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my left lung

My left lung

By George A. Ricker

I know this sounds like one of those horrid assignments from a high school English class. “Now students, write a 500-word essay about a body part.” But that is not what this is about. Not at all.

Those of you who know me or have read my book, Godless in America, will know that I suffer from a disease called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). I have had the illness for some time now. It is the legacy of 42 years of heavy cigarette smoking (I quit my two-pack-a-day habit in 1999, before I had been diagnosed with COPD) and, barring any dramatic change in my circumstances, will ultimately cause my demise. In my case the condition is a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The disease is progressive, and there is no known cure.

Now I’m not telling you all of this to depress you or to gain your sympathy. I have something altogether different in mind. But you need to have that information to understand what follows.

One of the claims that gets made with depressing regularity by the religious when hectoring the nonreligious is the insistence we have not suffered enough. “Just wait until you face a serious illness or the death of a loved one,” we are told, “then you’ll see what’s important.” The implication in such statements is clear. Those of us who say we don’t believe in a god will suddenly find ourselves grasping for one when things get rough. A god in this dynamic is sort of a cosmic lifeboat, something to cling to in tough times.

Now, I don’t doubt some of that may happen. People under stress sometimes do irrational things, and it would be totally unremarkable if personal tragedy or immanent danger caused someone to invoke one of the gods or religions that are so prevalent in our society. That is particularly true in the case of someone like myself who was raised believing in such things. Indeed, what seems remarkable is that most of us do not.

But let me tell you about my left lung. I have annual physicals and a chest x-ray is included, for obvious reasons. This year was no exception. When I mentioned my recent exam to the pulmonary specialist who treats me, he pulled up the report and noticed something that seemed problematic to him. So he had a CAT scan (essentially a three dimensional x-ray) done. The CAT scan revealed a single pulmonary nodule about 13 to 14 millimeters at its longest axis on the upper lobe of my left lung. I was next scheduled to have a PET scan—a test which would reveal whether there was unusual activity (a hot spot if you will) in the nodule that might indicate a malignancy. What can I say? I lit up the PET scan so the next step was to have a biopsy.

No while all of this was going on, I was also having some other tests done which will come into play shortly. When I was diagnosed with COPD in 2001, I was told that I had about 22 percent of the normal lung function for an adult of my age and size. That percentage increases when I use the various medicines that open the bronchial tubes and help my breathing. At that time, I was put on a regime of oxygen therapy, something I have needed to use more and more with the passage of time. At any rate, it had been a while since my last pulmonary function test, so a new battery of tests was scheduled. This set was much more thorough than the first had been so comparing the two may be somewhat misleading. Nonetheless, this time my pulmonary function was about 13 percent of the normal lung function of an adult my age and size. Now this came as no great surprise to me because I had been aware of a general decline in my condition. However, there is a difference between having a suspicion and having confirming evidence based on hard data.

At the beginning of September, I had the lung biopsy done and was told no malignancy was found. Obviously I was delighted at this. However, my lung doctor was still concerned about the results of the PET scan. He still suspected malignancy. The only way to be sure, he said, would be to operate and remove the nodule. However, in my case that was not an option. My diminished lung capacity would make such an operation too risky. He said, “I don’t think a surgeon would touch it.”

With his referral, I next went to a radiation oncologist and, after she had reviewed my file, she suggested a treatment regimen of five sessions using a technique that would destroy the nodule but should not damage much healthy tissue. The other option was to wait and do another CAT scan in three or four months to see whether the nodule had grown. The problem with that approach, she explained was that if it was cancer, there was a danger it might spread to the lymph nodes and then my situation would be much more serious. So I opted to go ahead and have the radiation therapy, which was completed before the end of September.

Another CAT scan is scheduled for the end of October. Then I’ll meet with the oncologist to see where things stand. But there’s more.

In the meantime, the possibility of a lung transplant has been raised. It’s a long shot because of my age (I’m 67) and because of the nodule. A recent cancer would rule me out. However, the folks who do these things want to see me to talk about it, and they’ve been told just what my situation is. So we shall see. If I’m offered a transplant, I will probably go for it. There may be something in the fine print that would put me off, but I can’t imagine what it would be. In my view the possibility of having a healthy lung would far outweigh any negatives.

So that’s the story of my left lung. Or, at least, an abbreviated version of it. Now, there is a message hidden in all the fine print. Notice the absence of any god-talk in all of this. I received medical advice based on my doctor’s best judgment and acted on it accordingly. I did not feel any need to consult with a priest or rabbi or preacher of any sort. I did not look up the hospital chaplain. While I was being tended to, no one said they would pray for me or keep me in their prayers or any such nonsense. One, very young, candy-striper said “God is good,” or something like that, once she had succeeded in installing the shunt for an IV injection before the biopsy, but I ignored it. She said it mostly to herself.

I had a very dear friend, a man I had known for more than 50 years, who had a heart transplant. He had been at death’s door on numerous occasions and told me that at no time did he find himself thinking about a god. He thought about things, and people, he would miss. Certainly, he wished for more time. But, an atheist like me, he did not feel the need to seek any comfort outside the realm of the human experiences we all share. I have found the same thing to be true in my own case, on those few occasions when I thought my end was near. I have read accounts by many other atheists who echo the same thoughts.

Nonbelievers do not appear to suffer from any liability when dealing with life and death matters. That doesn’t mean we are callous about it or uncaring about the end. It does mean that most of us are sufficiently grounded in the real world so as to need no recourse to the myths of gods and religions.

Whenever someone comes gushing at me with the statement “I’ll pray for you, ” I have a stock response.

“If it will make you feel better about things,” I tell them, “go right ahead. Just don’t do it around me and, by the way, there’s really no need to tell me about it.”

The experience with my left lung only confirms what I have thought for some time. Life is too short and far too precious to be wasted on sanctimonious nonsense.

For there is a grandeur in human experience that cannot be touched by the vapid ghost stories of religions. Our human span is short and indeterminate it is true. But we are connected, in very real ways, with all that has ever lived on this planet. We contain within ourselves the very stuff of stars. And though it is the fate of each of us to die, our constituent parts will ultimately be recycled by the universe from which they came.

We do not ask to be brought into this world. We have no control of the circumstances in which we are born. And we know that no one gets out alive. What matters most is not the circumstances of one’s birth or the manner of one’s death but what each of us does with the time between those two events.

May your sojourn be a good one.

© 2008 By George A. Ricker

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