I don’t know if everyone has one of these moments, but I suspect that there are many more folks than we are aware of who have a moment when seemingly everything important passes before their mental eyes and there is this fear of their life on earth being over. Well, I believe I have had at least two of these moments and perhaps three.
The most recent moment for me occurred on October 2, 2015. I was ushering at Turner Field for the St. Louis Cardinals versus Atlanta Braves major league baseball game. It was a chilly evening and I was at my assigned section Aisle 206, which is in the terrace level near home plate. It was not a huge crowd, but I’m usually pretty busy helping guests find their seats even when other parts of the stadium may have light crowds. It was the second inning and I had just been chatting with my sister who was at the game with my Mom. They preferred sitting in the outfield terrace, but my sister had come by my section to say hello.
This was my first season working for the Braves and it was just about over. Only one more home series. I’m semi-retired, I guess. I’ve received partial disability payments from my private insurance for over a year and have not been able to work fulltime since suffering a major heart attack in January of 2013. That experience became the basis of the first book I published – Sacred Heart Attack – and was life changing in many ways. I do some other project and consulting work while writing manuscripts for additional books. However, that heart attack in Montreal was not one of the times I felt like I was going to die. Even though I learned from the cardiologist that unblocked my left descending artery that I was in serious danger, I was conscious – in pain, but conscious – and thought that everything was going to be fine.
My youngest son Jed had worked for the Braves for the 2014 season and I was his primary transportation to and from the approximately 70 out of 81 games that he worked as a guest relations representative. For the 2015 season he was set to be on the promotions team and I had been thinking about being an usher and had talked to some of the ushers about their jobs. Eventually, that’s what I did. It was a challenging assignment at the beginning, both physically and mentally. Long hours of standing posed the biggest challenge. But I enjoyed baseball and had been a Braves fan and follower for many, many years; and I enjoyed relating to new people from all around the country. So, I was in the right spot. I had developed a few friends from my fellow gameday staff, too.
Just as I was finishing my conversation with my sister I started having a familiar pain combination of pressure and burning in the center of my chest. I breathed a couple of deep cleansing breaths, but nothing changed. I wondered if it was gas and excused my self to go to the Men’s Restroom. That didn’t help and the pain had risen to a 7 on that 10-point scale. I left the restroom and walked by one of my fellow ushers and told him that I was going to First Aid at aisle 211 to get my blood pressure checked. I told him I wasn’t feeling well and that he should tell our supervisor.
I walked in to the First Aid office and had about 14 eyes focused on me. I’m sure it was unusual to see a uniformed Braves employee walk into their office. I told a couple of the EMTs that I was having chest pain, that I’d had a heart attack before and that I’d like for them to take my blood pressure. They were happy to oblige and began asking me a few questions about the location and severity of my pain. My blood pressure was 170 over 105, which was extremely high for me since I took meds that generally kept my pressure down to 115 over 75. The EMT asked me to lay down on their examining table so that they could hook up the leads for an EKG. Before loading me into the ambulance, they wanted to see if the test could detect anything. They kept having trouble with one area. They couldn’t get a good signal, which can be a sign that there is a problem.
About this time, I told them that I had a small 200-doses can of Nitroglycerin Sublingual Spray that I always carried in my pocket. They said that I should go ahead and use it. I gladly complied with two short bursts in my mouth. I looked at my watch with the thought that in five minutes I would do it again if the pain continued.
This is when it happened.
There was not immediate relief, so, I started thinking this could be the end of things on earth. The EMTs began loading me on to a gurney and asked if I wanted to go to Grady’s ER or Emory Midtown Hospital. I said that Emory was my choice because that’s where my cardiologist practiced medicine and all of my records would be there. The two hospitals were equally close to Turner Field.
When I suffered 100% blockage of my LDA some 33 months ago, I didn’t really know how seriously my heart was being damaged by the cutoff of blood/oxygen flow. But now I knew the full ramifications of the pain I was experiencing. This was not heartburn, indigestion or acid reflux. And it wasn’t my gall bladder or pancreas. I no longer had a gall bladder and my pancreas pain would’ve been a little lower.
No, this was a coronary artery or two in major distress! And, suddenly, I didn’t want to die. Why was that surprising to me? You might ask, Doesn’t everyone feel that way?
Actually, no, everyone doesn’t feel opposed to dying all of the time. Over the past three years, I had grown accustomed to the idea that I might be passing on to heaven sooner rather than later. I even had a dream on February 28, 2014, while in the hospital suffering from pancreatitis, about going to heaven and what the first few hours might be like. And, of course, it was very pleasant!
As I’ve grown closer to God over the past few years, the experience of his presence was a powerful antidote to the difficulties and challenges of life. I wanted more of that experience and I think that is a good sentiment. And I realize the choice on when we pass on to glory is God’s decision and not ours. I had begun to get the idea that, for me, it might be sooner than one might expect.
My first thoughts were that I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t “put my affairs in order” as well as I would like. Jenny and Jed, Jameson and Justin would all be fine in figuring out where our will and life insurance information was and things like that. But I hadn’t prepared them for my being vacant from our family. In fact, I don’t know what all of that means. So, by writing this essay, I’m inviting that process for my family and for yours. Here’s one of my deep desires: we learn to befriend our death and celebrate the life that we have been given. Most of us would agree that life is a gift and most of you reading this essay have been given a life of privilege, wealth and all manner of life-enhancing blessings. Physical death is a result of the fallen nature of creation and all of us will experience death unless Jesus returns and completes the trifecta of his work with heaven on earth that followed his incarnation and death/resurrection/ascension.
So, let’s say that I wanted to celebrate a little more. Hang out a little more. Have “heaven on earth” fun a little more. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Jenny being able to rest after years of teaching and grad school and teaching. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Jed fully blossom into the man that God intends for him to be. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Justin on the biggest stage so that everyone could appreciate the wonderfulness of his presence in front of an audience or a camera. I wasn’t ready to leave before seeing Aberdeen reach her second birthday and then start working toward kindergarten. And I didn’t want to leave before seeing Bethany publish a book for the parents of medically complicated children and for Abby to be known as the General’s daughter.
Here’s the deal, though. I am ready to leave whenever God calls me to be in his physical presence. I’m ready because I haven’t let my dreams and desires die in me. I’m sharing them now and I’ll continue to celebrate life in the midst of heartache because there is a redeemer. The story we are in has an ending that is magical and wonderful and peaceful. Our world isn’t hurling through space with no destination.
The good news for me was that God showed mercy to me on October 2nd. The nitroglycerin proved to be the proper antidote for artery distress, which was probably a coronary artery spasm. Subsequent echocardiograms and heart catheterization showed that my arteries were in good shape with nothing close to a blockage. So that spasm served me well. It opened my eyes to the continued blessing of life and re-kindled my mission to encourage you to befriend your death and celebrate your life that is in the hands of a loving and merciful Creator and a Savior who has bought you for good.