WHILE I lay comatose in the intensive care unit on the fifth floor of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, in central London, one June afternoon this year, my parish priest from Streatham, Fr Steffan Mathias, gently delivered the anointing of the sick, and the last rites. It was, by all accounts, beautifully done; but it marked the lowest point for my loved ones, who had been told, in an encounter with consultants a couple of hours earlier, that the next 90 minutes would be critical, and that it wasn’t looking good.
The doctors had tried and failed repeatedly to complete a tracheostomy — a tube though the throat for breathing — and I had unconsciously fought off the attempts, blood emerging from my mouth. To my father and sister and the vicar, it looked as though I was going to die. Emails were sent updating my friends.
It started, on Friday 26 May, with worsening stomach pain at home that I’d later rate as eight out of ten, and a feeling like a heavy hangover, even though I hadn’t drunk the night before. Earlier that evening, a friend had persuaded me by text to call 111, whose medic listened and advised me to call 999, after which an ambulance took me to Accident & Emergency.
I was sent immediately to ICU, where I was scanned and diagnosed with acute or “severe” pancreatitis, and, from the start, warned repeatedly by doctors how “dangerous” and life-threatening my illness was.
And, after two months there — five weeks of which I spent in an induced coma after being told the risks, but also the necessity, as I could hardly breathe; plus two more months in a ward, where I fought off pneumonia, flu, and sepsis, took on four blood transfusions, and underwent several “procedures”, including the “uncomfortable” insertion of a “drain” into my side to rid my body of an infected “collection” around the pancreas — on 26 September, four months to the day since I’d first been taken into hospital, I was finally discharged, a little dazed, but with a renewed appreciation for fresh air, family, friends, and life itself.
Although my family were slightly alarmed at the latest U-turn in my fortunes after several false starts, when it came to being “released”, as many patients call it, that was a joyous evening, as we drove by ambulance again, back through the streets of west and south London, sunlit although the summer that I had missed was over.
BUT there was no escaping the losses of the summer of 2023, of which I was made suddenly aware. My mother’s grave sickness overcame her in June, while I was in the coma. I missed her funeral, therefore, and I am only now beginning to process her death. Then, other losses: most of my pancreas, now described by consultants as “dead”; and a large amount of muscle, as well as fat, had gone during the coma, which meant that I had to learn to walk again — which I have done, thanks to brilliant, pushy, pure-hearted physios.
These physios and occupational therapists, and the nurses and health-care assistants who were happy to give patients “personal care”, are simply made of better stuff than many of us — certainly me, anyway. I was and remain in awe of their devotion, and wonder still what motivates their work, which, in my humble opinion, is God’s work.
WHAT to make of God in all this? One or two atheist friends took what I perhaps unfairly regard as a fetishistic interest in whether I’d lost my faith, having been dealt, aged 44, such a serious diagnosis and prognosis, which one doctor said could be “worse than cancer”.
And it is true that I prayed less than usual, spending far too much time — while unable to concentrate on reading or even the radio — staring at the walls. After the Rolls-Royce experience of ICU, with its one-to-one nursing and spacious rooms with a view, I was depressed after being moved to the other, somewhat more rickety, ward.
Doctors were talking about further weeks of what felt like a relentless bombardment of blood tests, “flushing” the drain, medication, exercises, and so many questions; and I felt weak, diminished, and pale, and unable to summon the will to keep saying “Yes” and go through more.
Then my sister visited, and told me bluntly that I had to decide whether to live or die. This happened to coincide with one care assistant, whom I particularly respected, telling me before she went on annual leave that she had some difficult but necessary advice for me: if I was to survive, I needed to shift my attitude to a more positive one.
Yes, it was family, friends — including many church friends and clergy — who got me through. And regaining my appetite and eating was a massive factor. But, in the end, it was also that question my sister posed, which, to me, echoed one that Jesus put to the man languishing in the pools of Bethesda in St John’s Gospel: “Do you want to be made well?” This led me to discover an inner sense that, yes, I wanted to live.
The clergy of my church — Fr Steffan and Fr Ben Vertannes — came regularly, and administered holy communion, meeting me just as I was (and often not particularly talking about religion), in that selfless approach that turns society’s priorities on their heads.
I was sustained by their ceaseless prayers and those of my friends, including colleagues at Christian Aid, many of whom sent unexpected cards, while being updated on WhatsApp by my old ally and one-time manager, the Christian author and speaker Chine McDonald. I even, late on in the stay, tackled the strange if beautifully written book of Job.
HOPE, for others if not always yourself, is, indeed, hard to kill. From the start, Fr Steffan put me right after my morphine-fuelled claims that I was ready to meet my Maker.
And, in the end, there was no hiding from the notion that I’d been given a second chance, an opportunity, to repent of past sins, to keep away from bad habits, and to head in a different direction.
According to the doctors I spoke to, alcohol was not the sole cause, but — unless gallstones can be detected in future scans — it must have played a significant part in my illness, along with high cholesterol. I haven’t had a drop for five months, with no choice for four of those, obviously. But I have no intention of again taking up the substance, having overused it for too long. Elsewhere, I need to find a way of emulating the sheer goodness that shone through the nurses, doctors, and physios whom I saw in hospital.
One doctor called me “a tough cookie”. Another consultant compared my case with that of Lazarus. For most of the time, I felt like neither. But, either way, I’m conscious that I’ve come from being given the last rites to a healthier and happier life. And I’ll never forget the love and the stubborn hope of others which saw me through.
James Macintyre is a journalist, and a co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader (Biteback Publishing, 2012).
Listen to an interview with James Macintyre here