November 14, 2010, was a beautiful Sunday, and I talked my husband into taking a bike ride with me. In Florida, where we live, November is filled with clear air and sunshine. Hurricane season is a quickly fading memory, and yet it’s not cold enough to require even a sweater. Bruce and I rode to the end of a nearby bike trail, stopped for water and for me to check my blood sugar, then headed back. As we crested a bridge over a road, I suddenly felt pain like I’ve never experienced before. It was like nails being pounded in all over my head.
Bruce could tell that something was wrong, but he thought I was just dehydrated. “Stop and have some water,” he said.
“If I stop,” I told him. “I won’t be starting again.” I knew it was really, really bad, but it never occurred to me to call 911. We crept slowly another mile and a half home. As soon as I stopped and took my helmet off, however, I felt as though I’d been scalped. I put my hand up, expecting the blood to be running down the back of my head. Then I began vomiting. We went to the ER.
The ER folks were indifferent, assuming I was just another case of food poisoning or stomach virus. Later, the neuro techs would tell me that ERs are terrible with neuro cases. But with a little help from my endocrinologist, and some insistence from me, we managed to get seen fairly quickly. The ER doc asked me how my pain compared to having my hand slammed in a car door. Worse, I said, far, far worse. His smile fell just a bit.
The initial CT scan showed bleeding in the brain, and the doc transformed from cavalier to grim. When he gave this news to my husband and me, I knew I might die. That’s what a brain hemorrhage meant to me. The only person I knew who’d had one was the young brother of a high school friend of mine, who had survived all kinds of surgeries and treatments for other health problems and finally had been given a clean bill of health, only to drop dead of a brain hemorrhage as a teenager. I told myself that had been nearly thirty years ago, but my husband had tears in his eyes, and the nurses were prepping me for a trip to the main hospital on a helicopter. The pain would not stop. As they wheeled me out and put me in the helicopter, I looked up at the now-night sky and a gorgeous moon. I asked La Luna to let me live. Then they put the ear protectors on me and off we went, flying through the dark on what seemed a big Vibra-bed.
Within a few hours, we knew that, although I wasn’t completely out of danger, I had a better chance than most of being okay. The first angiogram revealed what they thought was a “benign perimesencephalic sub-arachnoid hemorrhage.” SAHs kill 40-50% of people who have them, but the type I’d had meant that they found no large aneurysm waiting to kill me, just some unexplained bleeding near the brain stem in between the pia and arachnoid membranes that surround the brain. The initial diagnosis was correct, and although I spent ten days in the hospital being re-tested and monitored for complications, and nearly a month on anti-seizure and anti-stroke medication, I escaped unscathed except for the ten pounds I gained lying around on the couch for a month.
The hospital where I stayed is a Seventh Day Adventist hospital. They were wonderful to me. The food was awful, but the nurses and doctors were attentive and caring and kind and seemed to have a real sense of mission. I felt throughout that I was very well taken care of. (And I am not always so sanguine about health care I receive.)
But one of the nurse’s aides mentioned to me that God must have some plan for my future, that I must have survived this terrible ordeal for a reason. A few days after getting out of the hospital, I went to my regular G.P. for a check-up, and his nurse told me about her sister’s brain hemorrhage. She survived, but suffered some irreparable brain damage. The nurse noted, however, that it “had brought her back to God,” and for that she was grateful. “If it had to happen to bring her back to God,” she said, “then it had to happen.”
This is the Everything Happens for a Reason stipulation of much of the positive psychology movement as well as much evangelical Christianity. I don’t believe it for a minute. While many who spout this sort of thing do so with good intentions, the implications are radically unjust: that those who die have nothing left to live for, and that we get what we deserve in terms of our health. This is the underpinning of arguments against health-care-system reform in this country these days, and it is hogwash. A 2009 Harvard University study showed that 45,000 Americans die each year from lack of health insurance and that Americans under age 65 have a 40% higher chance of dying if they don’t have health insurance. I will say it over and over: the poor are not poor because they deserve it, and the ill are not ill (generally speaking) because they have brought it on themselves. What is more, the rich are not rich because they are smarter and worked harder than everyone else, and the healthy are not morally superior, no matter how well it serves them to delude themselves into thinking so.
I was lucky that I had the kind of brain hemorrhage I had, and that my husband and I had the good sense to seek medical help. I was lucky to be well enough employed that I had health insurance that assured my treatment and didn’t leave me with more than $100,000 of debt. That’s all.
I do believe, however, that this terrible ordeal intensified my appreciation for life. I may be able to make use of that intensification to achieve more or be more considerate of loved ones, even of myself. Without the pain, without the fright, I might have muddled on for a few more years without examining the triviality of my daily obsessions. I might not have made time for who I really am, but stayed busy trying to meet others’ expectations.
Illness is a rallying call to appreciate the extent of one’s good health, whatever that may be. It puts us on notice that life really is short. Without the experience of pain, I might not appreciate all these pain-free days I’ve had since. The same goes for pretty much all of the polar opposites that we talk about: wealth and poverty, friendship and loneliness, and so on. And it is one of the main reasons why I believe that “happiness” cannot exist without sadness, nor joy without sorrow. I believe that we should not insulate ourselves against the world of hurt that is out there. I’m not saying to seek out pain for its own sake (that’s masochism), but to remember, to care, to keep in mind that having and not having are not matters of mere deserving, no matter how lucky we may be today.