I grew up as an Army brat and was always around soldiers and military bases. We played with toy guns and ran around concocting make believe war games using strategies and tactics we got from GI Joe comics. And many times we gathered up our little green Army men and laid out battles on the dirt in the playground. You weren’t much of a kid back then without a sack of little green Army men. Those realistic plastic soldiers were a big part of my youth.
Medical scanning devices were also a big part of my youth. I first encountered them when I had thyroid problems that eventually became thyroid cancer. By the time I was 19 I had been scanned by every conceivable machine, even experimental contraptions that were Rube Goldberg in their conception, and I took it all obediently, if not bravely. But the doctors had a strategy and the machines were the tactics used to diagnose and treat me. As you know, I survived.
Even so, I still do not have a fondness for MRI machines. I find them to be a bit noisy, disorienting, and… claustrophobic. I had many scans done last summer when I was sick and found out the best way to have a scan is to be unconscious! But my neurologist insisted I needed a follow-up to see how my brain was healing and I couldn’t really argue. Unfortunately, I was not going to be blissfully comatose this time and I was wracked with fear and trepidation, to the point of calling to see if I could get an RX for Ativan or Xanax to knock the edge off. I never heard back and decided to suck it up and just do it.
Fears are largely irrational – most spiders and snakes are harmless, but nearly everybody runs screaming from them both. Your odds of getting struck by lightning are nearly 1 in a million, but most of us don’t care for giant electric bolts arcing from the sky. The odds of dying in an MRI machine are almost non-existent (it has happened…) so what’s to be afraid of? Nonetheless, I called and got myself scheduled for the biggest machine my hospital had, a Big Bore Siemens, with a 28” opening designed for patients up to 550 lbs. Since I’m 225 lbs. wet, I felt good about it.
The day came and I showed up with false bravado for my MRI reckoning. And I did what I always have done, since my youth, I prayed and meditated and thought about stuff. Important stuff. And that is the point of this whole missive – what I learned during my MRI. And whether you believe in God or not, or believe He cares enough to speak to you personally, this is what I got out of the experience.
Survive, Thrive and Be Alive.
It occurred to me that I survived a genuine life-threatening situation. I have had other medical problems that could have killed me, but nothing like this. It was sudden and horrific and nearly devastating. The doctors did not know what was wrong with me but, through heroic efforts, professional care, modern medical technology (a shout out to Big Pharm!) and the thoughts and prayers of thousands of people I survived. I was alive. I could not move my legs or sit up in bed, had double vision, could barely speak and could not write. But I had survived. And that was the strategy of the medical team – keep me alive using all the tactics in the playbook, and then figure out what to do with the patient after the smoke of battle cleared. Without surviving there is nothing so that is Step One:
Faced with the post-encephalitic situation I found myself in, it was time to move forward. The strategy for traumatic brain injury patients is simple – establish cognition, regain mobility, and master the activities of daily living (ADLs). The tactics the little green soldiers had available were the OTs, PTs and SLPs of the rehabilitative hospital. I soon found myself there and after a near-miraculous three weeks of therapy I could think straight, I was mobile, and I had the ADLs mastered. I was, after a bleak few weeks in the hospital trying to survive, now thriving. And that is Step Two:
But I got a check in my spirit during my prayerful and meditative process in the MRI machine. Was I really thriving? Or was I stuck in a post-medical trauma zone, leaning heavily on a newfound disability to limit myself? This is deep stuff, especially with my head clamped in a plastic helmet and the surreal sci-fi sounds of the MRI machine whirling around me. I realized that thriving was much more than just putting on my pants or making my own breakfast or reading a book. It was time to take it the next level. I needed to get past the fears of medical failure, get past the limits of my current physical condition, put away the crisis mentality. If I was going to thrive after having survived, I needed to get serious. All this from the Big Guy, and when He talks you need to listen. And what He was saying was, you need to really Thrive. Take more action, don’t settle for being broken, begin to overcome, repair your body, mind and soul. It turns out that thriving had more to it than I had thought – kind of a Step Two – Part B:
Thrive, man, Thrive!
Thank you sir, may I have another! And what, pray tell, does it mean to be alive? If surviving is winning the battle, and thriving is the strategic initiative to overcome defeat, then being alive means to win the war. Being alive entails establishing victory, moving forward into a post-apocalyptic world, finding new ways to be a functional part of the human race. As many have told me, I survived for a reason. I must have purpose. God didn’t drag me though that just for fun (it wasn’t). While I embrace that viewpoint, I was obsessed with finding that purpose, that reason for me still drawing breath.
And therein lies the problem. Too often we (especially me) want to read the end of the book. We want it all spelled out with clearly defined parameters. We (being me) want it Right Now. Oh yeah, I’m ready for a new beginning, a grand purpose, marching orders from HQ. But from my plastic-helmeted MRI viewpoint I realized I wanted to skip the Thrive part and go straight to the good part, which is Step Three:
We all have purpose. We all play a part. Some will be leaders, some will be in the trenches. Some of us have a big role to play, some of us are just foot soldiers, little green Army men in the battle of life on Earth. We may Survive – but is that enough? Can we Thrive – will we make the effort to advance? We all want to Be Alive but do we all want to do what it takes to really live? A quote from this nearly hundred year old popular devotional is profound:
“Shut out every consideration and keep yourself before God for this one thing only- My Utmost for His Highest.” Oswald Chambers (1874-1917)
As the machine wound down and the MRI process came to an end, I realized I had much to consider. My time facing my fears had produced a smorgasbord of food for thought and I was so glad I didn’t deaden that with prescription drugs. I had Survived, thanks to God and the tireless efforts of the medical staff and the support of my family and friends. I had started to Thrive, again thanks to the efforts of trained professionals and the loving support of my wife. But it was time to get serious about Being Alive.
I do not know what the future holds for me, I do not know what my new normal will be, I cannot control what happens tomorrow, I can only focus my attention on what I do now. I intend to Thrive, to recover from the wounds of my battle with my foe, the mosquito. And to find my place in the world, my purpose for being here. I will Be Alive in every sense of the word.
Survive, Thrive and Be Alive. A lot of message, from time well spent in a noisy machine.