I need to talk about something that is deeply upsetting and problematic to me, but I'm afraid that it's going to offend people that I care about. So let me state up front that offending people is not at all my intention.
A year and a half ago, I nearly died. That's not hyperbole; it's fact. It took three emergency surgeries before the doctor believed I even had a hope of surviving, but for the first couple days, my loved ones were told that there was a good chance I wasn't going to make it. In fact, if I had been older, not in good health otherwise, or were it three years ago (before the technology used to save my life was invented), they wouldn't have even attempted to save me. I would have died.
Almost immediately, I was told in one way or another, "God saved your life."
To which I have to respond: "I don't have the words to convey how offensive that is."
(Let me try to find the words.)
First: The doctors saved my life. I had amazing doctors who worked around the clock (during the holidays, no less) to keep me alive. There were numerous nurses who kept me alive in ICU. One example out of many is the ICU nurse who worked her ass off to get my fever down. She could have covered me in ice packs, but she knew I was in such agony that doing so would have just been horrible. So she spent the night changing cold washcloths, pointing multiple fans towards me, and gradually brought down a dangerous fever without further contributing to the pain and terror I was in. (I learned of these stories after the fact, because at the time, I was completely out of it. I was not aware of much, and when I was awake, I was having horrifying hallucinations. I don't remember much of those first days, beyond pain and fear.)
Here, I want to quote the philosopher Daniel Dennet, who wrote a letter after his life-threatening heart attack and stay in in the hospital. While some of what he says is specific to his own medical emergency, the general feeling is applicable to my situation. He expresses exactly how I feel, far more adequately than I could:
To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other's work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who's counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.I will never be able to thank all of the people who contributed to saving my life and helping me recover. But I am alive because of them; more than that, I am thriving because of them.
The second thing I want to address is this: What the hell is so special about me?
God saved me? He looked down from heaven to Marin General Hospital and decided, what, that the girl in room 304A gets to live today? But the 42 year old mother of three with cervical cancer down the hall, eh, screw her. How insanely arbitrary, how unfeeling. How could I believe that there's something about me that God decided deserved His personal touch, but my roommate who was in a car accident was just doomed to spend the rest of her life drooling with a tube down her throat? "God obviously has something special planned for you." But the girl with the brain tumor, her hopes and dreams and ambitions just didn't pass muster? Seriously?
Somewhere in the world, there is a four year old girl who has been hungry every day of her life, and she is dying from an excruciatingly painful intestinal parasite. She has only known fear, pain, and hunger. Her tiny life will be extinguished in a sickening way. Your God is fine with that. But when a privileged 24-year-old girl, a girl who has never known hunger, a girl who has experienced joy and love and the benefits of living in 21st century America, she gets divine intervention? I would give my life with no hesitation if it would mean that little girl could have food, medical care, an education, a life. The thought that God would save me but leave that little girl in her misery is fundamentally sick.
There is nothing special about me. I don't say this because I have a low self-esteem; it's just the objective truth. I have done things that I'm proud of. I also, like everyone, have done things that I'm ashamed of. I've hurt the people around me. Right now, I'm 26 years old, living at home, basically contributing nothing while consuming more than my fair share. I hope to accomplish good things in the future. I hope that I will be able to help others. But there is no reason that I deserve to be saved, while others die.
It can't be because of the many prayers for my survival or my own personal faith. Certainly, many many people, in multiple countries, even, prayed for me. However, in terms of simple numbers, surely there are people who have died with many more people praying for them--popes, for example, pastors with large ministries, monarchs, even members of a megachurch (I'm sure Saddleback with their thousands of members would muster more prayers than my Mom's 30-member--at best--congregation). Nor could it be my personal faith; I had none. Or, on the flipside, it can't simply be that God wanted to save me to prove His power and bring me back into the fold--if that's the reason, why isn't Christopher Hitchens still alive? And I can't believe that it's because I will go on to do something so amazing, so awe-inspiring, that I absolutely had to be saved. It's a nice thought, but I'm realistic enough to admit that there are so many people who have died with oodles more potential than me. Besides, isn't God all-powerful? What does God need with a starship? Or a moderately intelligent working-class white girl, in this case?
On a side note, because this also comes up: while I love my parents more than I can say, while I think they're amazing people, there is no reason that they deserve to have their daughter live more than another parent. The mother who watches, heartbroken, as her children starve and die from easily treatable diseases, she is no less worthy of divine help than my parents.
I think people need to think through the implications of what they're saying. Knee-jerk, cliche responses can often carry meanings we don't intend. And I find, "God saved your life for a reason," to be incredibly offensive, though the people who say it don't intend it to be at all.