Wednesday, May 7, 2008

On Defying Death

The man sitting in front of me was in a wheel chair. He had lungs riddled with cancer. He had a neurodegenerative disorder that took away his ability to walk and left him unable to speak. He was in his eighties. And he was dying.

But his wife and three children who gathered in my office that day had no interest in discussing such things. I tried to talk aboutt hospice. I tried to work in the idea of palliative care. But they interruprted me. Each one in turn. They had there own story to tell. A story that had nothing to do with illness. A story of life. The life of their beloved family member. And how it changed the world.

At the age of eighteen the man sitting in front of me proposed to his wife. He was fresh out of basic training and on his way to fighting in World War II. He had just a few days before he shipped out. They had been dating for only a few months but he was desperate to know that she wouldn't forget him when he was gone. The wedding was set for after his return.

Little did she know that two years later a uniformed officer would come to his parent's door and give them awful news. He was dead. Shot down while flying a mission over Japan. He was the only person in the plane. He had died honorably protecting his country.

She was devastated. His family was devastated. And they mourned his passing. Such a young wonderful man killed in the prime of his life. She didn't have the heart to date anyone else. She just couldn't get over her loss. And this was good....because a few years later he would show up at her door.....unexpectedly alive.

His time in the war was both difficult and exciting. He had always dreamed of being a fighter pilot. He was brave and well trained. He flew countless missions unscathed. But on the last of these missions he hit a patch of bad luck. Blindsided by the enemy he was caught unawares. A sitting duck. He only had a moment before impact. And briefly he saw his life flash before him.

The next thing he could remember was falling. Still strapped into his plane. Turning rapidly in sickening circles. The centrifigul force on his body was almost unbearable. And then he passed out. It is estimated that he must of fell at least 30,000 feet. No one knows for sure.

The next thing he remembered was waking up to find the barrel of a gun in his face. Japanese soldiers above him were arguing in a threatening tone. The tongue was foriegn but he couldn't miss the underlying meaning. They were going to shoot him. Right there on the ground. His leg was tucked beneath him and the bones on his right had punctured the skin and were sticking out.

Years later he would return to the sight of that fateful day. Long after the war had been settled. He would come face to face with his previous captors. And through an interpretor they would tell him the truth about their arguement that day. One of them was going to kill him. But the other soldiers stepped in. They felt it was somehow unnatural to wantonly kill this man who had survived such a fall.

So the Japanese soldiers used some cloth and tree branches to make a stretcher. And they walked days to the nearest prisioner camp. And deposited there prisoner with the rest of the other POW's.

Once again luck seem to come his way. Not only was his open leg fracture not infected but also one of his fellow POW's was a surgeon. The head soldier in charge of the prisoners felt uncharacteristicallty kind and supplied the surgeon with some basic instruments. The operation was a success. And a year later he was as good as new.

Although many of his fellow POW's died, he survived his two years of captivitiy. Was it becuase the Japanes soldiers feared him because he had survived such a fall? Was it that he didn't have the heart to give up after all he had gone through? Or was it the thought of returning to his beloved fiancee that kept him going? We all know what he would say if he could still talk!

And so the war ended and he was rescud and delivered home to the utter surprise of his family and his beloved. He was married quickly and had three sons. He went back to school and earned his PhD and became a scientist.

He did some of the initial pioneering work with electron microscopy and taught medical school. His work led to advances in almost all fields of science and medicine. His children who looked up to their father became doctors and scientists. Without a a doubt millions of lives were affected by what seemed like such small events. Surviving a long fall, a decision not to shoot, a fellow POW with surgical skills.

And as the youngest son finished I could tell that the family had said all they wanted to say. We talked for a while longer. I gave them the phone number for our local hospice and sat for a few moments quietly.

As I got up to leave the room I took the gentleman's hand and offered all that I had left to offer. I cleared my throat....

"I will never forget what you and your family have showed me.....that even for men of science and medicine as us....we must always take a moment to wonder about the beauty and mystery of life".

Out of the corner of my eye I could see his children and wife nod amongst themselves happily.

Even now their father....husband.....veteran....fall survivor.....prisoner of war...scientist.....and teacher....

still had a few lessons left.

He died a few days later. home.

1 comment:

rlbates said...

Thank you for sharing his story with us.