On February 2, at about 10:30 PM, I felt like somebody threw a spear through my back. I ran upstairs and woke my wife Linda - "Call 911!!"
I writhed on the floor in pain as Linda made the call. As she was talking to the 911 dispatcher, I stopped breathing. Linda hung up on the woman and gave me CPR, all 100 pounds of her compressing my chest to revive me. When I woke up, I was so angry with her - "Why did you wake me? Now I am in pain again!!" I didn't understand that she had just saved my life.
At the hospital, they could not figure out what was wrong with me. The blood tests showed that I was not having a heart attack. It wasn't until they looked at my chest xray and then a CT Scan that they saw a football-shaped aneurysm in the ascending aorta (the main blood vessel that comes up out of the heart - see daigram). When they saw this, everything changed. I was rushed into surgery, which lasted 12 hours.
Against all odds, I survived the tear of the aorta and the trauma of the surgery. But I wasn't out of the woods yet. I developed Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and for four weeks was placed in a medicated coma. The mortality rate for those with ARDS is extremely high. Each day my vitals were up and down, and they could not risk bringing me out of the coma. After four weeks of this, Linda confronted the pulmonologist, asking him when he thought this would end. He said that he did not know if or when it would end. The next day I was sitting up in a chair! Praise God.
During this time, my wife, friends, and family had no choice but to rely on God for strength, peace, and comfort. And that is a good thing. All too often, we feel we are God - that we have total control of our destiny. But times like these remind us that this is only so in a limited way. God is God, and we are not. When the hard times come, like when we face mortality, it speaks like a megaphone into our souls (to borrow an image from C. S. Lewis) that we are in need of God. The witness of Christian reliance on God and the hope of eternal life was a tremendous testimony to friends, family, and the medical staff at the hospital. While in that hospital, I had a very real sense of the presence of God. Seven weeks after the emergency surgery, I was finally released from the hospital.
One month later, I was life-flighted to the Cleveland Clinic when I was in yet another acute medical emergency: the discovery of another aneurysm at the base of the aorta. I had to have a second open-heart surgery in September 2006, which reconstructed the entire thing and inserted an artificial aortic valve.
Two years after the initial event, I just want to thank our God for his grace and mercy. He spared my life. And he did so not for any of the reasons I've heard people say - it was not because I am in Christian ministry; it is not because I such a 'godly man; it was not because I deserved it. None of that is true of me. I am a sinner in ways that deeply shame me, and I am no more in 'Christian ministry' than the next Christian in his or her vocation.
God showed mercy to me, and I cannot pretend to know why. Why me, and not the next person? All I know is that God says, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Exodus 33:19, Romans 9:14). I just trust that. And I rest in the belief that God is God, and I am not.
I thank God for my wife, Linda. Not just because she knows CPR (smile), but because she was there every day, praying for me and reading Scripture to me and playing recordings of the children to me as I lay in a coma. If the roles were reversed, I don't think I could have been as strong and steadfast. I would have been an emotional wreck. God is good.
I also thank God for friends and family that were there through that horrific event two years ago. Our neighbor, Liz Heiser, came over at 11:00 and watched the kids and cleaned up (yikes!) the vomit that was all over my family room. My sister-in-law, Karen Eckart, came over and cared for the children through the night and the next day (as well as a lot over the next seven weeks).
My friends Miche Spring and Matt Robinson (pictured, left to right, with my children, Joel, Trey and Kaira) were the first to arrive at the hospital and stood by our side through the crisis. They called Amber Hale (pictured with Kaira) and she came in and was able to care for Linda during the ordeal. Amber has been a dear, dear friend for our family, ever since she started babysitting our children years ago. She was always more than a babysitter; she really loves our kids and has actually helped raise them. She spent several nights with Linda, helping her care for the kids.
One of the first to arrive was Darren Noble, who is one of the most compassionate friends a person can have. My friend Tim Miller was there once he heard about the situation. He'd come in all the time to pray and to read the Bible with Linda next to my bed. Eloy and Pat Pacheco, friends of the family, was there immediately and was able to care and comfort at this time of need (Eloy has recently retired from a long-time care ministry, visiting and caring for people in the hospital). His loving, gentle, and wonderful pastoral care is greatly appreciated.
Linda's parents, Richard and Carolyn Eckart, were caring and very helpful as they watched their daughter go through the worst possible situation.
My mom, Sandi Robinson, was there - praying and loving everyone. I loved seeing 'my mommy' when I woke up from my coma. My brother, Doug, and sister, Jackie, were there all the time, concerned and helping in any way they could.
My dad, Jack Robinson, and his wife Sharon, were workhorses - caring for the children as Linda would visit me in the hospital. My dad (pictured with Joel) is an amazing man. He never missed a day to visit me while I was in the hospital. He nearly died of a heart attack 20 years ago, and I can only imagine what it must had been like to face the possibility of one of his children dying before he did.
I thank God for my ministry community in the CCO. Everyone faithfully prayed and fasted on our behalf in this time of need. Herb Kolbe, my supervisor, came and visited on a regular basis. Dan Dupee, the president of the CCO, was instrumental in making sure we were cared for. Bob Cunningham, the CCO's Vice President for Finance and Administration, worked long and hard as a liaison between Linda and the insurance company.
I also thank God for the internet community. Byron Harvey, a friend from my pastoring days in the Evangelical Free Church, made people aware of the emergency. Emails from Linda, our friend Wendy Nowak, Tim Miller, and Matt Robinson went out to the four corners of the earth as people passed them along; people all over the world were praying for us. These updates were also posted by Scot McKnight (pictured with me in a doctored fake photo, since I don't have a picture of the two of us together!) at his extremely popular blog, Jesus Creed. So many of the readers of his blog (who occasionally pop in at this blog) were praying as well. Amazing. So I thank God for all of you!
To trace the story, read some of these blog posts:
- 02/04/06: Byron Harvey first alerted readers of this blog about my emergency medical situation (look in the comments section)
- 02/04/06: Byron wrote a post at his blog alerting his readers
- 02/04/06: Scot McKnight alerted his readers
- 02/05/06: Scot posted updates during the early days that were touch-and-go
- 02/17/06: Signs of hope as I slowly began to progress
- 02/28/06: I finally was able to move out of the coma and even sit up in a chair!
- 03/07/06: I move out of the ICU
- 03/24/06: I finally go home!
- 03/24/06: I blog again - for the first time in seven weeks
- 04/03/06: I reflect on my experience - on the power of prayer
- 04/07/06: I reflect on my experience - on living in the moment
- 04/19/06: I reflect on my experience - on the desire to be holy
- 08/13/06: Having been told that I will have to have another open-heart surgery, I voice my concern that I may die (and the implications of that for my boy, Trey)
- 09/25/06: I show a video to thank everyone for their prayers as I get ready for my second surgery
- 10/11/06: How a solid theology of Creation-Fall-Redemption got me through the anxiety of surgery
- 02/04/07: Linda's shares her thoughts on the 1-year anniversary of the aortic dissection - posted by Scot McKnight