Dealing Positively with a Chronic Illness

Name Withheld

A year after the untimely death of my wife, I almost died of a broken heart. My health was wrecked and a massive heart attack left me in a chemically induced coma for a month and I was resuscitated 41 times – a hospital record. During one of these episodes I had a near death experience:

I found myself in a relatively small town, where I was a shopkeeper of a general store. The people in the town seemed to know me and like me. It seemed as though I had lived in this town for decades, and I enjoyed it. It was a peaceful life with simple pleasures, without much stress, which appealed to me. This experience concluded back in my store, where, suddenly, everyone stopped, turned to me, and asked if I wanted to be part of this. I responded, “Yes, I like this life, but where is my family?” I wanted to take care of my daughters, because they were not yet independent. The town abruptly disappeared.

Next, I was back in academia, where I found that all my research streams had been successful. Further, the research results were hailed as seminal contributions to the field. I was travelling around the world, presenting these results, and staying at the best hotels, and eating at the best restaurants. This was fun. Once again everyone suddenly stopped, turned to me, and asked if I wanted to be part of this. Again I declined. One of my colleagues asked if I were sure, since if I returned to my current life, I would be badly damaged. I responded that as long as I could help my family, I would not want to be anywhere else. At this point I emerged from my coma.

When I woke up I promptly wondered if I had made the right decision. I had no muscle tone, and could only move my arms and feet. Further, what was left of my kidneys had been completely destroyed by the dyes used to save my heart. I fought through rehab and was able to walk. I continue to give out in bits and pieces, a foot here, an eye there, and suffer from the unrelenting side effects of the medications that keep me alive. I was on dialysis until my transplant, which meant living a half life on treatment days. Worst of all, I was losing my ability to do many of the things I loved most. Given my ongoing health challenges, I realized I going to be seriously depressed if I only thought about myself and my problems. I decided to dedicate whatever remaining time I had left to helping people.

As Mormon leader David O. McKay promised:

True happiness is found in the paradoxical saying, “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 10:39). Our lives are wrapped up with the lives of others, and we are happiest as we contribute to their happiness. … [Robert Browning wrote:] I will tell you all the meaning of life. … There is an answer to the passionate longings of the heart for fullness, and I knew it, and the answer is this: Live in all things outside yourself by love, and you will have joy. That is the life of God; it ought to be our life. In him it is accomplished and perfect; but in all created things it is a lesson learned slowly and through difficulty. (Cherished Experiences from the Writings of David O. McKay, Deseret Book, 1955, pp. 176-77)

Even though I often felt half-dead I kept working and invested my earnings in my daughters. They have all graduated from their undergraduate programs debt-free. I was able to help all three in advanced studies and credentials as well. They are well on their way to being good, strong, independent women.

In my Church I found satisfaction in teaching and training, and reaching out to inactive members with messages of hope and encouragement, to the point where one grateful couple named their child after me – poor kid. In my job I am an academic, and have provided junior faculty and students with the mentoring I never had, including career coaching as well as coauthoring presentations and publications. To date I have saved the careers of over half a dozen good people across the country, and given over twenty students a peak learning experience and career credential, including all of my daughters.

I do not know why I am still alive, since my life is not that pleasant much of the time. I do know why I stay alive – to help and love others, as best I can. The resulting happiness and satisfaction makes all the rest fade away, and that is reason enough to give thanks to God. These bright moments become a reservoir to sustain me during the inevitable gray days when I am so tempted to feel otherwise.

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