One lesson I learned after I drowned on a South American river was that to face life's challenges with gratitude and joy, a person must first lose his or her faith.
I am an experienced kayaker, but when I crested the top of a moderate waterfall while kayaking the Fuy River, I saw no clean exit to the tremendous turbulence at its bottom. I pragmatically assumed I would tip over at the bottom, then exit my boat and be briefly tossed about in the turbulence before surfacing and swimming downstream.
When my boat struck the bottom with a thud, I was immediately submerged. As a spine surgeon, I am familiar and comfortable with stressful situations. I remained calm as I sequentially went through the steps to extricate myself: detaching my spray skirt (neoprene fabric that keeps water out of the boat by stretching between the kayaker's waist and the boat's cockpit rim), pushing myself out of the boat with my feet, and trying to free the boat by rocking back and forth. I had no air, was too far from shore for anyone to reach me and my self-rescue was prevented by the flowing water flattening my torso against the front deck of my boat. After a lifetime of fearing a drowning death, the irony of my predicament almost made me chuckle.
Like 92 percent of Americans at that time, I believed in God. I attended Sunday school as a child and accepted Christ as my savior as a teenager. My moderate faith in religious truths easily faded into the background of my busy life when I left for college, but I called to God on the river, asking only that His will be done.
I was immediately overcome with a physical sensation of being held, comforted, and reassured that everything would be fine regardless of whether I lived or died. I was presented with a short review of my life, emphasizing the unseen ripple effects of particular events rather than the event itself. The scientific, analytical and skeptical part of my brain observed this with interest and curiosity. I was acutely aware of my situation; I knew I had been underwater too long to be alive but also knew that this experience did not have the quality of a dream or hallucination, was not the result of a dying brain and could not have been created by my limited imagination.
My legs bent backward on themselves as the current slowly pulled my body downstream over the front deck of my boat but I felt no pain as they were breaking. My spirit peeled away from my discarded body and as I rose up and out of the river, I was joyously greeted by a group of old friends. I watched my body be pulled to the riverbank and as CPR was initiated, I was guided down a path to a domed building that not only exuded a brilliance of color and beauty, but also exploded with the pure, complete and unconditional love of God. I felt like I was finally home. Despite my protests, I was eventually returned to my body with words of encouragement and instruction regarding my future.
I was hospitalized for many weeks after my drowning, underwent many surgeries on my broken legs and suffered the losses of both my father and stepfather. I struggled to reconcile my understanding of medical science with the reality of my experience. I analyzed the experiences, reviewed my medical records and corroborated events with others. I listened to the stories of my patients who cautiously asked to share with me their own experience of Godly intervention. I struggled with the instructions I had been given, especially as they related to the future death of my son.
I lost my faith; it was transformed into a complete trust in the promises of God. This changed me as a person and as a doctor. Trusting that God loves us unconditionally, that spiritual life is eternal and that He as a beautiful plan for each of us, allowed me to face struggles with gratitude and joy. Each event, neither good nor bad, is like a small thread woven together with others to create a glorious tapestry of God's design. I do not fear death. I am more tolerant of other people's actions. I observe the world with an open heart.
I have not discarded the truth of scientific discovery nor discount its value to society, but the boundaries between God and medicine have been forever shattered. I pray for my patients. I help them perceive a beautiful opportunity for growth in an otherwise dire situation.
Spiritual curiosity while experiencing the presence of God in one's life transforms faith into the trust that provides confidence to face life's most difficult challenges with gratitude and joy.