By Louis De Lauro
My wife was still recovering from her life-saving heart surgery and was home on disability.
I didn’t want to tell her about how awful I was feeling. She needed me to be strong. She needed me to take care of her and our baby the best that I could. But I was stressed and ill. I had ulcerative colitis, and my intestines were bleeding. Every trip to the bathroom was a nightmare. Skipping breakfast and lunch was the best way to get through the day, but not eating left me exhausted.
Painful joints—another common symptom of ulcerative colitis—made it hard for me to walk, and my neck and back were hurting too. The side effects from medication gave me a swollen face and many sleepless nights. I was a mess. But I did my best to hide it from everyone. I am a teacher, and teaching each day was a short trip to hell and back. Without energy, and with ulcerative colitis ruining each day in a small and big ways, I wondered if I would ever feel okay again.
I didn’t go to school one day. I called out sick and drove myself to the hospital. Not because of ulcerative colitis, but because of chest pain. The intense chest pain I had that morning was beyond what I could handle and a bit scary. I wondered if I was having a heart attack. I hoped costochondritis (inflammation in the chest that’s often stress-induced) would be my diagnosis. I was certainly stressed.
I didn’t have to wait long at the hospital because my pain was in the center of my chest. I told the nurses and doctors my symptoms. They did a slew of tests and took X-rays. Then I had an important conversation with myself.
I reminded myself that my life insurance bill was paid. I reminded myself that I was not alone; so many others were suffering in and out of hospitals today and everyday. I reminded myself that life is impermanent and I need to die so that someone else could get a turn to live. Maybe it was a warped pep talk, but for me—for a few minutes—it worked.
The pain in my chest went away.
I didn’t call my wife, my parents, my sisters, or my friends once that day. I knew in my heart that it would be better for me to handle the day on my own. We can all handle much more than we imagine. Sometimes others around us have too much stress to help us, and we need to deal with things alone.
I didn’t pray. I am a Buddhist and prayer doesn’t soothe me or empower me. I wish it did. I employed other strategies while I waited for my test results instead.
I meditated, and focused on the tiny bit of enjoyment I could get from each breath. In life, each breath is an accomplishment. Each breath is a miracle. Each breath allows another thought. Many breaths lead to more moments of appreciation, more moments of wonder, and more opportunities to do good.
For a few minutes, the pain in my chest went away.
I slept. I woke up. Upon waking, I focused on feeling thankful. I focused on taking a closer look at the immediate world around me. I was in a building where good people worked tirelessly trying to save lives and alleviate suffering. I was surrounded by really great people. I was thankful to be near so many who could help me—people who could save me if necessary.
For a few minutes, the pain in my chest went away.
And kind people had created medicines and machines to make my stay in this building more pleasant. The bed I rested in had the amazing ability to go up and down. The nurse gave me two blankets. A machine by my bed monitored my heart. If my heart stopped while lying in the bed, these amazing people would rush into the room and attempt to give me at least one more breath, one more thought, and maybe even one more day to appreciate, to wonder, and to be kind.
That afternoon, I watched moving pictures of young men shooting hoops on a small screen above my head. Basketball is like a clock pendulum: the ball goes back and forth from one basket to the other. Sometimes I’m thrilled that the ball has found the net. Other times, I am frustrated the ball bounced off the rim. The repetition of basketball is calming and occasionally exhilarating when your team scores a handful of unanswered points.
Like life, basketball is boring and repetitive. And then it’s exciting when things go well. Then it’s boring and repetitive again. I love basketball because I have a deep love for repetition, and the excitement in the closing minutes of the game can be quite a rush.
So, for a few minutes, the pain my chest went away.
When the game was over, I meditated and then slept some more. I woke up again, feeling thankful and feeling appreciative all over again that I was in such a great hospital.
Several hours later a kind doctor visited my room. I learned that I hadn’t suffered a heart attack. I didn’t have costochondritis either. I had an infection in my lung. The doctor informed me that by coming to the hospital early like I did, I might have saved myself a much longer hospital stay a week or two from now.
I told him that my pain brought me here. He said, “Yes it did. That’s why I like to remind my patients that pain is good. Well, not all pain. But the pain that brought you here was good.” The doctor then gave me a prescription and sent me home. It was now 3:30 PM, so I drove to the pharmacy to pick up medication and then I drove home.
My wife greeted me when I came home. “Home so early. Did you have a good day?”
“Yes, I did,” I replied, “I had a good day.”
So, I never told my wife, family, or friends about my short visit to the hospital. It’s now 12 years later. Truthfully, until today, I never imagined that I’d write this story. The pain in my chest stayed with me for 10 days after I left the hospital. The pain and suffering from ulcerative colitis stayed with me for many years. Then it went away. All that physical pain just went away.
But, truthfully, all of that pain is still with me. I can remember it well. I still feel it today; every bit of it. You feel that same pain too.
But you know what? I am okay, and so are you.
Editor: John Lee Pendall