“Our once great western Christian civilization is dying. If this matters to followers of Jesus Christ, then we must set aside our denominational differences and work together to strengthen the things that remain and reclaim what has been lost. Evangelicals and Catholics must stand together to re-establish that former Christian culture and moral consensus. We have the numbers and the organization but the question is this: Do we have the will to win this present spiritual battle for Jesus Christ against secularism? Will we prayerfully and cooperatively work toward a new Christian spiritual revival ― or will we choose to hunker down in our churches and denominationalisms and watch everything sink into the spiritual and moral abyss of a New Dark Age?” - Mark Davis Pickup

Saturday, July 13, 2019


I am writing about heart disease because Google featured a doodle celebrating the birth
of Dr. René Favaloro. He developed the heart-bypass surgical procedure. It gives me an opportunity for me to write my own experience with heart disease.

The 1960s were a revolutionary time in medical treatment of cardiovascular disease. Open-heart surgery was making major advances. The first coronary arterial bypass surgery was conducted in Cleveland by Dr. Favaloro. Pacemaker technology was developing quickly. 

Then on December 3rd 1967, South Africa surgeon, Dr. Christian Bernard
performed the first heart transplant on a man named Louis Washkansky. It was front-page news around the world. Washkansky died eighteen days later just before Christmas. Not to be deterred, Dr. Bernard performed the world’s second transplant in early January of 1968, on a retired dentist named Philip Blaiberg. Again the daring of Dr. Bernard was front-page news. 

One warm summer evening in 1967, my dad and I were sitting at a small table playing chess near a lakeside log cabin we owned. The last vestiges of a glorious sunset sparkled on the lake before fading into dusk.  A fire crackled in the fire-pit giving us light. All was tranquil. Suddenly and without warning, Dad grabbed his chest and pitched forward. The table tipped over sending the chess pieces flying. I yelled, “What’s wrong Dad!” He assured me everything was fine and recovered his composure. He said he thought he was coming down with something. No kidding! Conceding the game he went into the cabin and laid down. I told my mother what happened and she asked him about it. He brushed off the incident as a minor ailment.  The next incident happened in late August while Dad was driving the family car. Suddenly and without warning again he convulsed in pain, clutched the steering wheel, moaned, and with difficulty brought the car to a stop at the side of the road.  He leaned his head against the driver side window. This time my mother saw it. She was horrified! So was I.  Mom badgered and grilled him for details about his chest pain and demanded he see a doctor.  When my father recovered sufficiently he quietly slid across the bench-seat to the passenger side. Mom drove the rest of way home still harping at him to see a doctor. He finally mumbled something about being too late, and doctors couldn’t help him. It was the first time I saw Dad being irrationally obstinate.

Over many decades of diligent practice, my mother honed the not-so-gentle art of nagging into a precise and piercing science. But nagging often has the opposite effect of its intended purpose. My father was of an era when men loathed to acknowledge personal sickness and recoiled at the thought of going to a doctor. It was seen as a sign of weakness. My dad made sure his family was well-tended but neglected himself.  In my perception as at fourteen years old, my dad seemed so strong and invincible – so much in control.

The family doctor diagnosed angina and wrote a prescription for a medication called digitalis. Dad
had a heart condition. To allay our fears, he explained to the family had people with various medical conditions lived normal lives. He pointed out a merchant who lived down the street who had diabetes; with the exception of daily insulin shots and watching his blood-sugar levels, he lived a normal and active life. But despite my father's assurances, a twinge of fear hung over me. My innocent and happy life was about to change forever.

After the 1967 Christmas break, life got back to a regular routine.  It was a typical day at school. In the middle of my grade eight class, there was a knock at the classroom door. It was the school principal. He and the teacher whispered at the door then the principal called me. In the hallway, he looked at me gravely and said: “You need to go home right now. Get your jacket and leave.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Your mother is waiting for you.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Your dad had a heart attack. You need to leave right now.”

I rushed home. Something inside me seemed to know my life was changing and it would never be the same again. When I got home my father had already been transported by ambulance to a hospital. It was not a moment too soon!

Tempest of the heart & soul

When my siblings and I arrived at the hospital, we
were sent to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). We found Mom crying in the waiting room. Through her sobs, she told us that the doctor told her Dad could die at any time! It was like somebody kicked me in the head! Reality became unreality. I went into shock. My mind refused to take in her words. It’s impossible to describe my fear.

That long night, Dad’s heart stopped three times and he was revived three times.  He hung in a dreadful delicate balance between life and death.

Visitation rules for the Intensive Care Unit were restricted to immediate family and only one visitor per hour for ten minutes. The rule was strictly enforced. That meant I could only see the hero of my life for ten minutes every fourth hour and he could die at any time. Each visit could be my last. 

My first visit was more like a journey into a dreadful unknown. When it was my turn to enter the ICU, I trembled to push the intercom button and identify myself. The greenish-white metal doors unlocked and I entered an anteroom to death.

In the middle of the large open Intensive Care Unit, an observation center was raised for a proficient and clinical cadre of nurses and doctors. They peered out across the large room at their half-dead patients. They watched beeping monitors, examined charts and fanned out across the room to various patient’s beds. One side of the unit was for cardiac care. Other assorted life-threatening conditions lined the other three walls. The atmosphere was sterile in more ways than hygiene. It was like something out of a Robin Cook novel. I walked past numerous beds, separated only by curtains and medical equipment until I reached my dad.
I was stunned!

His skin was waxy grey. Electric cardio-shock must have still in its infancy because he had numerous burn marks on his chest as though hot stove elements had been held against his skin. The sight of him broke my heart. But even in that very critical state, he smiled at the sight of me. I had only ten minutes for the next four hours so I cut through any possibility of small talk. In four hours he might be dead!

Choking back tears I blurted, “I thought you were going to die!” He became serious but in his usual unflappable way he said, “I thought so too, Mark.”

“Weren’t you afraid?” I asked.
“Yes, I was afraid of dying before you kids were raised. I was afraid of leaving your mother to finish the job alone.”
“Your heart stopped three times, Dad! How can you be so calm?!”
My dad looked at me intensely then said,

 “I want you to understand that Christ was with
me, Mark. We all must die. We can either die with Christ or without him, but eventually we all die. This has been the point behind everything I’ve tried to teach you, son. How you respond to Christ and His sacrifice at Calvary is all that matters when you die. I want you to give your life to Jesus and live for Him.”

Silence, then tears.

Growing up in a Christian home, surrounded by evangelical Christians, I often heard the refrain, “Have you given your life to Jesus?”  As a child, I did make a commitment to the Lord. But it was a cultural commitment of a boy who worshipped his earthly father and wanted to please him rather than my heavenly Father. Now my earthly father lay at the edge of death. I held his hand and we looked at each other.  In that quiet sacred moment, we lived centuries. 

Suddenly, the silence was broken by a gurney bursting through the doors with a team of medical people frantically working on a man.  A nurse unceremoniously ushered me out of the ICU. I founded myself standing outside the doors looking at some poor wretch’s wife with soggy cheeks. She had a terrified expression on her face. I knew exactly how she felt.

Dad remained in the Intensive Care Unit for weeks. It seemed like an eternity. My family watched other heart patients either die or recover enough to be moved to hospital wards. We remained in a limbo of shadows—a no-man’s land that swung back and forth between life and death. Doctors tried to stop the downward slide of my father’s failing heart—and various other serious crisis’s that befell him. We were living in a nightmare.

The heart specialists worked valiantly to save my dad and their skills were spectacular. But I detested their casual detachment from the humanity of suffering. It was not the patient in bed 7 — he was my father! His name was Howard and he had a family who loved him, and our hearts were breaking! He was not the sum total of his electro-cardiograms, blood tests and whatever else was on his chart. He was not the patient in bed 7. He was a man and that man was my father!

The head of the cardiac team was a brilliant young cardiologist I will refer to as Dr. T. I remember he called a meeting of families of all the cardiac patients in the intensive care unit and forbade newspapers or discussions about the world's second heart transplant patient: Philip Blaiberg.  Dr. T. did not want to raise false hopes in us or his patients. He believed that Dr. Bernard’s sensational transplant operations in South Africa were doomed to failure because anti-rejection drugs were still in their infancy. Although Dr. T. was right, Philip Blaiberg lived another 18 months before dying or organ rejection on August 17th 1969. 

I remember a debate arose in South Africa because Philip Blaiberg was a white man who received the heart of a multi-racial black man. I was disgusted! What did race have to do with heart transplantation? Apparently, in Apartheid South Africa of 1968, it meant a great deal.  Heated debates erupted about the “ethics” of interracial transplantation. Ethics! It had nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with racism. My father was living at the edge of death and people had the audacity to bring racist bigotry about a medical procedure that could possibly save people like my Dad?!  I was deeply offended, as I’m sure thousands of families were offended who had loved-ones dying of heart disease.  (My father’s case was remarkably similar to Dr. Bernard’s first patient, Louis Washkansky.) 

The success of the Philip Blaiberg heart transplant led to an explosion of heart transplantation by doctors around the world.[1]  Today it is quite common.
Dr. T. was a rude and blunt man with an audacious bushy moustache that matched his personality. My father didn’t like him. He thought Dr. T. had a god-complex and a colossal ego that was fed by his extraordinary and dazzling skill of saving patients other doctors were losing. Most of Dr. T. patients were in awe of him. When he entered the room, one felt he expected its lowly occupants to shrink and genuflect before the superior intellect standing before them. My father was suspicious that Dr. T. saw his patients as a group of sustained arrhythmias, myocardial infarctions and faulty ventricles—problems to be solved rather than people to be healed.

Dr. T. showed my mother dad’s electrocardiogram. Before explaining the medical problem he said, “That’s the heartbeat of a dying man.” My mother broke down and wept like a mere mortal. But in the final analysis, despite his rudeness and tactlessness, Dr. T. used his vast medical knowledge and skills to pull my father back from the grip of death and saved his life.  I have always been grateful to him.

The first man I saw die

One day while visiting my dad in the ICU, a man a few beds away went into full cardiac arrest. Within seconds nurses and doctors pounced on him. It reminded me of wolves attacking a crippled prey – except this pack was trying to save a life not take it. It happened so quickly nobody had time to throw me out of the ICU. A nurse made a haphazard attempt to close the curtain but the patient’s feet were still visible. I could hear shouts of medical lingo between doctors and nurses jostling around the bed, then the sound of electro-cardio shock paddles being applied to the man’s chest. His body convulsed. There was a pause. The paddles were put to him again, again and again. With each shock, his feet jumped less. Finally, the medical team stopped their frantic work. Somebody closed the curtain around the man’s bed and they walked away. I watched in wide-eyed horror as the whole thing unfolded. It was the first time I saw a person die. 

Slowly I turned and looked at my father. I don’t remember what he said — or if he said anything at all ­— but we held each other knowing that his feet might be next to bounce on a bed. I dared not speak for fear of weeping.  A nurse told me it was time to leave. I nodded assent and made my way to the double-doors of the ICU then turned to look back at my father. It would be four hours before I could see him again. Would he be dead by then? He waved to me and smiled weakly. I left.

Then something happened. I experienced one of those inscrutable human moments in which we live a lifetime.  At such moments, a lifetime’s worth of love and sorrow (much of it still unlived) simultaneously floods our hearts. Our souls cry out in primal anguish; our pain lays open like a raw gaping wound. Such moments are stark and terrible, yet they are necessary. If our souls’ remain unstirred it would a crime against our own humanity.

How I longed to be in a boat fishing again with Dad bobbing gently on a lake in a cool morning mist. Sobbing and blinded by tears, I fell against a wall then slumped to the floor and bawled like a baby. 

Then, through blurred vision, I saw
a pair of black shoes in front of me and followed them up to see the face of a priest. He was a friend of my dad: Father Edward Lynch.  He sat on the floor and silently hugged me.

About ten minutes later those same nurses walked out of the ICU and passed us on their way for a coffee break. They were chatting and laughing, talking about their plans for the weekend or their kids’ basketball team. I hated their detachment from suffering humanity!  Somebody’s family was trying to fathom the death of their loved one, and the nurses and doctors were heading off for pie and coffee? I hoped they’d all choke on the crumbs and dregs. (I understand now, as an old man, that detachment was necessary or they would have burnt out.)

Just being there

Father Lynch gave me the invaluable gift of his presence. It was a simple yet profound witness. His compassion was real and visible—a bastion of human decency that made sense in my unravelling world seemingly gone mad and callous.

The Apostle Paul said, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”[2] The priest was not afraid to enter my pain and sit with me in my sorrow and fear. He did not try to set things right. He couldn’t. He did not spew empty platitudes about knowing how I felt. He didn’t. He simply showed me Christ-like love by his presence. His greatest comfort was simply being there with me in my anguish. Even at fourteen years of age, I understood that. It was something my family’s United Church church community did not do. 

I do not remember our own United Church pastor or church members sitting with my mother in those dark hours as my dad’s life hung in the balance. (I must be fair, they probably sent a Get Well Soon card.) It was a Catholic priest who was consistently there for my family. He wept with us and prayed with us and consoled us. I grew to love Father Lynch like a – well, a father.

I want to help you to understand the important Christian witness of your simple presence with those who hurt or mourn. I have often said that it was not cleaver theological debates that led me to the Catholic Church. I was loved into the Catholic Church. Love in action is the best witness for Christ.

[1] By August of 1968, there were 34 heart transplants. By the end of 1969, ninety-eight people received new hearts. As of 2001, over 100,000 heart transplants had been performed with a nearly 100% success rate. According to the World Health Organization about 5,400 heart transplant operations occur every year, mostly in the United States.
[2] Romans 12.15.

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