Michael Attas: Trying to find some meaning in illness and loss

Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) - Tuesday, February 21, 2012


A year ago this week she was as close to dying as a human being can come. She had prolonged CPR and a delivery of a stillborn daughter during her crisis. She was transferred to another institution and underwent life saving implantation of a heart assist device followed days later by artificial valve replacement and a long but eventually successful recovery.

She is now living a vibrant normal life, enjoying her four children, husband, and friends. I wrote of her story last year, but in light of her experiences since the crisis I feel that she continues to have much to teach us all.

I have been blessed to get to know her and her husband well in the past year, and have found them to be the most interesting, loving, caring people I have ever met in medicine. Last fall I asked them to come to a class I teach and listened to their story again through fresh eyes.

What astounded me was that they were not willing to accept that her life was spared as some sort of random occurrence or even science combined with good medicine.

They were struggling to find meaning in her survival. They knew it was there, but they honestly did not know at the time what they were being called to do with the gift of her life once again.

They knew intuitively it wasn’t just about “them” but also about others in similar struggles.

My students were enthralled by their story and we all found their honesty quite remarkable and refreshing.

How many people, the students asked, confront their lives and illnesses with integrity and questions that deserve answers?

How many people do the hard work to face up to what illness may ask and demand of us? And my answer unfortunately is not all that many. Most of us just accept what happens as cosmic fate, the whim of a God who at times is inscrutable.

But they decided to follow the road less traveled. They did not just give their rightly deserved thanks and resume life as it was. They had to learn a new life, a new way of living, and a new way of serving.

Walter Brueggemann, a scholar of the Psalms, calls this a movement from orientation to disintegration and finally to reorientation. When we are healthy, life is really pretty easy. We are “oriented” to ourselves.

Then illness, loss, or even death strikes suddenly, and our world is torn apart.

We are lost. We are disoriented and fragmented. But then, eventually, comes a time of reckoning, and we are forced to examine our lives through a lens that often is not pretty.

After despair or loss, life simply cannot look backward. It can never be exactly like it was before, and nor should it be. This couple discussed her illness and recovery with the maturity that people of faith often do.

They revisited the site of her surgery — from the helipad where she landed to the CCU where she lay in a coma for a week, to the nurses and physicians who took care of her.

They asked questions and listened and I am sure they cried. They prayed. They talked to friends and pastors and counselors.

They brought their pain and their joy to the whole story again, and from that honest journey emerged an idea for an organization (lilaslamb.org) designed to reach out to other families in similar situations. And that is where the lessons of the story are indeed to be found.

The Greeks have a word for what this family decided to do. It is telos — the search for meaning or purpose. It leads to some deep questions.

What can I learn from this disease; what has it taught me? What am I being called to do next? What changes am I being asked to make in my life?

I am not totally sure why some take this process seriously and others ignore it. But I am convinced that when confronted with issues of death or loss, the more one takes seriously the search for purpose the more they will continue on the healing that is an ongoing and lifelong journey.

Dr. Michael Attas is a Waco-based physician, a medical humanities professor and an Episcopal priest. His column appears on a biweekly basis. Send email to Michael_Attas@baylor.edu.

Section: accesswaco
Record Number: 17841270
(c) 2012 Robinson Media Co. LLC - Waco Tribune-Herald

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Michael Attas: Trying to find some meaning in illness and loss

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