By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
I Bless the Lord, my soul; all my being, bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, my soul; do not forget all the gifts of God,
Who pardons all your sins, heals all your ills,
Delivers your life from the pit, surrounds you with love and compassion,
Fills your days with good things; your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
- Psalm 103, 1-5
In 2003, Easter Sunday arrived on April 20. So did my heart attack.
They both showed up about the same time. We were just wrapping up a card party with three other couples when I started to feel nauseous and excused myself. Soon after the last couple left, I was way past nauseous and asked my wife to take me to the hospital emergency room.
Emergency rooms are notorious for interminable waits. But as soon as I shared my symptoms with the receptionist, she ushered me past the entrance door and handed me over to medical personnel. Only a few minutes more and I was given the news. I was having a heart attack, I had several blockages, and I needed to approve an angioplasty procedure immediately.
I did as I was told, and was grateful to be in good hands.
As I lay on a table, an injured shoulder giving me much pain, I tried to ignore the shoulder and pray about the crisis at hand. Usually I prefer spontaneous prayer – just talking with God. But I wasn’t feeling up to that, so I resorted to formula prayers. I said the Our Father over and over again, each time stumbling on my request to have my trespasses forgiven as I forgive those who trespass against me.
I forgave a lot of people, but I struggled to forgive the man who once fired my wife, after she had made huge sacrifices for the company, simply to save money. In fact, I had long relished the thought of greeting him with a big knuckle sandwich someday. As I lay there in the operating room, I still relished that opportunity. Finally, as a matter of self-preservation, I forgave him ... just barely.
As I continued to pray, I eventually concluded that you cannot wear out the Act of Contrition. I was grateful to know that.
After what seemed like days on the table, the doctor came around to my head and looked me in the eyes. I was poised to hear, “We’re all done. You’re now as fit as a fiddle.”
In my dreams. What he told me was that he had punctured an artery on my heart and I was going to need emergency bypass surgery. I was not poised to hear that. But I was not afraid.
My prayers had brought me peace. If medication had helped too, I was grateful for that as well. Soon I met the bypass surgeon. He was the same one who had done my dad’s many years earlier. I found that reassuring. As he left me to prep for surgery, I assured him, “I’ll be praying for both of us.”
When I woke up and heard one nurse telling another that my blood pressure was something like 70 over 20 and wasn’t getting any better, I did not panic. I was concerned, but only for a moment before I lost consciousness.
When I woke again, I learned I had been sent back to the operating room for a second surgery. I felt stronger, but my chest burned and I struggled to communicate that with a breathing tube down my throat. Finally, in desperation I tried tracing letters with a finger in the palm of my wife’s hand. Eventually, after a lot of false starts, she decoded my message: B-U-R-N-S. When she said the word I nodded and pointed a finger to the right side of my chest.
They pulled back the sheet and told me it was swollen and discolored. In a moment the heart surgeon arrived at my bedside. He looked closely and declared: “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” My first thought was, “I hope you’re a fast learner.” On the spot he decided that we would have to return to the operating room. I wasn’t thrilled, but I was at peace.
As I headed back to surgery, I recalled a doctor telling me years ago that he didn’t want to put a patient under anesthetic more than once a year. It occurred to me that three times in a day was pushing the envelope. But I didn’t panic. Live or die, I had the sense that things would turn out okay for everyone.
As you can surmise, they did.
That was 14 years ago this week, and thanks be to God, I’m doing fine – enjoying life and especially relishing the 11 grandchildren who have joined the five I had back then. My family is the biggest blessing in a very blessed life.
At some point during the ordeal I told the Lord that if I lived, I would tell the story of how God loves sinners and offers them peace, even on death’s doorstep.
I wasn’t bargaining. I was just grateful. Still am.
And a promise is a promise, even from a sinner. So I’m telling the story of my personal Easter resurrection once again.
Now every day is Easter for me. Each day I rise by the grace of God. And each day I’m full of gratitude – for Jesus’ resurrection and my own.