In the heart of ICU
I write as both a cancer surgeon, scientist and pilgrim. My book, The Journey: Spirituality, Pilgrimage and Chant was all about repetitive chant, the Celtic concept of “thin” holy places and the joys of long distance walking. For many years during Lent I have rather smugly tried to do something positive every day for somebody else (over and above normal patient care) and to visit a consecrated site on a daily basis. This year the added master plan had been to walk with my family from Ely to Walsingham as a pre- Easter pilgrimage and then travel onwards to Iona for Easter itself.
All of these plans of course were swept away by a trip into the genuine wilderness. Just over two weeks ago there was much joking in the operating theatre that we all had dry coughs, then shortness of breath started the following day and then another 24 hours later high temperatures. I stayed at home alone and isolated for 6 days but instead of my much prayed for deliverance things went from bad to worse and I became confused. A friend picked up on this over the phone and pushed me to go to the hospital, that was lucky, my oxygen levels, as he had surmised were inadequate. Another friend facilitated my admission into hospital.
That morning as I left my home, I wondered if I would ever see it again, but far worse was the isolation of knowing I might never see any of my four children ever again. This is the truly awful aspect of this virus; you die alone with no visitors allowed, no farewells, no touch of the hand, no hugs, just isolation in the desert of an isolation ward. The only people you see wear masks, there are no faces.
Through all of this smell and taste are removed and even worse the rare condition of dysgeusia; what is that? I had never heard of it but it is where things that should taste good are truly awful, enough to make you spit out your food and brush your teeth to get rid of the awful flavour. So, you eat nothing for days on end. This all goes along with wild hallucinations which would go on all night, usually involving some fixed ideation around drowning in ones’ own sweat and secretions; these would feel like dreams, then one would wake up lathered in sweat and breathless only to plunge again and again into the same nightmare.
I always struggle with requesting prayer, as a scientist repetitive prayer and chant sit more comfortably; however, the sniff of mortality tends to bring a run on requesting prayer! As a doctor, of course I am also obsessed with statistics.
Now the Covid 19 story we all know is 1% mortality, not terrible but not great and really bad if you are in the 1%. However, this belies some truths; if you are 35 years old and healthy, your chance is less than 0.1%, if your sixty you hit 1%, but at the point you go to hospital with pneumonia and a bit of adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) it goes up to 5 to 10% and if you are on a ventilator over 50%. To put that into perspective when we do massive cancer surgery we never quote death rates above 10%.
This virus is scary, make no mistakes. It lands you in the wilderness, the worst I have ever experienced; the Lenten experience you don’t want but that is thrust upon one.
In all of this though happily for me came a number of angelic presences in the form of some really caring nurses and doctors, people of great empathy and understanding of the physical and psychological tortures of their patients, all living with the high risk of contracting the virus for themselves. I received much skilful care from these attendants as well as so many messages of love, support and prayers and friendship from family and friends and thanks to all of this I believe I came to deliverance back to my children and home.I arrived home half dead but very much alive and improving daily. I have two pilgrimages planned for later in the year, one to the Isle of Revelation, Patmos, the other to Palestine where, ironically the plan is to venture into the desert where Christ spent his 40 tumultuous days. Fifteen days in the Corona desert proved more than enough for this pilgrim.
In the next few months, when we are all allowed to travel again, go on a pilgrimage, walk, chant and experience this great depth to life, seek the hidden door. “Ask, and it shall be given you, seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.” Matthew 7:7.
I will finish with a quote from the great Greek man of letters, George Seferis:
“The day before, a little after midnight, “I was in the Isle which is called Patmos”. As dawn was breaking, I was in Chora. The sea was motionless and like metal bound the islands around. Not even a leaf breathed in the strengthening light. The peace was a shell without the slightest fracture. I remained transfixed by its influence; then I felt I was whispering: “Come and see…”