Wasn’t it the feast of the Epiphany? Why was Graeme Burton, surrounded by armed police, in the bed opposite mine? Some revelation indeed!
I thought a coffee and a Christmas truffle were waiting for me. True, but about 8.15pm on Friday, 5 January, I had a cardiac arrest, collapsing in our Rintoul Street kitchen.
How on earth could this have happened? I was a reasonably fit, 54-year-old Sister of Mercy, weighed 50kg, walked daily, not smoking or drinking. I was on holiday, unaware that I may have Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia [ARVD], a progressive genetic disease. Earlier in the day I had picnicked at one of the bays on the south coast.
My crash to the floor brought Patricia and Barbara, two community members hurrying to the kitchen (even neighbours heard the noise). The 111 call centre operator gave CPR [cardiac pulmonary resuscitation] instructions after listening through the phone to my struggle to breathe.
Two ambulances and a fire engine arrived within a minute of being dispatched. Suddenly there were six men and their emergency equipment in our kitchen. Although they applied the ‘paddles’ restarting my heart, the paramedics said it didn’t look good.
My downtime was six minutes. Apparently the survival rate for an arrest outside a hospital situation is only 2-4% with a high risk of brain damage. I didn’t experience any bright lights, meet anyone, feel as if I were moving through a tunnel, or have any out-of-body experience – how boring!
I don’t remember anything from about half an hour before the event. Apparently I phoned my brother for his birthday, told some friends I would organise a picnic for them, prepared a food parcel for a woman who had phoned earlier, and emailed Wellington Sisters of Mercy suggesting leadership reading material.
In ICU on Saturday afternoon (or was it Sunday?) I heard my sister telling me I was in hospital after a cardiac arrest. I don’t remember anything more until waking up in Coronary Care.
Dedicated and highly skilled medical and support staff cared for me over the next 10 days. Nothing was too much trouble. Staff who attended me on Friday night later visited me when off duty, delighted that I had made it.
I then went by air ambulance to Auckland for further tests and the implantation of an internal cardiac defibrillator, returning to Wellington Hospital five days later. There was a wonderful view of the McNaught comet as we flew back, but not from my horizontal position.
After a few more days in Wellington Hospital it was home to Rintoul Street where ‘Precious Platinum’ and ‘Auckland Metro’ were putting on a magnificent display of red and white blooms outside my bedroom window. A pohutukawa I had raised from seed was flowering for the very first time. Around the back, the tomatoes, corn, strawberries, lettuces and herbs were all flourishing, lovingly cared for in my absence.
So what has all of this got to do with Easter?
‘If Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain’ (1Cor15:17). St Paul’s words are at the heart of the Christian message. Christians are called to proclaim with their lives God’s power at work bringing life out of death, first in Jesus and then through him, and in the power of the Spirit, everywhere. This is where our hope lies.
But where does this hope come from? In the New Testament resurrection accounts, Jesus’ disciples experienced his risen presence (unrecognised initially) in the midst of utter devastation. The one they loved had been crucified. Their hopes were shattered.
But then God made a way where no way was possible: a distraught Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus thinking he was the gardener, the disciples had a miraculous catch of fish after a fruitless night’s effort, a stranger walked beside two disheartened disciples on the road to Emmaus offering them a new perspective on all that had happened, those huddled together in the upper room in terror heard words of peace. As those first disciples experienced then, it is precisely when the darkness seems greatest and situations seem most hopeless that God always makes a way.
But how do Christians find that way forward today, that is, where do they experience the risen Jesus and how do they help others to see in their darkest moments?
The New Testament account above and my own experience over the past few months confirm that first we have to stay with the darkness. That is, we have to name it, and keep watch with one another there.
Friday night and Saturday were nothing short of hell for my family and community. But even then there were stirrings of hope. Those gathered when I was on a ventilator rightly concluded that I was an organ donor – life could come from death.
Then when it seemed I was going to pull through, brain damage was feared. I kept repeating, ‘Why am I here?’ without seeming to hear the response. But hope stirred again, God made a way, gradually I improved and I live to write this account.
Why did I arrest in the kitchen? Why not on the tractor heading towards Cape Kidnappers, or swimming in the hot baths at Napier, or doing the Waikanae River walk – all things I had done with family earlier in the week? Why did I survive when the odds were so against me? So many questions – I’ve been to the edge and back.
Our Catholic sacramental imagination enables us to see the presence of God in many different ways. I experienced the risen Jesus present in the love and concern of my family, Sisters of Mercy, friends, colleagues, parish community, neighbours and students. God’s power to bring life from death, hope from hopelessness, ie, the Easter message, was made concrete for me through the enormous skill and dedication of the hospital staff and emergency crews involved in my recovery.
Theologian Karl Rahner used the image of a volcano erupting to describe the resurrection – God’s fire already burning, bringing about transformation. Easter breaks out!
Perhaps a timely image for New Zealanders this Easter is the Ruapehu lahar headlined by the Dominion Post, ‘The earth trembled’ (19.3.2007). Like the resurrection, the lahar burst forth challenging us to deal with the consequences.
In this year’s Easter vigil Gospel, the male disciples dismiss the women’s story of the resurrection as nonsense, an ‘idle tale’. Mine is no idle tale either. Jesus is Lord!
Hope can come from darkness – the black stretcher marks on the kitchen floor are constant reminders. Our Easter task is to live out the women’s message with as much passion and conviction as they did, no matter the consequences.
As Isaac Watts wrote in that well known hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: ‘Love so amazing so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.’ Easter is always and everywhere – Alleluia!