratulations,” the nurse said. “You have to pee!” I asked my wife and parents to leave the room so I could have a little privacy. The container the nurse had given me was sitting on a table about two feet to my right, easily within my grasp. But when I tried to reach for it, I couldn’t. The strange part of this was that I had not lost the use of my arm. I raised my hand and looked at it. I made a fist and then released it. I wiggled my fingers and then made them count to five. I raised my arm in the air and set it back down on my lap. I could perform all these tasks effortlessly. But when I tried again to reach for that pitcher, my brain refused to send that particular command to my arm. I could do everything else without a problem. I just couldn’t reach for that container.
Once you promise your body that relief is coming, there are no take-backs. The longer I tried and failed to reach for that pitcher, the more urgently I had to go. In my desperation I called for help.
This act of calling for help highlighted another neurological problem. My request for assistance, I am told, came in the form of a profanity-laced tirade that would have made a comedian blush. I have no memory of this. It is funny to think back on that episode. I distinctly remember my panic. I remember feeling bewildered as I looked at my hand, which seemed to have a will of its own. I even remember calling for help. But I do not remember the blue streak that has now become the stuff of legend for my wife and parents. It seems I am a very creative cusser.
This vulgar verbal flourish was part of a temporary breakdown in my speech faculties. During the first forty-eight hours after surgery, when someone would ask me a simple question, sometimes I couldn’t answer. When I meant yes, I would say no. When someone asked if I was thirsty, I would tell them I wasn’t even though I was parched. I had a hard time remembering the names of everyday objects like my phone or the TV remote.
These complications were due to my neurological schism, sedation, the medications coursing through my veins, and the trauma of having my chest cut open. I was a weak, confused, frightened, and broken man.
How did my body respond to all of this?
It fought. It fought immediately and with abandon. It fought like I was meant to live.
My arms soon began to obey my brain’s commands. My answers to questions started representing what I was actually thinking. The five-inch scar down the middle of my chest began to heal, and the soreness in my throat from the breathing tube went away.
This is what a body does when it goes through a traumatic ordeal. It fights to put itself back together as quickly as possible.
The walls of my heart immediately began covering my internal stitches with scar tissue to strengthen what the surgeon’s scalpel had weakened. My body began applying the nutrients from the food I had eaten to calcify the break in my sternum. My brain recognized the clot that caused my neurological event and instantly began to dissolve it before more damage could be done.
Even my pain has played a role. Pain is the body’s way of enlisting our cooperation in the healing process. Had my natural curiosity led me to want to touch my scar, I could have infected it. But it hurt to touch, so I didn’t. Even now, three weeks after surgery, it hurts when I try to use my upper body to push myself up out of a chair. That is because my sternum is still fusing together and doesn’t want me undoing what it has accomplished so far. I have learned how to rely on my legs to stand up.
Over the course of these past few weeks I have been living in a body at war with itself, and in my case healing seems to be winning. Sadly not everyone wins this fight in the flesh. That is part of our broken condition. Death comes for us all. But every person I have ever watched die has died fighting against it.
Even the weakest patient lying in a hospital bed fights against death in a host of ways. With every attempt to eat, we fight to supply our bodies with strength. With every fever, we fight against disease and infection. With every sensation of pain, we obey our limits as we feel the battle raging in our bones. We know that death does not become us.
Just as we were not meant to die, we were also not meant to be in pain. We were meant to be strong, glorious beings made in the image of God. And we were not meant to be confused, though we all are. We were meant to be lucid; we were meant to understand who we are in relationship to our Maker and to his creation. I believe we long for this clarity of heart.
This world, as it stands, cannot satisfy our deepest longings. All it can do is sound the distant echo of another world—one where, though I die yet shall I live, and that by faith in the Son of God.
This is what we were meant for. Even as I watch my own body reassemble itself after such a great battle, I hear that distant echo of another world reverberating out of me—this bell that has been lifted and struck.
I marvel at the way my body is mending. It is such a mysterious process. Right now, I am physically very weak. I give everything I have to the process of recovery. There is no straight line to walk here.
There is a simplicity to this stage of recovery that I enjoy. I rest. I eat and drink. I watch TV. I walk around the house and out to the mailbox. I take my medicine. I monitor my blood pressure and record the numbers on a chart for my doctor. I try to write. Beyond this, I don’t do much else.
The lens through which I see my life right now is focused and small because it has to be. But my life will not always be this way. I will emerge from this stage of healing. I will begin cardiac rehab. I will go on longer walks. I will even run. My doctors will wean me off of my medications, and at some point I will return to work. I will go out to dinner with my wife. I will meet up with my friends for a movie or a concert. I will be clearheaded and able to read books again without forgetting what was on the previous page.
I know I will do all of these things. But one thing I will not do is return to the life I knew before I became sick. This affliction will not be a blip on the screen. I am in the process of changing. I have no idea what that change will look like, but I bear on my body the wounds of this travail, and I will carry those scars into whatever lies ahead. For the rest of my life I will see them when I stand in front of the mirror, and I will remember that I am changed. I am someone who has been broken and is being put back together.
Perhaps this is why I am developing an affection for my scars. In a strange way, they give me hope.
Adapted from Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death, IVP 2017
Cover image by Brian Patrick Tagalog