Stay Awake!

My vote for understatement of the year goes to Lisa McGiffert, director of something called the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project.

It appeared in a story about Colleen Burns, a 41-year-old “brain dead” woman in Syracuse, who woke up in the O.R. right before they started yanking out her organs. Here’s McGiffert’s memorable line:

These sorts of things do happen. It’s pretty disturbing.

Pretty disturbing? Yah, I’d say so.


Zach Dunlap on the Today show,
after recovering from “brain death”

It reminds me of a similar scenario from several years ago—Zach Dunlap also woke up shortly before the docs initiated organ “harvesting.” In fact, Zach even remembers hearing himself described as “brain dead,” and it’s a good thing he was in no condition to respond. “I’m glad I couldn’t get up and do what I wanted to do,” he said on the Today show, 4 months after making his remarkable recovery.

Burns in Syracuse apparently woke up on her own. Zach? He was out cold—well, “dead,” actually, according to the medical team—but he had a couple cousins who were nurses, and they weren’t so sure. One cousin, Dan, dragged a pocketknife blade up the sole of Zach’s foot, and the foot pulled away. The attending nurse dismissed it as a reflex action, but the cousins didn’t give up.

Dan then dug a fingernail under one of Zach’s nails. Zach yanked his arm away and across his body, and that, the other nurse agreed, wasn’t a reflex action. It was a sign of life.

Those who think brain death is legit chalk this one up to sloppy diagnosis—either that, or else it’s an honest to goodness miracle! Those of us who who retain deep misgivings about brain death and all its attendant implications see Zach’s story (and Colleen‘s, and many others) as justification for our skepticism at the very least.

Yet there’s another story here: Those cousins. They refused to give up on Zach, and he’s alive today as a result. They rejected the diagnosis, spotted subtle signs of life, and persisted in rousing their kin.

We may not be physically “brain dead” ourselves (I’m writing these words and you’re reading them, after all), but there’s another kind of brain death—a moral malaise, an intellectual and volitional doldrums, in which we lose touch with the needs and aspirations of those beyond our immediate circle, and find contentment in the status quo.

This other kind of brain death was referenced by rapper and entrepreneur Ice-T in a recent, colorful WSJ interview:


Ice-T (Tracy Marrow)

When I was rapping out of L.A., the s— I said had to be the truth. People were very serious about not lying. We live in a different world now. The kids [today], they ain’t been through s—. My son got picked up in a Rolls-Royce from the hospital, wearing $250 sneakers. So what the f— can he rap about?

Ice-T’s surely onto something here, but he doesn’t prescribe impoverishment as a remedy for his son. Instead, he recommends that the next generation of rappers simply start paying attention—to wake up in other words. Ice-T goes on:

Come on, there’s a f—ing war going on! The world is in a housing crisis, an unemployment situation. The thing is, I’m in my 50s. It has to come from someone 19 or 20. The youth, they’re comfortably numb, like Pink Floyd said.

St. Peter, I’m convinced, was addressing this very phenomenon in his first epistle. “Be sober, be watchful,” Peter wrote. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” That’s the Revised Standard Version; other translations have that first line as “Stay awake!”

Don’t fall asleep, you could say. Keep talking, or move your arms around, or pinch yourself—like you do when you’re driving across Kansas to keep from nodding off. Similarly, we avoid nodding off morally by staying informed, being bothered by things, protesting, carrying signs, arguing, discussing, deliberating, listening. And if we stop doing those things? Peter was warning about temptations to sin and apostasy, but garden-variety ennui can be just as deadly.

lions-720x330Jesus, too, spoke often of sleeping and staying awake—like the ten bridesmaids in the parable. “For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.” When awoken, the foolish were unprepared for the festivities and the others got to party. They were all caught sleeping, but at least the wise bridesmaids were in readiness and could recover quickly.

Not so the sleepers mentioned by the Lord in the Book of Revelation: “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” Ouch.

Then, there are the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane: :

And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, ‘Why do you sleep?’

That’s Luke’s version; in Matthew’s version, Jesus has to wake them three times in a row before He finally gives up.

It’s notable that all these biblical exhortations to stay awake chiefly benefit the recipients. Peter demanded that his associates fend off listlessness for their own sake, not his. The same with Jesus—He didn’t implore the Apostles to stay awake and pray because He was counting on their support. Instead, it was a warning meant for their own good: “Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

But there’s a charitable dimension in vigilance as well. G.K. Chesterton wrote about this:

The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.

People never notice anything,” observed Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and the rest of the book is about Holden desperately scrambling to notice something, anything. Like Holden, we too have to fight to notice things and stay awake in a world of distraction and dullness. It’s work. It’s not always pleasant. We often need help.

Zach Dunlap, too, had to work hard. Speaking of his frustration during the months of rehab after his brush with death, Zach confessed, “I just ain’t got the patience.” Even so, his ability to experience impatience at all was itself a gift—a gift of new life. Dead people, really dead people, can’t be impatient. Ever.

To remind himself of the gift, Zach holds onto that pocketknife his cousin used to scrape his foot so long ago. Says Zach, “It makes me thankful that they didn’t give up.” Amen. Thank God for those cousins. Thank God they were present and alert and engaged. Thank God they acted on Zach’s behalf. And thank God they persevered in trying to wake him.

We could all use cousins like that, regardless of the kind of brain death we face.

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