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When Life Happens, You Learn to Live

The worst is what happens when you’re blithely going about the dogged routine of your life, those moments when you’ve forgotten to have a guard up at all. - Kristy McGinnis

Three weeks ago, nothing could have prepared me for approaching Christmas that could have been my last.

Shortly before relocating my life from Minnesota to Santa Fe in May, I did my due diligence and attended to my physical and dental care to allow me to find and become established with new providers for those things. I had a cavity in my right, lower first molar that was filled. At the time, the dentist said that as he was filling it, the tooth cracked and so he overfilled it. In any case, it was filled and I went upon my way.

Over the months, I had a few twinges of short pain once in a while in the tooth, usually when eating something crunchy, but it was so minor that I just planned to ask a new dentist about it in January, when I was due for a cleaning.

On December 16th, I woke up and the tooth was hurting more than usual. But I felt fine. I did my four daily walks. I led worship and delivered two homilies on Sunday the 18th using Motrin to stop the relatively low-level of pain (1-2 on a scale of 10).

On Monday the 19th I went to an emergency dentist who said there was an abscess and infection in that tooth. He prescribed an antibiotic to clean up the infection so that he could do a root canal and cap on the tooth. But by the next day, the pain had increased and when I could not reach him, I went to the ER.

The ER doctor seemed frustrated to have me in the ER, but he said my WBC were elevated and so he gave me a massive steroid dose and a new antibiotic. I felt better from the steroid that day, but it was the absolute wrong decision. Steroids feed infections like I had, and I had no idea that the momentary improvement I felt would threaten my life.

By Thursday night, the pain was so intense that I could not sleep (4 - 5 range). I also felt like I had started to have a fever, so at 3 am I woke my spouse up and went back to the ER. Again, they did not really want me there and the ER doctor tried to send me away. Then, he saw my WBC, which was now in a range for a serious infection. I was admitted to the hospital.

By the next day, my health had started a drastic slide down that nearly killed me. My pain was now in the 8-10 range, even on the high doses of opioid pain medication, the strongest thing they had. For five days, I lay there in the dark in intense pain. Meanwhile, my doctor was trying to figure out how to save my life.

In this nation, medical conglomerates have taken over much of medicine. The hospital did not have an oral surgeon on staff who could do the surgery I would need to survive, because they did not cover that area. But any hospital with an ER must have the ability to treat any patient who might end up in their facility.

My doctor post admission knew I needed surgery. So while I fought to stay alive, he fought to find someone who could perform the surgery. He called every hospital in a hundred miles, but it was Christmas and the oral surgeons were on vacation. By Tuesday, he had made the decision that if he could not find someone that day, I would be life-flighted by helicopter to another hospital.

That day, he found an oral surgeon who could have privileges at the hospital to do the surgery. On Wednesday night, I went into surgery not knowing if I would come out of it. By then, I looked like I had three faces and my nose was pushed to the side. The infection started in a tooth, spread into my jaw, and then marched up to my skull. My right eye was yellow and swollen shut, and my jaw was locked. If the surgery did not happen immediately, the infection would be in my brain. However, my jaw was so tight that the anesthesiologist was unsure if he could get a trachea tube into my mouth, which would mean the surgery could not happen and I would go into comfort care awaiting death. By then, my body was also so weak that he was unsure how my heart and lungs would handle the anesthesia.

Luckily, the surgery happened. The oral surgeon scraped and cleaned my cheek and skull above my right ear. He said by then my entire mouth was filled with pockets of pus and infection, so they scraped and cleaned and cleaned some more. I woke up with three fewer teeth, but alive. I lost a chunk of jaw bone that was so infected it needed to be removed.

That night, my face felt better, but the struggle in my body was not quite done. I have a long-term and well-regulated heart condition. The opioids I needed those five days to survive caused my heart to go from occasional irregular rhythm into Atrial Fibrillation. I almost had a heart attack in those early recovery hours. The next night, my oxygen dropped into the 73 range for a bit. I went cold turkey on the opioids post-surgery, even though the pain was still in the 6-7 range. My ability to bear that pain likely saved my life. The other things that helped is that I had cut out alcohol from my life, had been walking daily, and had lost 57 pounds in 2022 (and about 15 more in the last two weeks - a full clothing size).

I am a minister and a chaplain, and never have I needed the Divine Beloved more than these last few weeks. To keep fighting, I needed to pull from a strength beyond my own body. Without my spiritual center, I would have died.

In many ways, what happened to me is a perfect storm of small things. I have a deathly allergy to penicillin and amoxicillin, which put me in the hospital three times before my third birthday. I go into convulsions and have anaphylaxis. But penicillin is the best antibiotic for the type of infection I had, so we had to fight the infection with less effective medications. It was a holiday, so offices were closed for the weekend.

I am home now, recovering, still on antibiotics (two of them to equal the effectiveness of penicillin). My face is almost back to its normal shape. And there are lifelong changes, the biggest being a restriction from caffeine. None of those changes are major. I also have a minor surgery coming up where the surgeon will implant a new piece of jaw, likely from an organ donor.

I got lucky.

As Bessel van der Kolk has noted, our bodies keep the score. Due to some family things, 2022 was a really hard year. I also slid in my healthy commitments and was eating one meal a day. It all contributed to a life-threatening infection.

I cannot know if all people who look death in the eye as closely as I did change as drastically as I did, but I walked out of the hospital a different person than when I went in. I have so much left to contribute to the world, and a commitment to my own health is central to my ability to do that work. I am committed to getting a heart-healthy weight, but more is something deeper and more profound. I am committed to living in joy, gratitude and love, every minute of every day.

We each need people and community surrounding us. Had I not not had those things, fought to find those things over the last two years, I would not have survived. Had I not been bold, quitting a job that I loved, but that was slowly killing me with stress to find a new way, a new place, I would not have survived. Some people will take and take from your heart and soul. Walk away from them to find the people who will replenish your soul. Stop chasing after people who seem to not care if you are in their life. The people who matter are the ones who make you feel seen, loved, heard.

We each need a spiritual home and center as well. That is where you find strength and energy, the ability to keep going when things get hard. Whether your spiritual center is in the Divine Beloved or in God or in something else, find yours. Oprah says, "It isn’t until you come to a spiritual understanding of who you are – not necessarily a religious feeling, but deep down, the spirit within – that you can begin to take control," and Vine Deloria, Jr says, "Religion is for people who're afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who've already been there." Both those statements are true. You do not need to be religious to be spiritual.

This past two weeks taught me to live each moment of each day so fully that the next time I look death in the eye, it will be after a well-lived life.

Live in joy, friends.

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