When Angels Save a Life

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Egan is a pediatrician in Jacksonville, Florida. Some names in this column have been changed to protect patient privacy.

Recently, I was asked by one of my daughters if I believed in angels. Her second-grade Sunday school teacher had included in her lesson plan a description of seraphim and cherubim and touched on the topics of archangels and fallen angels, and this had left her in quite a muddle. Her question would leave many doctors, myself included, in a muddle as well. Doctors are trained in science, where the truth is defined by tangible proof, not blind faith. But science hasn't proven that angels exist or don't exist. And at least a few times in any doctor's career she will encounter a patient's stunning recovery or well-timed premonition that can only be explained by a higher power. So I answered my daughter by asking her the question, "What do you think?" She seemed to have no such reservations, responding with a vigorous rendition of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

The topic of angels has always intrigued me, and not just because everyone from John Travolta to Warren Beatty has played them in movies, or that I simply can't forget when Clarence got his wings in It's a Wonderful Life. I like the idea that my nearest and dearest deceased family and friends are actually my personal angels and speak various thoughts into my ear that I, in turn, interpret as intuition or great ideas. I wonder, for instance, if my grandmother whispered in my ear when I met my husband, "He's the one." Was it my brother who died from leukemia at age five who urged me toward a career in pediatrics?

I am particularly grateful to the angel on my shoulder who whispered in my ear several summers ago when I was riding in a dude ranch rodeo and my horse stopped suddenly, catapulting me forward. Though I was in the air for just a few seconds, it felt like slow motion, and I registered several thoughts in order. "My children are watching. I could really do some damage if I fall badly. My husband's roommate's mother was paralyzed from a riding accident. Most bones are broken when muscles are in flexion." So while I was airborne I consciously relaxed and managed to flip, landing on my lower back instead of on my upper back or neck. I stood up immediately and because I didn't want my children to get the wrong message, got right back up on the horse that bucked me and finished the race, albeit at a slow trot. When an orthopedist reviewed the MRI two weeks later and announced that I had broken a vertebrae and that I was "damn lucky — a centimeter in any direction and you wouldn't have walked in here," I was reduced to tears.

Recently angels have seemed to be busy whispering in my friends' ears as well. Margaret went to her internist and asked for a "once over." Although a physically active woman in her forties without any significant medical history or symptoms, she wanted the peace of mind of knowing she was in generally good health. Since her annual pap smears and mammograms were all in order, she wanted the rest of her to be checked out. Her doctor acquiesced and ordered a chest x-ray, screening blood work (both of which were fine) and a colonoscopy. During the colonoscopy, the gastroenterologist located a golf ball-sized tumor which required surgery. Subsequent pathology identified the cancer as malignant. Now in the midst of chemotherapy, Margaret and her oncologist are confident that this will take care of the cancer and that she is extremely lucky to have been diagnosed when she did. Margaret says she gets teary every time she thinks about it.

Sally is another incredibly physically fit friend of mine, her blood pressure and fitness level better than those of most teenagers. When taking her son to see an ear, nose and throat specialist for recurrent ear infections, she innocently asked the doctor why she could hear her heart beating when she went to bed. He thought she might have some sinus problems and prescribed some antibiotics and a nasal spray. When she had no relief from her heart's nightly lullaby, she returned to the doctor who ordered a CT scan to further evaluate her sinuses. The CT scan revealed that her sinuses were fine, but she had a brain aneurysm located behind her ear. When she consulted a neurosurgeon, he immediately scheduled her for surgery because she was, as he told her, "a walking time bomb. This sort of aneurysm is what people drop dead from." This time both Sally and her husband were reduced to tears.

When I was seven and learning to read, I remember confusing the word "angle" for "angel." I was much relieved when my aunt confessed that when she was seven and saw "angle parking" outside of her church, she thought it was sacrilege that her father would park his Oldsmobile in spots reserved for angels. In truth, I don't stumble over angels anymore. I think they are alive and well and parked in people's ears. So, yes, I say without hesitation to my sweet daughter, there is not only a Santa Claus, but angels too.