by Father Peter J. Daly
A FORTNIGHT AGO, when I had open-heart surgery, I looked down into the abyss of death. By the grace of God and the help of science, I drew back from the edge. But it has changed the way I see things.
During the surgery, my aortic valve was replaced with an artificial valve made of cow tissue. When surgeons opened me up, they also found a large aneurism (a bulge) on my aorta, the main artery that carries blood to the body. It is no exaggeration to say that I cheated death.
I had the best possible medical care. My primary care doctor in Prince Frederick, Md., Dr. John Weigel, and my cardiologist, Dr. William E. Battle of Chevy Chase, Md., have been wonderful. And I was blessed with one of the finest heart surgeons anywhere, Duke Cameron, who was in charge of the cardiac surgery program at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
There just isn’t any better medical team anywhere.
Despite the great care, open-heart surgery is serious business. I was a good candidate, but I was aware of the risks.
I reported to Johns Hopkins at 5 a.m. for my surgery. My brother Kevin accompanied me. As we drove across the deserted city, certain lines from the psalms came to mind.
I thought of Psalm 51: “Create in me, O Lord, a clean heart.”
I also thought of Psalm 63: “Oh God, you are my God, for you I long. My body pines for you like a dry weary land without water. … For your love for me is better than life.”
Sitting in the dark car, I was suddenly aware of the real chance of death. Tears began running down my face. I was not so much afraid as I was filled with regret. So much left undone.
Inside the hospital, I undressed behind a little curtain. Staff members took my belongings and put them in a plastic bag with my name on it. I gave them my “living will.”
Dr. Cameron came in. He asked if I had any questions. Not really. I knew he was the best there is.
I asked him, “Could we pray together?”
He said yes, and we prayed for a moment. Then he squeezed my hand and left.
Someone came through the curtain and put an IV in my arm. I was saying the Our Father to myself, but only got as far as “Thy will be done.” Then it was lights out.
Just at the time that the operation started, there were 100 people in our parish church saying the rosary for me. I was overwhelmed by their love.
St. Paul says that love casts out fear. In my case, that was true.
Since the operation, I have been aware of each precious moment of life. My new heart valve is expected to give me 15 more years of life, more or less. I could get another replacement, but the clock is running.
Suddenly, everything seems wonderful! Fall colors have never been so rich! Sunrises and sunsets have never been so glorious.
One night at Johns Hopkins, some high school buddies came to see me. We started talking about life and death. I was overcome. Three old men who were once young sat there, crying.
I drew back from the abyss, but it is only temporary. Eventually we all go over the edge into death.
My fear now is that I won’t sufficiently appreciate each day as a blessing or give thanks to the author of life for each breath.