by David and Delys Cowles
Photography by John Snyder
The Family Vacation
At Christmastime we were all worn out. Most English professors are. Between David and me, last fall semester we had taught ﬁve courses and more than 200 students in BYU’s English Department. Finally, at three in the afternoon on Dec. 22, 1994, we were ready with grades ﬁnished and family packed. The black duffel bag suitcases we bought when we directed the London Study Abroad program bulged with clothes, toys, and the inevitable books. Two years ago we looked like the Family Von Trapp in their travelling clothes. This year we looked like a family with warm California in its eyes. This year we were going to rest for a week at my parents’ home in Southern California. David nicked his ﬁnger zipping up his bag, but it didn’t bleed, so he ignored it. When I called my parents to tell them we would arrive late, my father, Merwin Waite, quietly told me his 94-year-old mother had just died, which meant we would be in California for her funeral. After a quick stop at BYU to turn in grades, we were off driving south on I-15. But the relaxing vacation in Hacienda Heights never really evolved.
The day before Christmas, David noticed his ﬁnger was slightly infected and asked for antiseptic and a bandage. That night he noticed some pain under his arm. Right after we opened presents on Sunday, Christmas morning, he broke out into chills, and his body began to shake. The next two days we were sure he had a terrible intestinal ﬂu. By Tuesday morning his body ached so badly he could hardly stand the pain. We called his doctor in Provo, who said it sounded like the ﬂu that was going around. Consequently, when it came time for Grandma’s funeral, we felt we could leave David alone.
My grandmother had lived a long, full 94 years, so her funeral was a mix of grief and joy. As the oldest granddaughter, I stood at the pulpit and told about Waite women being strong.
Then the world turned surrealistic. As I sat down on the stand, my neighbor ran a note up to me: “Your husband has been taken to the hospital by ambulance.” I asked my mother, June, to watch the children and rushed home. I called around, found the right emergency room, and then asked, “Is my husband okay?” They answered, “Yes.” I drove quickly to the hospital, thinking David had probably overreacted and was just dehydrated. Instead, I found my husband on the edge of death.
Tuesday morning I felt sicker than I had ever been before. The body aches that accompanied this “ﬂu” had become so painful, I could hardly stand to sit or lie or do anything. I kept taking hot baths, hoping for no good reason that this would reduce the pain somewhat. It never did, but at least ﬁlling up the bathtub helped distract me.
The pain continued with no signiﬁcant change. Suddenly, I sensed within my mind the words, “You need an ambulance. Now.” It wasn’t an actual voice, but it was so insistent and forceful that I could not ignore it. Still, I hesitated. I’m not the sort of person who calls 911 for myself. If one of my children were in danger, I would call in an instant. But whether because of latent male machismo or just being too cheap to pay for an ambulance, I am the kind of person who would die sitting next to the telephone, wondering whether I was really sick enough to call for help.
Again the almost audible voice said, “You need an ambulance. Now!” I had had enough experience with that voice to obey it. I limped my way to the phone and dialed 911.
When a woman’s voice answered, I repeated the words I had heard in my mind: “I need an ambulance. Now.” The woman conﬁrmed my address and promised to send paramedics. Then she tried valiantly to keep me on the line and conscious. “Sit up straight and keep talking,” she said. “Put both feet on the ﬂoor.” I did my best, but my body was becoming increasingly un-cooperative. Finally, I just couldn’t do what she asked any longer. “I’m going to hang up now,” I said, as politely as I could. As I reached to hang up the phone, I could hear her frantically trying to keep me on the line, but I was past caring.
I walked to the bedroom with excruciating slowness, leaning against the wall for support. With great effort I managed to exchange my robe for sweat pants and a T-shirt. Sensing that I was losing consciousness, I stumbled to unlock the front door, then literally crawled to the living room couch, collapsing in dizziness and pain.
A few minutes later two ﬁre trucks and an ambulance pulled up outside the house, lights ﬂashing wildly. A whole army of uniformed paramedics jumped out of each vehicle. Someone pounded on the door and called, “Paramedics.”
“Come in,” I called out, as loudly as I could. Apparently that wasn’t very loud, because the knocking continued. Finally someone opened the door.
“I’m over here,” I moaned.
Immediately, I was surrounded by people prodding, poking, and questioning me. While I tried to answer, one looked up from my left arm and said, “I can’t get any blood pressure at all. Try the other arm.” That one was equally unsuccessful. “Let’s take him in,” someone ﬁnally said. The paramedics strapped me to a gurney and hauled me out to the ambulance. Just before they put me in, an LDS neighbor rushed out of her house to see what was wrong. “Tell Delys,” was all I could manage to say.
During the ride to the hospital, I ﬁrst heard the set of questions medical personnel would ask me and Delys over and over again. “Are you a heavy smoker?” “No, I don’t smoke.” “Have you been drinking excessive amounts of alcohol recently?” “No, I don’t drink.” They would pause as if surprised, then ask suspiciously, “Are you sure?” Finally I said, “Of course I’m sure. I’m a Mormon.” Even that didn’t seem to satisfy them, but at least they quit asking for a while.
The next thing I remember is ﬁnding myself on a curtained-off cot in Emergency. An Asian man I would come to know as Dr. Shin was asking me the same questions everyone else had asked as he monitored my vital signs. He was obviously concerned about my condition but uncertain what my problem was. “You may ﬁnd this uncomfortable, but we have to insert a tube through your nose.” “What—” I started to say, but Dr. Shin had already begun worming the plastic tube into my left nostril. I gagged as it painfully passed through my nose and down my throat. After a few minutes I grew relatively accustomed to the tube, though I found it perpetually uncomfortable.
Dr. Shin and another physician discussed my symptoms while waiting for an X-ray machine to arrive. I apparently showed signs of heart attack, but some of my symptoms were inconsistent with that diagnosis. Finally another doctor told me he wanted to take a CAT scan. I was wheeled to another room, where my torso was exposed. Technicians moved me to a kind of tray that allowed my body to enter the unit. The CAT scan took about an hour.
As the technicians slid me out, someone noticed that a blackish-purple spot about four inches in diameter had formed on my side. It had not been there when I entered the machine. “Have you been kicked in that side?” someone asked me. No one had told me about the spot, so the question seemed absurd. “No,” I said. “Why would they?” “Maybe you were drunk and didn’t notice,” someone else suggested. Here we go again, I thought.
I could see the physician speaking to Delys with considerable animation, but too softly for me to hear. Why don’t they talk to me, I wondered. I guess I’ll have to wait for Delys to tell me what the doctor said.
That was my last fully conscious thought for six days.
When I arrived at the hospital, I found David was not overreacting to the ﬂu. The doctors were extremely concerned because he had almost no blood pressure, his kidneys had shut down, and no one could discover the source of his problem. David was still in a lot of pain, but they couldn’t give him any pain medication until his blood pressure went up. They took him away for a CAT scan. Meanwhile, my mother arrived, and we waited together, dozing off in the hard chairs. We had stayed up late the night before preparing for Grandma’s funeral.
Suddenly a concerned doctor asked me, “How did your husband get that big bruise on his side? Did someone kick him? Was he drunk last night?”
“I can promise you my husband does not drink alcohol.” The doctors never seemed convinced. “And he did not have a bruise there when you took him into the CAT scan.” Their concern obviously deepened.
Looking back on it, our being in the hospital at this very moment, with doctors examining his body constantly, helped save his life. The doctors quickly conferred with each other. Then they told me the dread news.
“We think this might be necrotizing fascitis. Have you heard of the ﬂesh-eating bacteria?”
“I have, but I don’t really pay attention to tabloid-type diseases.”
“Well, this is probably what he has. It is an extremely aggressive bacteria and can spread as fast as an inch an hour. The bacteria and its toxins destroy the skin and soft tissue and shut down vital organs. Our only recourse is to take him into surgery right away and try to cut out the infected parts. I am going to open him up from wrist to hip, and he may end up looking like a shark bit him. Even so, this disease is so fast moving, he only has a 5–10 percent chance of living.”
I knew that “a 5–10 percent chance of living” was the doctor’s way of saying gently, “Your husband is probably going to die.” But I also knew that he still had a chance, and I knew how to increase the odds. The doctors several times came to tell me how serious David’s condition was and how little chance he had of living. But I am a pretty strong person, especially in a crisis. My calm confused them, and they asked if I understood the gravity of the situation.
I answered, “I do realize how serious this is. But I say a 10 percent chance is worth going for. Let’s go for life. Let’s save him.”
The nurse suggested we bring our children quickly before surgery so they could see their father, probably for the last time. My mother drove back to her home and gathered up our ﬁve children, who had just arrived from the family dinner after their great-grandmother’s funeral. I secretly prayed that they would arrive before the surgeons took David away.
In the meantime, my father arrived with my sister’s husband. They gave David a priesthood blessing. By this time, David was covered with tubes and surrounded by beeping machines. My father sat on a hard chair in the hall afterward; his face looked worried and starkly white. He realized that his oldest daughter, at the rather young age of 37, was likely to be a widow with ﬁve children and overwhelming responsibilities.
When the children arrived, they were in shock. They had spent the morning at a funeral, the ﬁrst for most of them. Then they came home to ﬁnd that their fanatically healthy father might die. Emotions ran high. The nurse prepared them to see their father covered with tubes, and we went in to see him. I had decided not to tell David how serious the situation was because I wanted him to be in a positive mindset for the operation. We wished him well, squeezed his hand, then gathered out in the hall, where the nurse brought us apple juice and chairs so we wouldn’t faint.
As the orderlies rolled David into surgery, my family moved to the waiting room. We knelt, and each of us offered a prayer for David’s health. A nurse found crayons and paper for our two youngest, Steven and Marissa, and made arrangements so I could make long distance phone calls.
My daughter, Cristie, and I went into an unused office to phone friends. I called Leon and Beth Cowles, David’s parents, in Portland, Ore.; Beth Hedengren, our neighbor and colleague in the English Department; Bruce Bryan, our bishop; and later Jay Fox, our department chair. I said, “I have something very serious to tell you. David has a rare disease called necrotizing fascitis. He has only a 5-10 percent chance of living, and the next two hours in surgery will determine whether he lives or dies. But I believe in miracles and the power of prayer. Will you call everyone we know and ask them to pray for him?”
Within an hour nearly the entire English Department, our ward, other friends, and our extended family were actively praying for David. And David’s parents gallantly worked to ﬁnd plane tickets from Portland to Los Angeles the same week as the Rose Bowl.
The scary thing about waiting for surgery results is that you don’t know which emotion to prepare for. I remember lying on the ﬂoor because I felt weak. Any minute someone could walk in and tell me my husband had died, or that he didn’t really have this disease and would be ﬁne. When the surgeons ﬁnally came, they had encouraging news. The disease had not progressed as far as they expected, so they did not have to cut much soft tissue. We all cheered and felt that the Lord had answered our prayers.
The surgeons told us they wanted to move David to another hospital four miles away when he stabilized. About midnight an ambulance arrived to take David, but his blood pressure was too low for them to move him. He was semi-conscious after the surgery, so I went in and talked to him. I held his hand and talked about simple things like the colors in the room and how proud I was of him. His blood pressure rose, and the ambulance took him away.
At the new hospital, the doctors (David had a team of about 12 different doctors) told me they were going to attack this bacteria on three fronts: ﬁrst, antibiotic therapy, which would require a few days to take effect; next, surgery, cutting out all necrotized (or dead) and infected tissue; and third, a hyperbaric chamber. Only three hospitals in the Los Angeles area have a chamber like this. It looks like a long metal tube, about three feet in diameter. Inside, the atmospheric pressure increases to three or four times normal, and pure oxygen is pumped in. This forced oxygen into David’s cells and helped his body ﬁght the disease. He spent several hours each day in the chamber and would come out lobster red.
By now David looked terrible. He was so swollen the staff thought he weighed much more than he really did. Fortunately, we had taken off his wedding ring before the ﬁrst surgery, and I wore it for several days next to my own. David had a tube going down his throat, one down his nose, one into a central catheter for all the IVs, and another into his arm for blood samples. He had electrodes all over his body and a clamp on his ﬁnger to monitor oxygen in his blood. The only place I could touch him was his left hand, so I held it a lot. Every time the doctors sliced his body, they left the wounds open and just wrapped them with gauze. “Continue to give him ﬂuids,” ordered his main doctor, Dr. Saketkhoo. “It’s impossible to give him too much. His body is like a sieve—everything seeps out the open incisions.”
David couldn’t talk because of the tube down his mouth, but he could blink and squeeze my hand. He was semi-conscious, so I spoke to him.
“Do you want to know where you are?”
“Yes, desperately,” his eyes told me.
“We are in a hospital in Whittier. Do you want to know what is wrong with you?” He looked quite confused. He nodded as vigorously as he could.
“You have an aggressive bacterial infection. I called your parents and told them, and they ﬂew down here to see you.”
David looked puzzled, as if saying, “Why are my parents here? Tell them not to go to all this trouble.” I wanted David to ﬁght for life and not give up, but I thought that if he knew that he was on the brink of dying, he would be shocked. Consequently, I tried to make all the visits from children, parents-in-law, and parents look like a normal thing concerned people do, not like a ﬁnal goodbye march.
The Darkest Hours
My memories of the next six days are vivid but detached and retain a certain surrealistic, fuzzy quality. I underwent major, life-saving surgery six times in those six days, so I constantly suffered from the effects of anaesthesia. And when that wore off, I was on high doses of morphine.
All my memories seem to be at night, though I believe this was because my room was always darkened. Outside, the busy desk for that section of the hospital made me believe I was in a back room at some sort of business establishment, perhaps a mail-order retailer. I remember people bringing mail and making other deliveries, but I never managed to connect what people said with any general sense of where I was or what was happening to me. I recall wondering with the paranoia that sometimes accompanies morphine whether I had been kidnapped. Perhaps I was being held here, drugged out of my mind, for some mysterious purpose. As nearly as I can recall, it never occurred to me that I was in a hospital.
I do retain several vivid memories from this period. I remember a doctor and nurse trying to adjust my bed, and having difﬁculties with a mechanism that I later learned kept squeezing and releasing my legs to keep the blood ﬂowing through them. I remember Delys bringing my oldest children to see me. That memory, still rather vague, features Delys bending over me and repeating “Choose life, David. Choose life.” I don’t think I had the slightest idea what she was talking about. Her appearance somehow reminded me of a Fizzies commercial I hadn’t thought of since I was a child, though now I have no idea what the connection might have been.
I also remember someone asking me if I knew where I was. I tried to answer, but could not because of the tube down my throat. I shook my head. “You’re in a special medical facility,” she said. “You’ve been moved here because you are very, very sick, and we have the facilities to take care of you.” Sick, I thought. Imagine that. Then I lapsed back into unconsciousness.
The second day, Wednesday, was grim. I slept ﬁtfully a while in the staff sleeping room. Dr. Shin, the surgeon, and my mother awoke me. There in the dimmed light of the room, Dr. Shin gave me his latest post-surgery prognosis. He said he did not have a good feeling about David’s chances. His neck was so swollen that he worried the bacteria had spread there. Much of the skin on his arm was gone, and the bacteria seemed to have spread down his side. The surgeons were trying to anticipate where it would go next. They cut away anything that looked infected. They would probably have to amputate his arm and any other limb that became infected. Worse yet, his heart was acting strangely, and Dr. Shin feared that the bacteria might be there already. If so, he would certainly die.
Hope diminished. Although we celebrated earlier in the day when we reached the 24-hour mark, now I felt I should really face the idea of David dying. My parents brought the children again to say hello to David, but I hesitated taking them in because their father looked too swollen and sick—not a great sight to linger in your mind forever. I decided Steven, 8, and Marissa, 3, should stay in the waiting room. I didn’t know whether 12-year-old Robby could handle it. He had been quite distressed the night before when he saw David on the verge of his ﬁrst operation. I gave Robby the choice, and he decided to remain in the waiting room. Kathryn and Cristie, 15 and 17, came with me to talk to their father. All David could do was blink his eyes in partial recognition. It was very hard for us all.
That night we all went home to sleep. I slept on a hide-a-bed in the family room, because no one would sleep in the bed David had gotten sick in. We were afraid even to go in to change the sheets. We prayed as a family again, and we all tried to sleep. As I lay down after my long, heartfelt prayer, I used all my concentration to clear my spirit of a heavy darkness. Demons ﬂoated in my mind, and I had no peace. I heard Cristie locked in the bathroom, crying. But I couldn’t move. It took all my energy to keep from sinking into the darkness assailing me. “Heavenly Father, please help me,” I whispered over and over.
The next morning, I looked in my closet and noticed David’s Christmas presents. I thought, “I wonder if I can take these back.” My father and I sat down on the edge of the bed and talked. It sounded as if the doctors were going to amputate limbs wherever the bacteria spread. Even then, he would probably not live. I had just dressed my grandmother for burial two days before, and I couldn’t ﬁgure out how I could even dress David for burial if he was severely cut up and missing limbs. Dad and I discussed life insurance, our ﬁnances, and how I would support the family.
But the timing seemed all wrong. David was only 40. In his teaching I have seen him inﬂuence many people to be more righteous and spiritual, more tolerant of others, more responsive to God’s will. I’ve read students’ notes to him, and I see the guidance he gives many who face intellectual-spiritual crises, as he did earlier in his life. I know the strong inﬂuence he has on his own sons and daughters. And on me, for heaven’s sake. I remember bargaining with God: “If you need him, take him. But there are very few people who can do what David does here on earth. I know he can do much more to build thy kingdom.”
I ﬁnally decided that if the Lord chose to let David die, I would let him go. But if he chose to spare him, I would do everything I could do to help him live.
Support from Home
Our family were not the only ones praying. Word spread quickly. My parents’ ward and my Waite relatives knew David was sick because this all happened at the time of my grandmother’s funeral. A high school friend who was a nurse at the hospital became our local informer; people called her for updates. My uncle passed on the news to my Waite relatives.
Back in Utah, our bishop spread the news. I originally caught him at his office in the middle of tithing settlement to tell him of our plight and ask for the prayers of the ward. Within minutes our entire ward was praying for our family. In several cases young children made sure their families never prayed without mentioning David.
Then on Wednesday night something quite magical happened. The fax machine at the nurses’ station rolled off page after page of notes from our ward.
“Is this guy some kind of a celebrity or something?” the puzzled nurses asked.
“No, we just have a lot of people who love us,” I said, with pride in my ward.
The next day, a FedEx messenger brought a large envelope full of letters for our children from their friends. Wow, it was comforting to receive support from so many people.
By this time our neighbor and colleague, Beth Hedengren, had called people who called other people until the whole English Department knew about my condition. The news shocked everyone, and the entire department began to pray for my recovery. One wrote me later that he told the Lord, “I will accept nothing less than Dave Cowles alive and back here teaching.” On Wednesday morning—during the middle of the semester break—about 15 of my colleagues gathered in the department ofﬁce and offered a prayer. Several members of this group began fasting at that time.
On Thursday, grades were due, so a lot of people showed up. By now the department ofﬁce had become the central gathering point for sharing information and concern. That morning about 35 members of the English faculty and several colleagues from other departments gathered in the word processing center. After a long and moving prayer and many tears, the members of this group quietly dispersed to private places to pray again.
The Turning Point
Thursday morning I went to the hospital, knowing I might have to let David go. But much to my surprise, when I got there Dr. Saketkhoo came to the waiting room to tell us David was doing better. He said David’s body was stabilizing and that they had lowered his dosage of Dopamine, which helps raise blood pressure. His kidneys were beginning to work better. His blood looked good, and best of all, the bacteria did not seem to be in his heart or any other organ—only in the soft tissue under his skin. They had lanced and drained his badly swollen neck, and there was no sign of the bacteria there either.
I walked back to David’s room, and when I got close, I could feel the full presence of his personality. He still had tubes everywhere, including down his throat to help him breathe, so he couldn’t talk to me, but his eyes and hand-squeezes expressed much.
I asked David the question I had been mulling over for a day, even though I already knew the answer: “David, do you want to live?”
“Are you crazy? Of course I do,” his eyes told me. I could tell he had not considered death this whole time.
“Well, that’s good, because you are going to live. I am proud of you for ﬁghting off this infection so well.”
David tried to move his right hand, but could not because it was wrapped up. He motioned with his left hand
for a pen.
“I love you,” he scrawled. I have a good husband.
“I love you,” I replied.
Next he wrote “pillow,” meaning, as he put it later, “Please ﬁnd me a comfortable pillow like the one I have at home. This lousy hospital thing is driving me crazy.”
The Right Arm
Thursday afternoon Dr. Shin, ready for the day’s surgery, introduced me to Dr. Britto, a plastic surgeon. Dr. Shin told me he had asked Dr. Britto to join him in case they had to amputate David’s right arm. This took me by surprise.
“But he is a pianist. Remember in your operation that he is a pianist.”
“I thought he was an English professor.”
“Well, playing the piano isn’t his profession. It’s his great love, though. He’s composed many pieces. Remember he is a pianist.”
I prayed hard during the operation that David would heal and that he would be able to keep his arm. After the operation the surgeons told us that after some discussion they had decided to leave his arm for today, but that they would reevaluate again tomorrow. More frightening, though, the bacteria was still spreading. Dr. Shin had expected it to go down his legs, but he saw a red streak across David’s abdomen and traced the infection to his left side now. Dr. Britto said he had performed many operations, but the large amounts of dead jelly-like tissue they removed from David’s abdomen had made him feel sick. Dr. Shin still only gave David a 10 percent chance of living, but I could tell David was going to survive.
At home I discussed David’s arm with the family. I felt funny praying for his arm at ﬁrst. I felt as if I had already been offered a banquet with David staying alive, and now I was ungratefully asking for dessert. But my father reminded us that we should pray for the things we need. David needed his arm, and we prayed for it.
Three times the surgeons went in to amputate David’s arm, and every time they decided it had enough healthy tissue to leave it. Even so, his arm had lost most of the skin and much of the underlying tissue. He was missing great clumps of skin and tissue over his entire torso; only about half the skin on his upper body remained. But his body was getting stronger and ﬁghting the disease. The doctors took David off the respirator and lowered his morphine dose.
My ﬁrst experience with complete and clear-headed consciousness took the medical staff by surprise. I suddenly awoke to ﬁnd myself in a bed. A nurse was holding my right arm up in the air to change the dressing. I looked over at it and was horriﬁed to see not my arm, but a shocking mess of blood, muscle, tissue—indeed, everything but skin. I remember formulating my question calmly and carefully: “What in the world happened to my arm?” I asked the nurse. She seemed shocked that I was alert enough to ask such a question. I wasn’t supposed to see what had happened to me until I had been properly prepared. I didn’t understand until later the panic my sudden awakening caused.
Nurses hurried off to fetch a doctor. The nurse holding my arm brought it down where I could not see it. “You’ve been very ill,” she said. “Don’t worry about anything. You’re going to be all right.”
“Oh,” I said with relief. I thought, I’m going to be all right. I guess I can go back to sleep. But before I could, one of the nurses who had left returned to tell me about the hospital’s counseling services. Did I want to see a psychiatrist? she asked frantically. Would I like a visit from the chaplain? The questions seemed unnecessary; I had already forgotten my arm as I slipped back into unconsciousness. “No,” I answered. “Why should I want to see any of them?”
Love and Support
By Friday the hospital was getting so many phone calls from Utah inquiring about my condition that the public relations department called Joyce Baggerly, the English Department’s amazing secretary. For the next week Joyce left phone mail messages providing information on my condition, changed three times daily, including the weekend. For more than a month, she added daily updates. Hundreds of calls came in to the “David Cowles Hot Line,” as it quickly came to be called, for the most up-to-date information available. Relatives and concerned friends in California also learned to check the department hot line. We sometimes joked that I even called in occasionally to see how I was doing that day.
At 3:00 every afternoon the department express-mailed me a box or large envelope with messages from colleagues and students. As Joyce put it in the department’s history:
“The envelope contains many different forms of love. Faxes have come from all over the United States, students have drawn booklets of their favorite subjects taught by David, extraordinary messages left on phone mail are put on ordinary phone message slips, books of cartoons (so far, 3 editions of Calvin & Hobbes), and several CDs and cassette tapes. Some faculty members come every morning to put their daily greetings in the envelope before they go to their ofﬁces: notes, letters, epistles, allegories, puns, jokes, or hand-drawn cartoons, and one even puts in a copy of The Daily Universe.”
These offerings were the high point of each day in the hospital. Many of my colleagues sent heartfelt letters that moved me deeply and helped sustain me through the most difﬁcult times.
Many people, from on and off campus, contributed to the trust fund set up to help us with expenses. Periodically, I received door-sized sheets of paper that had been posted outside my ofﬁce, ﬁlled with notes of care and concern from students, faculty, and friends. We received faxes and letters from friends, acquaintances, and even complete strangers from all over the United States. Members of the Whittier Stake found a place for my parents to stay, and LDS members from all over came to donate much-needed blood.
Prayers from members of my ward, from the Saints in California and elsewhere, and from many people who are not even Mormons helped sustain me during these months in the hospital. A Roman Catholic colleague sent me a note informing me that a mass would be held for me. Nurses, therapists, and even a few doctors in the hospital came in to say they were praying for me. One physical therapist generously brought me a blackberry milkshake I wasn’t supposed to have. (She apparently knew that hospital food is what the starving children in third-world countries send back.) She told me her Bible study group had decided to pray for me daily. LDS wards from as far away as New York held special fasts on my behalf. And I learned that I was remembered in prayers offered in meetings of the First Presidency, the General Authorities, the BYU Board of Trustees, and others.
One morning after I had somehow survived a particularly horrendous day of crisis, Joyce talked with the head nurse of the Critical Care Unit to get information for the daily update. The nurse told her that it was yet another miracle day: “And I know you people believe in miracles. In fact, I would say that you people in Utah have kept this man alive with your prayers because he should be dead with what he’s had.”
There is no question in my mind that she was right. There is no way I should be alive today—let alone in possession of all my limbs and without serious permanent loss of function. I can’t begin to count the number of hospital personnel—from doctors and nurses to cleaners and orderlies—who came into my room to see the “miracle man.” I have no doubt that many generous and caring people did, indeed, pray me a miracle. I have been truly amazed—and deeply moved—at the tremendous outpouring of love and faith on my behalf.
I sometimes feel unworthy of all that love and faith, especially when I recognize that many, many people who have equally difﬁcult trials may not receive the publicity and prayers I did. As one physician who appeared with me on a television interview joked privately, I had become the poster child for the disease of the month.
Once the bacteria had run its course and my life was no longer threatened, I had to begin the long process of recovery. Part of recovery meant recovering me with skin. The doctors predicted I would require at least ﬁve or six months of hospitalization and two years of therapy and surgery to regain my full strength and ﬂexibility. I have always been a slow healer, so this news was quite disheartening. But as the prayers and support continue to bless me and my family, we ﬁnd smaller, less obvious miracles everywhere. I left the hospital in less than two months. My body has healed at a rate that astounds many of those who saw me in those early, dark days. Though the process has been painful and sometimes frustrating, I expect to be fully healed and back in the classroom a year from the time I ﬁrst got sick.
My parents reread some of my father’s 1990 journal recently. My father had recorded a comment David made in a priesthood lesson about prayer—that we shouldn’t pray that nothing bad will happen to us, but that we will have the kind of attitude that will turn whatever does happen into a blessing. I have seen very little discouragement from David in the past months. This gift to see the blessings in the trials has extended to our entire family. Last week I told some friends that when we arrived at the airport, we found our car in long-term parking with three ﬂat tires. “Maybe after our experiences of the past months, I should rephrase that,” I added. “I arrived at the car to ﬁnd one fully inﬂated tire!”
David arrived home from the hospital eager to know whether his hand would work at all. He had already surprised the doctors just by moving his ﬁngers, since they were sure they had nicked the major nerve. Though he couldn’t even put on socks by himself, he hoped he would be able to play a few notes or a chord. He put his hands on the piano and we looked at each other hopefully. He then commenced to play beautifully, almost as if nothing had happened. He composed a new piece on the spot. Three miracles: he lives, he keeps his arm, and he can still play Beethoven sonatas.
I will lose very little that matters—a year of time, a bit of mobility—and I have had to endure some pain. Scars and skin grafts cover much of my body, though most of them are hidden beneath my clothing. I will probably never hit a killer tennis serve again, but I hope to play eventually. I have lost none of my facility and none of my enjoyment for playing the piano. Most important, I still have my family, whom I have come to love and appreciate even more than before.
And I love to laugh even more than before. Last week a physical therapist in Provo repeated what many people have said: “At least you still have your sense of humor.” “That’s terrible!” I replied. “I never had one before!”
Though I still can’t always feel grateful for the experience, I wouldn’t want to give back what it has taught me or lose the growth and insights it forced me to achieve. As promised in my father-in-law’s blessing before we even knew how sick I was, I have gained understanding and sympathy for the suffering of others. I have an enhanced sense of what prayer can do, and I ﬁnd myself praying for others much more than I did before. I often think with great emotion of the love, prayers, and concern of my friends and colleagues, and even of many people I will never meet. I feel God’s presence in my life more than before, and I sense his love for me and for others. My voice is often softer, my perceptions and judgments gentler and much more positive.
And I ﬁnd my prayers have mostly become prayers of thanks. The line from the hymn often echoes in my thoughts: “Oh, what shall I ask of thy providence more?”
David L. Cowles is an associate professor of English at BYU, and Delys Cowles is an instructor in the English Department.