Without a Prayer of a Chance

Stephanie Savage

I would like to state for the record that I don’t believe in miracles, despite the fact that so many people think I have experienced one. Indeed, many would venture that I myself am a walking miracle, though my walking is still improving—and I’m certainly no miracle.

Still, I have to admit that if one of the numerous people who were praying for me when I was in my coma had happened to pray to a beatified Catholic, that candidate would be on the fast-track to sainthood. But I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in miracles, only dumb luck. Even luck is problematic because it implies a kind of supernatural agency doling out luck like popsicles from a Good Humor truck on a hot day. I think many people’s concept of luck is akin to a luck field circling Earth—like the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—which every so often hurls down chunks of good luck or misfortune on unsuspecting people.

I, on the other hand, believe what we call “luck” is completely random. I realize that a lot of people can’t tolerate this kind of uncertainty, but I find it can provide a kind of solace. There’s no omnipotent being trying to make my life miserable. It’s nothing personal, and I’m not being punished for anything, especially not original sin. As someone who was raised without religion, that strikes me as an absurd concept. God said to the first two humans, “Whatever you do, don’t eat this luscious-looking fruit because it will give you knowledge,” which guaranteed that one or the other of them would eventually do exactly that. That sure doesn’t sound like omniscience to me.

Considering that attitude, you might imagine that I look down on all those people who were praying for me when I was in my coma. Not at all. I like to think of myself as a Nice Jewish/Atheist Girl, and I see their prayers as their way of helping me. And certainly, I was so close to death that it looked like prayer was the only thing that could save me.

The Story of My Coma

While vacationing in Sicily, I came down with Legionnaires’ disease, which is a (usually) rare form of severe pneumonia, though I’ve had the misfortune of catching it twice. In both instances, it was due to the immunosuppressive medications I’ve been taking for an even rarer autoimmune disease called “dermatomyositis,” which is such a mouthful that even some people in the medical profession can’t pronounce it.

I began getting sick in the waning days of our vacation, but I had written off my hacking cough as a nasty cold. (Call it “Mussolini’s Revenge.”) A few days after we got back home, however, my boyfriend had to rush me to the emergency room. I was so weak that he had to help me get dressed. Indeed, I was in such a mentally altered state that when he asked me why I hadn’t turned on the air conditioner, I said that I liked the heat. I hate hot weather, and it was 105 degrees.

I soon lapsed into a coma, in septic shock. My kidneys were failing, and I was suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome, which means that my lungs were dying too. My blood pressure plummeted, and I experienced a series of strokes on both sides of my brain. My neurologist called my pattern of stroke damage “a string of pearls,” but the white spots on the MRI hardly look like a treasure. All the doctors treating me at the time thought I would die. My boyfriend overheard one asking another if I was a candidate for a lung transplant. “No,” replied the other, “we should save it for someone who has a chance.”

My boyfriend talked to me for countless hours while I was in my coma, trying to keep me mentally engaged. I remember much of what he said. My mother played the BBC radio series that inspired one of my favorite novels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That explains why I kept hearing snippets of Hitchhiker’s Guide in my coma-dream, seemingly out of nowhere.

I used to feel sorry for people who clung to the desperate hope that their vegetative loved ones would recover. It sounded so hopeless, albeit understandable. The doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my recovery, too. Yet at the same time, the doctors were saying that my brain was profoundly damaged, I was asking them in my coma-dream to stop shining lights in my eyes so that I could get back to sleep. According to researchers, as many as one in five patients with disorders of consciousness experience covert cognition. I was one of them.

 

Though I awoke from my coma barely able to lift my head, my mind was fully intact. When my mother told me that I had been in a coma for six weeks, I mouthed, “Seriously?” (I had a tracheostomy tube in my throat, so I couldn’t speak.) I was shocked. I thought I was having a sleepless night, not reenacting Sleeping Beauty. From what I understand, most of my weakness was due to atrophy from the coma itself. The physical manifestations of the strokes were limited to vertigo and a bit of weakness and pain in my right leg, both of which have since improved greatly. My neurologist has predicted that even those symptoms will eventually disappear. While I was in my coma, my dermatomyositis went into remission.

You can see why some people would think I experienced a miracle. When people tell me that God saved my life because I still have important things left to do, I always think about all the people who were in a similar situation but weren’t so lucky. I don’t have any kids, but how many of those people left behind small children? Weren’t they good people, every bit as deserving of my good fortune or even more so? Were the prayers offered for them less heartfelt? But I never say that. And when complete strangers tell me that I’ve been blessed, I just smile.

Every time I see a new specialist, and I’ve been seeing a lot of specialists lately, they all say something along the lines of, “Well, you’ve certainly been through a lot,” with a hint of amazement. Recently, I tried to explain to the gastroenterologist I was seeing about a colonoscopy why I feel lucky nonetheless. As hard as my recovery has been—my walker was by my side as I talked—it could’ve been much worse. The thing I feel most fortunate about is that my brain was not in fact profoundly damaged. Indeed, that’s become a running joke with me. If I say something stupid, I’ll quip, “It’s that profound brain damage again.”

I’m a little younger than the age at which people usually get their first colonoscopy. Like most people, I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I was eager to have it done because one of the scariest aspects of dermatomyositis is that it’s linked to an increased risk of cancer. Any cancer. That means that I’ve had to undergo a wide variety of cancer screenings. So far all of my tests have been negative, but, for the next couple of years, my risk will remain above normal. After that, my risk will be reduced, but it will never completely return to baseline. Dermatomyositis is a rather weird disorder that manifests as both a skin condition (rashes and wounds) and a muscle-wasting disease. To quote one of my favorite—if dated—pop culture catchphrases, it’s two great tastes in one. Though I’m in remission, my dermatomyositis could come back at any time. In rare instances, dermatomyositis can go into remission permanently, but it’s never considered cured. Whether or not this will happen to me is impossible to know, but lately I’ve been on a winning streak. You might even call it “luck.”

So, despite the fact that I don’t believe in miracles or luck, I’ve experienced both. As for those sincere expressions of faith from my friends, I’ve been able to draw on them as a source of encouragement and emotional support through a very difficult period. If my continuing, near-miraculous recovery reinforces their faith in the power of prayer, I’m okay with that. They’ve reinforced my faith in the power of friendship.

Stephanie Savage

Stephanie Savage focused on fiction writing before her coma. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including American AtheistJewish CurrentsSnickerPotpourri, and 3 am Magazine. The July/August 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine features her article “Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience.” Her essay “Sympathy for the Devil-Believers” will appear in a future issue of Free Inquiry. Savage writes about her recovery through a skeptical and humanist lens in her blog, Coma Chameleon: My Recovery Chronicles.


I don’t credit God for my extraordinary recovery from illness, but I won’t begrudge my friends the satisfaction they got from praying for me.

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