Once, I died

Sunlight lit the mid-summer morning.

Clambering onto the surgical trolley, I laughingly said to my husband “Aren’t you giving me a kiss for luck?” He did. Cheerily chatting to hospital porters and nurses, as we travelled the long corridors to theatre, the thought of danger or risk was far from my mind. The previous night, the Senior Registrar listed out all the negative things that could happen this time. But I’d had successful neurosurgery before, I could walk again. This time, to me, was simply Stage II, and I was ready for the next round. In pre-op, I joked with the anaesthetist, whom I’d meant on Stage I. As I drifted into enforced oblivion, I called to her “Don’t forget to tell him (my surgeon) that it’s my birthday!” I was 46 years old that day.

When I came to, I was lying flat in my bed. My husband sat gazing, head down, at his hands. Suddenly, I was standing beside a nurse and Senior Registrar, who were discussing whether to connect another bottle to my intravenous line. The room was filled with bright sunlight. I insisted I didn’t need another bottle attached, but they weren’t listening. Fadeout.

Days later, I was told I’d had a CFS leak, but all was fine when the neurosurgeon returned to help his next patient. I stayed in the hospital for three weeks, which didn’t make sense to me. I was fine, I was ready for home long before that. Well, in my mind I was. Unusual tests were carried out on a daily basis, what I’d regarded as normal checks for recovery assessment, had, perhaps, been changed since my previous surgery. I grew restless, I quizzed my surgeon to his point of frustration. When he left my room, he patted my husband on the shoulder and told him “Bear with me. The lady is in a tizzy, but she’ll be fine”. Eventually I was discharged and went home.

Some years later, it occurred to me to ask my husband why he’d sat, looking down at his hands, with no word for me. “But”, he replied, “you were unconscious. You’d been so since your return from theatre”. My questions followed, why?, how?. He’d waited all day after I’d left early on my way to theatre. He watched other patients return throughout the day, but got no answer to his querying where I was. Over 12 hours after I’d blithely asked him to wish me luck, he was prepared and gowned-up to, as he was told, “ say goodbye…” Then a full surgical team appeared, rushing my bed, with me onboard. They worked on me for some time (he said), then told him to go and rest.

Where was I during that lost 48 hours, while he fearfully waited? How could I possibly be standing, as I’d thought, advising medical staff that I didn’t need the bottle of clearly-marked drug? (That certainly didn’t make sense, as I’m very shortsighted and certainly couldn’t read without my glasses!). I can still place myself in that state of extreme joy, in the impossibe brightness. I can’t claim to have seen a tunnel of light, nor voices calling or telling me to go back. There was no beautiful, flower-filled place, just an intense feeling of joy.

I went back and discussed, with my surgeon, what it could mean, and what had happened? He said that patients have “experiences” in theatre, that he’d repaired the spinal fluid leak, but other than that, no answers. (He investigated what I told him how my husband had to wait all day and then be prepped to come say goodbye in post-op. There were profuse apologies, but we live still with the mystery).

I have never feared death. I’ve held people whose death was imminent, gripped frail hands until their restless wandering on bed clothing finally stilled. All I know is, with their going, absolute peace surrounded them, and lingered for a while after they’d left.

There was obviously none of that peace when I was elsewhere. It just was not my time to leave for good.