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Knocking on Heaven's Door: My Near-Death Experience

If Vicki hadn't insisted on rushing me to the hospital, there is a good chance I would have died.
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Disclosure: I didn't enter heaven and see angels -- this isn't that type of post.

Recovering from my illness in Idaho, I read this line by Laura Helmuth writing about Tim Minchin's attack on gung-ho alternative medicine advocates: "Many of us would have died already if it weren't for routine medical interventions; we are on our second or third lives." And I now be one of them.

I was in Boston to work on the e-book version of our 1975 Love and Addiction with my long-time colleague, Archie Brodsky, and his wife, Vicki Rowland. On the way to their house in Archie's car, I jumped in the Charles River for a swim on a very hot afternoon. I swam in the river again the next morning, as the sun rose. That second afternoon, a red welt appear on my foot. In the afternoon, I asked Vicki to close the windows, because it was getting cold. "It's eighty degrees," Vicki said. She insisted that I go to Mount Auburn Hospital.

I was rushed into the ER at the hospital, and put on saline solution and antibiotic IVs. My white blood cell count was astronomical, indicating my body was fighting a powerful infection, and I had a fever. But the most alarming statistic was my blood pressure, which descended (as I recall) to 37 over 17. I never lost consciousness, but I was knocking on heaven's door. Over the next several hours ER personnel labored to bring my BP up to a survivable level. When they succeeded, around midnight, I was moved to the hospital with a heart monitor, in the level-of-care unit just below ICU.

The hospital staff monitored the growing red blotch on my leg, my temperature, and my BP with great concern (although no one was more concerned than I was). Things normalized fairly rapidly, and I was released after a couple of days with a prescription for more antibiotics and instructions to elevate my leg, or else there was a great danger I would relapse.

So if Vicki hadn't insisted on rushing me to the hospital, there is a good chance I would have died. And whenever I told people the story, they quickly chimed in with a similar one of their own, involving themselves or a loved one or friend. Helmuth's point is that modern medicine is the best way to go when it comes to infection and disease. (Helmuth has been a leading voice in discrediting of the anti-vaccination movement -- including Robert Kennedy, Jr. , Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Joe Scarborough -- which could be killing people.)

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm no medical Pollyanna. I believe medicine often makes errors, sometimes grave and fatal ones, and that hospitals are not the safest places to be. And doctors can't always figure things out, and sometimes they disagree.

In fact, that happened with me. After I returned to Brooklyn, I saw an infectious disease specialist. She looked at my still blotched foot with alarm and prescribed another course of antibiotics. She was ambivalent about exercising, because that increased the redness. Her uncertainty and anxiety were contagious -- I became a near-basket case myself. And so I lay supine most of the week with my leg elevated and worried every time I had to go to an appointment or when my ex-wife and I took my grandson out to skateboard.

After another week, I went to the doc-in-the-box around the corner from me in Brooklyn. That doctor carefully examined me, expressed his empathy for my almost dying, and said, "Your leg looks pretty good." I said, "What about the red blotches up my calf?" Him: "That's just along the lines of your lymph glands where your body is still dealing with your cellulitis (warning: medical information not guaranteed accurate). You should exercise -- it'll improve your circulation and clear your leg up."

"What about my scheduled flight to Idaho tomorrow?"

"Go for it. Try to get up and walk around whenever you can on the plane."

The next day, on the very hot 100-mile plus ride from the Boise airport to his house in a mountainous area, I asked my friend Larry if we could swim in a local river, which we did. The next morning, early, I went with Larry and his hiking club on an eight-mile trek into the mountains. At the top, I jumped into a lake while Larry and some others caught fish for our lunch. By the time we got back to Larry's truck, I was really beat and my toes were red as a result of my hiking in my sandals. Larry and his lovely friend Laurie insisted -- as we sat in the parking lot drinking home-brewed beer and eating homemade salsa and cookies -- that I get some epsom salts and soak in the bathtub that evening.

Which I did. And my foot was entirely cleared up the next morning.

Is that alternative medicine?

Stanton is conducting workshops this Saturday at Larry's house, and next Thursday at the New School, on "What will replace the 12 steps?"

For more by Stanton Peele, click here.

For more on personal health, click here.