Recently I underwent open-heart surgery. The operation came as no surprise, as my doctors had been monitoring an ever-narrower blockage in one of my coronary arteries for well over a decade. The time had come to intervene surgically before the problem caused a major heart attack.
Despite the almost routine nature of this procedure today (the hospital I chose does 1,000 each year), it surely lends itself to extra long thoughts and reflections. Bypass surgery is, after all, a dramatic intrusion into a person’s body—indeed into one’s very life force—and a sharing of insights may prove useful to others, especially those facing similar episodes.
Not surprising, my most immediate reaction to this successful surgery was a sense of enormous gratitude to medical science and its practitioners. I’ve quite literally received a new lease on life, if the statistics around this procedure bear up in my case. My sense of gratitude is particularly keen because it was 50 years ago this summer that I watched my father succumb helplessly to coronary artery disease at age 58. The doctors at that time could offer nothing better than palliatives as they and my father waited for that fatal attack. One can understand, then, my feelings of heartfelt (the word is so appropriate) thanks for the skill that medicine has acquired over the past half-century to deal with and provide a solution for this and so many other life-threatening conditions.
Perhaps because I had never before been seriously ill, loving gestures from family, community, friends, and even mere acquaintances quite overwhelmed me. So many of these friends and acquaintances offered sound advice regarding convalescence. In a variety of ways, they gave me permission to go with the healing process on God and nature’s schedule and not my own, a most important element for me in this whole remarkable experience.
Another is the recognition that such miracles of modern medicine get shared so inequitably in today’s world. As I prepared emotionally and physically for this surgery, I remembered a U.S.-trained cardiologist in Peru telling me some 25 years ago that the sophisticated open-heart procedures that he learned in the First World made little sense in that underdeveloped country. His role as a surgeon there was not to provide complicated coronary by-pass operations for a few wealthy 60-somethings, but rather to make sure that 15-year-olds got access to appendectomies. For my doctor friend it was always a case of triage in deciding who would benefit from the limited medical resources available in a country like Peru. A sobering reflection, and one that gives rise, especially in this Franciscan, to long thoughts about the privileged and the nonprivileged among God’s sons and daughters.
THE REPRIEVE modern science has provided carries with it the conviction that I must give something back. I cannot believe that God, through the instrumentality of skilled surgeons, has awarded me 10 or 20 additional years just for myself; longevity cannot be the sole purpose of this wonderful scientific know-how. As a minister of the gospel, it seems clear what shape this "giving back" will take: a continuation of the work that has been my life’s calling, with the added ingredient, I hope, of heightened compassion for those with serious physical or emotional problems. Still, I wonder if this close brush with my own mortality will inevitably present me with some new, heretofore unknown dimension of service to God’s people.
The experience of a serious intrusion into one’s heart, with all the physical, emotional, and especially spiritual dimensions involved, makes any thinking person starkly aware of life’s fragile and temporary nature. Open heart surgery involves an actual stoppage of the heart, a shutting down of the special organ that has fascinated philosophers, theologians, and poets as the locus of emotions, sentiments, yearnings, disappointments, and love. Such an invasion into the sacrament of one’s very being serves as a healthy reminder that life is so tenuous, our destination elsewhere. For all its sobering truth, this wakeup call can only be healthy for us "Easter People."
Teilhard de Chardin’s words—"God’s greatest glory is the human person fully alive"—always have impressed me, and they have taken on new meaning and challenge as I begin these first days of the rest of my life. That’s a wonderful reason to live to the hilt this precious, God-given gratuity, our life span.
JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service. He was for six years the author of the "Life in Community" column in Sojourners.