“You will die a horribly painful death in China.”

I’m not from a faith tradition that is known for “words from the Lord.” So when I heard this deep in my soul as I unpacked from my first trip to China twenty five years ago, I (a) didn’t know what it meant and (b) didn’t know what to do with it. I assumed it was for many years down the road, might be related to my faith, and would be concerning to share with people, so I didn’t.

 

Camaraderie came in an unexpected place: a John Irving novel. When I read A Prayer for Owen Meany I found a kindred spirit in Owen who knew odd details about his death. Owen, I get you! This message didn’t consume my thoughts or leave me in fear; but I did wonder at times what a “horribly painful death” might be like and if I’d embarrass myself, others, or the Lord in the process. I hoped that I wouldn’t.

I rarely get sick so it was not the norm when one day I started feeling like I had the stomach flu after lunch. My colleague, Erin, and I assumed it was just a normal illness, nothing to be concerned about. I threw up a few times.  Who doesn’t? To cut a long story short, less than 24 hours later I was throwing up convulsively, had red spots on my skin, and my head felt like it was in a vice grip and my brain being squeezed.

It was.

I had bacterial meningitis and was dying a horribly painful death in China.

Twenty years ago on April 2nd I should have died. I choke up even now typing this. My parents were awakened in the middle of the night by Erin’s dad telling them he’d just gotten a call from Erin and based on her description, he thought I had meningitis, the prognosis wasn’t good, and he just thought they should know. They called my sisters and woke them with a similar message. Each sister reached out to friends and family and thus started the word spreading.

I did not die; I did have to relearn everything except—no comments—talking. Ah, even at the brink, I had things to say! I re-learned to walk, dress myself, write, and wash dishes; things that we take for granted, for a season, I didn’t.

On this twenth anniversary I want to say, again, thank you.

To my family for not coming. One of the hardest parenting decisions you have ever made was to stay away so that I could get the help I needed. Many questioned that call, but you held firm. And you paid the largest phone bill of your lives! Your frequent calls to Erin, and later to me, were worth every penny.  Elizabeth and Laura, even half way around the world, I felt your sisterly love and connection.

To my students who cared for me around the clock. Especially to the girls who, in teams of three, sat by my bed during the night, combed my hair every morning, and washed my face.

To friends and family around the world and in China who found tangible ways in a pre-internet world to reach out.

To the school officials where I taught for caring for me as if I was your own, because I was.

To Debra and Kerry who let me convalesce with you for a month in Hong Kong. Your home, ice cream, CBS nightly news, and two cats were the best way to return to the land of the living.

To Erin. The list is too long. But one image that captures so much of what you had to bear is this — when I had come out of the coma and was hungry, we didn’t have many food options and you made me something with oranges and yogurt. After eating I abruptly sat up and projectile vomited all over your clean sweater. You, the picture of grace, picked little bits of orange off your sweater and said it “was no big deal.” And it wasn’t, because you’re that kind of friend.

I don’t know why I didn’t die. It might have been the amount of people praying around the globe for me. I know many are prayed for and they still die. All I know is that “word” was lifted from my soul in Hong Kong and like most of us, have no idea when or how or where I will die.

While I would have been okay to die (I actually begged Erin to kill me), I’m grateful that I didn’t.  Today, I am reminded of the preciousness of life and how quickly it can change. Erin, my family said it to you then and still mean it today, we owe you so much more than can be put into words. Thank you for getting me to the doctor when I would have just stayed home and died in my bed.

To that 29 year-old-woman who had accepted a leadership position before she became ill and had no idea she would stay in China for many more years. She had not tasted the heights and depths of ministry pain, nor met many of the wonderful people she now calls family, I say this: Life is hard, God is faithful, and girl, you will have the time of your life. Enjoy.

I updated a post I wrote five years ago.

Leave A Comment

  1. chris green April 2, 2012 at 6:27 am - Reply

    Hi Amy. Glad you are doing well. Hope to see you next time you are in Texas. God bless. Chris

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 6:30 am - Reply

      You too my friend! You’re another walking miracle! Amy

  2. Kristi Magi April 2, 2012 at 6:46 am - Reply

    Wow. Would most definitely love to hear it!

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 7:41 pm - Reply

      OK! There is many interesting twists and turns!

      • Kristi Magi April 3, 2012 at 9:11 am - Reply

        Looking forward to hearing how God worked.

  3. amyglester April 2, 2012 at 7:17 am - Reply

    I’m so glad you didn’t die! Thanks for this reminder to thank God for his good and gracious gifts. Namely, You!

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 7:42 pm - Reply

      God does give many good gifts … though I wouldn’t have said it at the time as I begged to die!, my life is definitely one of those good gifts!

  4. Sue April 2, 2012 at 8:05 am - Reply

    and we are so glad to have you!

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 7:44 pm - Reply

      As am I you, Sue! Your support and love of Laura at that time was the beginning of caring for our nutty family. I think of you often these days as you nurse your mom in these last stages of her life. Love, Amy

  5. Gayle Wilson April 2, 2012 at 8:14 am - Reply

    You already know my comment – you heard it many times. Thank you for the reminder of God’s grace to you through so many. I would’ve found it difficult to have students grooming me – but I bet it would’ve made me a better person. What a gift to you – your suffering; and God’s grace to us – leaving you here!

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 7:53 pm - Reply

      After the first night when I couldn’t sleep because of the three hovered over me. Every time I opened my eyes, they were right there. Too close :). I told Erin that IF SHE DIDN”T GET THEM AWAY FROM ME … I really wasn’t in the position to do anything. But at least she did get them to move about six feet away from the bed and spend the night sitting by the wall. I think that’s why I let them comb my hair and wash my face — “you let me sleep, I’ll let you mother.” It was a reasonable trade!!

  6. Kim Nease April 2, 2012 at 8:27 am - Reply

    Amy – has it been 15 years? I can still remember getting that call, I think in the middle of the night. I am reminded tonight of how in spite of not being able to do anything physically to help you out during that time I could something incredibly helpful and that is to pray. It is a reminder of how critical all of our

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 7:46 pm - Reply

      Kim, you most definitely would be on the “call in the middle of the night list” –both for prayer and because of how dear you are to me!

  7. Nita Kulesa April 2, 2012 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Woooh! Thanks for the reminder of the scary time when all who loved you had no choice but to depend on God for your healing and he came through in an amazing way. When I told my Dr. friend of your illness, he put his head in his hands and said, “Oh, my God, Nita, her brain is fried!!!” I remind him often that although your brain was scorched for a season, it definitely was not fried and we are ever grateful! Our love to you! Doug & Nita

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 7:45 pm - Reply

      Doug recording books on tape was one of many tangible gifts. I listened to them as I walked and walked myself back to health. Once again, the ministry of a good library and good friends! My love right back, Amy

  8. jan dozeman April 2, 2012 at 11:07 am - Reply

    I never heard any of that (your) story before. I would really like to hear all of it!
    I am so grateful that the father brought you through–so I could get to know you and love you!

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 7:50 pm - Reply

      Funny how I forget that some know it so well, and for others it’s not something I mention that often. Will be sharing more! xoxox Amy

  9. Oh wow, Amy, you just put me in a time capsule and sent me back 15 years! I remember this story so well and the letters you sent while you were recovering in Hong Kong. I don’t remember when I first learned how sick you were, but we had just reconnected the summer before (in 1996, with our 10th reunion & my finding you in the memory book after that summer) and I actually do seem to remember an email of some sort, maybe from the people who were in charge of informing your family and friends that you were ill (not Erin, but you know, other people)??? Anyway, I remember learning of your story and all the miracles along the way. There were some amazing ones, not to mention the biggest, which is that you are still here today. Obviously, you had more work to do. :)

    My how 15 years flies by.

    I’m so glad that you lived to tell the tale and that we are still in touch after all this time. :) You know, there’s a Hunter S. Thompson quote that pops up to me in situations like this: “It never got weird enough for me.” LOL! Your story of an amazing recovery is, by all shapes and sizes of it, pretty weird, eh? A bad weird in many ways, but a pretty good (an amazing) weird, too, when I recall all the facts of it. The weirdest thing is that you should not be here. But how wonderful is the weird!! I get tired of the bad weird stuff, but never of the good weird, and in that case, I am on the side of Dr Thompson. ;-)

    Huge hugs, Amy, and I am so grateful for all the wonderful weird things that lined up to save your life 15 years ago.

    • P.S. Now I also REALLY want to re-read Owen Meany! I think that maybe Paul has it on a shelf here — I should look. xo K

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 7:48 pm - Reply

      Karin, that’s a great quote! Oh there is much that was weird about it :) … and we are just at the tip of the iceberg in this post. I’m so thankful that our paths have crossed, if only in person a bit more often. I enjoy being with you! Hugs back! Amy

  10. noel April 2, 2012 at 9:32 pm - Reply

    Amy,
    How about a series of blog posts telling the rest of the story?

    And thanks so much for your help during my China explorations last month.

    Noel

    • Amy April 2, 2012 at 9:35 pm - Reply

      Noel, I love it that you and Jo were recently enjoying my old stomping grounds — I believe you might have even been at the hospital I was in! A series is a good idea! Amy

  11. Laura April 2, 2012 at 11:34 pm - Reply

    Wow, I can’t believe it has been 15 years. I remember that call well. It was about 4 in the morning and I remember drinking Chai waiting until I could call Sue. We were supposed to meet at the gym at 6 and so I called her about quarter ’til and she came right over. I think there are many details of your recovery I do not know and would love to hear again or for the first time. You mentioned Patty, and watching her experience now and reading about yours shows me you both have something in common. You have both sewn many many seeds of strong family connection, friendship, love, caring, and compassion and it is amazing to see the fruits of that come pouring in in a time of need. You have an amazing network of people who love you and have had their lives touched by you all over the world. I am but one of many. I love you big sister.

    • Amy April 3, 2012 at 9:55 pm - Reply

      I love you too little sister! Having gotten a phone call on you too, I know the kick-in-the gut it can be :) Can’t imagine life without you. So thankful I don’t have to. Love, love, love you! Amy

  12. Loren Pinilis April 3, 2012 at 12:18 am - Reply

    Oh wow. That’s an incredible story. I’m glad to see that you’re recovering so well. Wow, what a reminder about how we take things for granted sometimes.

  13. Katherine April 5, 2012 at 4:02 am - Reply

    I definitely want to hear more Amy. When I met you in 1999 you told me about your illness but you didn’t go into much detail (probably still to fresh) so I had no idea you had to relearn everything all over again. I love you my friend!

  14. David @ Red Letter Believers April 6, 2012 at 8:11 pm - Reply

    You honor those in your life by these memories.

    • Amy April 6, 2012 at 9:08 pm - Reply

      Thanks David, I hadn’t thought of it that way! Amy

  15. Megan J April 8, 2012 at 11:43 am - Reply

    Amazing story Amy! Thanks for posting

    • Amy April 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm - Reply

      And thanks for stopping by Megan!

  16. Erin April 9, 2012 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    Hi Amy,
    Early morning here…jet lagged as I just returned from Hong Kong…catching up on email and your blog. Just came to this entry…laughed and cried at the same time. Those were intense and surreal days where extra courage and strength was given to all involved. I can only look back with amazement and thankfulness. Even before internet and email, the amount of support I had was immeasurable – your parents, however, could measure their phone bill!!

    I remember the oranges, but did I really give you yogurt? Probably not the best choice of first foods! :)

    I bet we would have a memorable time putting together all the details…
    -the doctor who wondered if we knew Alabama while you were in such pain
    -hugging the spittoon
    -getting stuck in the elevator
    -pushing your bed across the street in traffic
    -not being able to get new pajamas as the man with the key wasn’t working

    Many lessons, many tears, many laughs, many prayers….continually thankful for you, your family, and the organization. Love you much….

    • Amy April 9, 2012 at 8:33 pm - Reply

      What a message for you to read jet-lagged! If it’s OK, I’ll ask for you to fill in some blanks — as you know, once I was in a coma, things kind of ceased for me :)

      Welcome home and love you much too! Amy

  17. […] My overall life – I didn’t die 16 years ago […]

  18. Daniel Routh April 3, 2017 at 10:32 am - Reply

    Brought tears to my eyes to hear such a case study of the love and difficulty we encounter in this life.

  19. Michelle April 3, 2017 at 10:47 am - Reply

    In about a month, I could write a post with the same title for my fifth “almost died in China-versary”.

    Thank YOU for being there for me while I was all bandaged from the knees down and being carried in a wheelchair up and down stairs. Your listening ear and sage advice were much needed.

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      Amy April 11, 2017 at 2:43 pm - Reply

      Wow, how was that 5 years ago? Also thankful for your near miss and the healing process!

  20. Debra Schottelkorb April 3, 2017 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    Amy, we are so blessed and privileged to be a blip in your story! I’ll never forget seeing you at the top of a short escalator with ??? deciding if you could make it down. My heart was so fearful for you. But you did. And you made it through. And we’ll always have Wonder Woman!!

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      Amy April 11, 2017 at 2:42 pm - Reply

      It was with my dad :). And here’s to WW :)!!

  21. Stephany April 3, 2017 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    I remember that 20 years ago saga… I was praying madly from Yangzhou and hoping my parents wouldn’t hear of such a thing happening to one of my colleagues. I always admired your parents’ faith in Him through that season and beyond. God had his hand on you then, and now. Blessings on another spring…

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      Amy April 11, 2017 at 2:48 pm - Reply

      Thank you friend!

  22. Susan Gaines April 4, 2017 at 1:16 pm - Reply

    Wow, what a story! Thank you for sharing. I too share your gratitude that you didn’t die.

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      Amy April 11, 2017 at 2:49 pm - Reply

      Thank you Susan!

  23. Mark Allman April 4, 2017 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Amy,
    A very touching story from your past before I was. I appreciate that even in the great things you mentioned that happened I am sure you were flooded with many more during that hard time. I am grateful as well. I am thankful that although you suffered greatly I am sure it shaped you some and your ministry was flavored by it as well. We are constantly rebuilding ourselves with what we battle through. I am glad you came through that. Reminds me of my favorite quote and makes me think of you. “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are sealed with scars.” Khalil Gibran

    • Avatar photo
      Amy April 11, 2017 at 2:53 pm - Reply

      Mark, you are a wise man! This experience did shape me and I can see the fingerprints of it in my life. Thank you for sharing that quote. I’ve been wondering lately how you are and was happy to see your comment!

  24. Rhonda April 10, 2017 at 7:51 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing Amy! I still remember when you shared some your story at my training so long ago.
    Question to ask you. What was the name of the two bools you recommended for writing? I can’t remember if you posted them in one of your blogs here or in Velvet Ashes. I had
    them on a book list but something I did on my laptop has causes that list to disappear. Appreciate your help in this.
    Thanks!

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