I was floating in the most serene of spaces. I had no idea where I was; only that it was very peaceful. It was the most comfortable and relaxed feeling I ever experienced. It was as if I was weightless and floating above whatever it was I had been laying on. It felt warm, like bathwater at the perfect temperature. It felt like I was touching nothing. I was just there somehow. I couldn’t open my eyes, but I wasn’t sure why. I felt like I was dreaming, yet awake. If there was a heaven on earth, that is where I was. I felt no stress, no worry, no fear, nothing but peace. There were no birds, no trees and no blankets. I was just floating.
But, there was light. It was as bright a light as I had ever seen; only I couldn’t see anything. I was aware of my body, but couldn’t feel it. It was as if I was in an incubator and didn’t even have to breathe on my own. I was confused, to say the least. And then, I heard a kind and gentle voice that seemed to be whispering directly into my brain.
As her voice became clearer, I began to feel my heart beat again… but very slowly. And then, the voice would fade away. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, even though the message seemed to be coming from within my own body. Then, another heartbeat. But, still no breathing. Then her voice became clearer. She was saying, “breathe, Mr. Dowling. You have to breathe.” I was still floating. Each time I heard her voice, I would suck in air. While everything else was effortless, the breathing was not. It was almost impossible. Even so, I did not feel as if I was suffocating. I just wasn’t breathing. It was as if I was in suspended animation.
Her voice was a little louder each time I heard it. Every time she would say breathe, I would take another breath. As her voice became louder I could feel my hand. There was something in it, but I couldn’t make out what it was. Next, I began to feel my chest rising and falling very slowly. Something about the mystical voice was calming. It was as if an angel was speaking to me directly from heaven. I started to feel that I was returning to my body. I started to hear all beeping sounds as well as voices. The voices had more urgency in their tone then hers, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I continued to hear; “Mr. Dowling you have to breathe. If you don’t, you are going to die.”
The voice became louder and louder, but it was still the most soothing sound I ever heard. And then like a rush of boiling oil, I felt the pain shooting through my leg. I was in agony. In a matter of what seemed to be a millisecond, I went from the most peaceful place I have ever been, to the most painful place I could ever imagine. It was as if Lucifer himself was torturing me in hell. I screamed out in agony, sucking in as much air as I could, begging, “MERCY, PLEASE HAVE MERCY!” I started to see flashes of light and realized I was in the hospital. I had just come out of massive surgery to try to save my leg. As I screamed out, I started to cry. The tears were rolling down my face until there were none left. Then I recognized my surgeon who was saying, “If you push the red button too many times, you are going to stop breathing, have a stroke, or die; you are only breathing four to five times a minute.” I was trying to focus, but I couldn’t stop crying or screaming. I thought I was in hell. I was in so much pain. I suffered so much during many years of daily marathon walks. How could I be in this position now? It slowly started to come to me. When I pushed the red button, I would go from agony to tranquility. It was releasing drugs directly into my body and was immediately transferring me back into that safe, calm, peaceful place. But the risk of pushing it was my own mortality.
The pain hit with the force of a stabbing wave. It felt as if boiling tar was being poured into my leg and abdomen and I screamed, “PLEASE HELP ME.” I didn’t even know what I was saying, only that I was pleading for the pain to stop. The woman’s voice was echoing in my mind. Then, something was shaking me. I opened my eyes to a blinding light. That voice was warning me not to push the button, if I ever wanted to see my children again. I didn’t understand the connection of my children to that red button. As soon as I heard that, I threw the red button in my hand as far from me as possible. When I could no longer feel anything occupying my right hand, the pain came roaring back. It was completely overwhelming. I ran out of tears, energy, even the power to moan, or cry. I was whimpering as if I was paralyzed and my leg was on fire.
I don’t know how long I was under, how long I had been screaming, or even what was happening to me. I heard my surgeon tell someone to take me off morphine and put me on something else. I thought I must have been in an accident. I knew I was in the hospital, but I didn’t know why. I would fade in and out of reality. Every time I did, that whispering voice would plead with me to breathe. Finally, I could see her. She was an angel aglow in white. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was not a figment of my imagination. She was sitting next to me, pleading with me to breathe. At this point I could recognize that she was holding my hand. I couldn’t feel her hand, just some pressure. It seemed like several lifetimes, but the torturous inferno had gone out. As I came out of my drug-induced haze, I could see that I was in the recovery room. Then it hit me. I lived through it. I was alive! After years of walking to strengthen my body, they finally fixed the artery in my leg. But, would I live?
By the time I realized where I was, and that the surgery was a success, she was gone. My surgeon told me he had to go extra deep, for the new artery they created in my leg to last a lifetime. As I became more coherent, I saw the huge bandage that stretched from my belly button, all the way down to my ankle. I was told that I wasn’t breathing enough. At that point I was only taking one breath per eleven to fifteen seconds. The painkillers weren’t working because of the immunity I had built up over the years, when I needed them during my long marathon walks. Somehow, the administrators who checked me into the emergency room and who physically took the pain killers from me, never told the surgeons how long I was on them. Nor could anyone predict, prior to surgery, just how immune I had become to them.
When I came out of the operating room the medical team faced a choice of mercy or life. They were trying to be as compassionate as possible, while at the same time, not kill me. The painkillers were stopping the pain but with each dose they gave me, I was that much closer to dying. After they stabilized me, and I was moderately coherent, they gave me the red button back. I asked them who kept telling me to breathe while I was under. I couldn’t get her voice, or her hazy image out of my mind. The doctors and nurses told me they were the only ones with me, the entire time. I told them that I both saw and heard her. They just shook their heads and reaffirmed what they told me earlier.
I recovered and spent the next few years in intense cardio and post bypass rehabilitation. It was the most painful and difficult surgery I ever had. I had more surgeries during that three-year period than any other point of my life. Those surgeries made my subsequent, stenting procedures seem utterly minor, despite how risky they actually were.
I don’t know if she was real, a dream, or if God sent that angel to protect me. All I know is that it was because of her voice that I kept breathing. Every time the pain came back, it was so torturous I wanted to die. I had never wanted to die before. However, any option was preferable to that pain. Whoever she was, she was my angel and a chapter of love like none other. She was pure love. When I was under, I could only feel two extremes. It was almost as if heaven and hell were battling over my soul. Six weeks later, as I was being rolled out of the hospital in a wheelchair, I saw her again. She was peeking out at me from behind a column and smiling. It was my angel. No one could tell me who she was, even though I asked everyone when I went back to thank the nurses who took care of me.
Whomever, or whatever, she was…real, my imagination, or a messenger from heaven… she saved my life. Nurses are God’s angels on earth. I will never forget this most unique and angelic chapter of love.