In The House of God by Miriam Sagan (#3)

Here is the hardest bit–the ICU. In which my soul, which I didn’t believe in, left my body. It was interesting, though, the more I wrote the more I remembered.


Dr, Frank performed surgery along the lines of a thoracotomy, cut on my right side, although he did not remove my ribs. Two tubes were inserted to drain the lung. Pleurisy had become empyema, a stew of anaerobic organisms in the right lung, a famous killer in the 19th century but almost unknown after the discovery of antibiotics. The left lung had collapsed from stress. There was pneumonia in both. An I.V. fed a broad spectrum antibiotic into my veins, along with frequent doses of morphine. A mask delivered oxygen and a warm mist. The draining machine bubbled.
The doctors informed my parents that I would most probably die.
I lay in the I.C.U., dying. Several visions tipped me off to my critical state. The first was that my soul left my body and my point of view changed. I saw everything as if from above, the I.C.U., the blinking green lights and hiss of the machinery, my body in the bed. This was disconcerting for many reasons, not the least of which was that I had not been raised to believe in the existence of the soul. But something was certainly no longer in my body.
I also approached a thick black line somewhere in an alternate reality, came up against it as if it were an actual wall, and quite purposively decided not to cross it. And finally, I saw huge gates open and rays of light stream out.
I had been raised as an atheist. My father worshiped Marx and Freud. This was before Kubler-Ross’s writing, or the use of the phrase “near death experience.” I simply assumed that those majestic light filled gates were the towers of the George Washington Bridge that had somehow been transported to the I.C.U. Afterwards, for many years, I spoke of these experiences to no one.
Six weeks passed in the I.C.U. Soon, I was a victim of sleep deprivation psychosis. I was awakened every four hours, and my vitals were checked. I experience complete dissociation from my body and surroundings. I begged the staff: “Please put the body of the girl back into the bed. I know that only moments ago there was the body of a girl in the bed.”
I meant myself, of course, but had lost the orientation to say so. I also couldn’t recall my name. But I knew that wasn’t good. So I’d sneak peaks at my wrist, where my name was clearly printed on a hospital bracelet: MIRIAM SAGAN. It did look familiar.
A young intern took pity on me.
“You have sleep deprivation psychosis,” he said as I sobbed that I didn’t know where I was. “You’re in the B.I” he told me.
“Of course!” It all came back to me.
“And you’re doing better than most people with it,” he added. “Usually I can never convince them they’re here.”
I felt better. My condition had a name. I was doing better than most people (music to a Harvard student’s ears.). But I was still insane.
“Then let me sleep,” I pleaded.”Hey,” I continued, struck by a clever if paranoid notion. “I bet you 25 cents you won’t let me sleep.”
I thought I could motivate him for the sum of a quarter.
He did let me sleep, and I am still grateful after all these years. And they stopped waking me for the vitals. I could remember my name again, and that I was the body in the bed.
Things went less smoothly with another young guy, the psychiatric intern.
“How does it feel to be twenty-one and have almost died??” he asked me, pen and pad poised.
“Get out!” I screamed. I was sitting half naked on the bedside commode. And I wasn’t about to talk to an insensitive nerdy guy my own age. Besides, I had no idea how to answer the question.

7 thoughts on “In The House of God by Miriam Sagan (#3)

  1. Miriam, thank you for your transparent transition from silence to sharing. The wisdom gifts your share with your students have always been a joy to receive, now they come wrapped in your unearthed history. Thanks so much for your blog.

  2. We think sometimes of our doctors as gods, and they are, but like the Greek gods, they make mistakes. We are still, despite ACA, in crisis in Health Care. Atul Gawande has an interesting article in a recent TNY: The subject boils down to making mistakes, ethically and non-ethically. Thanks for sharing the experience on your blog, already a cool place, it’s a very human place.

  3. Fascinating story, Miriam! I love how the darkness you went through is pierced throughout with humor! The George Washington Bridge comment cracked me up…Plus, your details and descriptions–wonderful! MORE!

  4. Miriam, your experience is horrific, but reminded me of a serious-and-humorous take on her own experience in a tuberculosis sanitarium written in the 1940s by my favorite author bar none, Betty McDonald. It’s called “The Plague and I,” and if you haven’t read it, do. I’ll even lend you my copy – it’s out of print and I know you’d love it.

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