In this story from July 1997, Oscar- and Emmy-winner Art Carney shares the story about how God saw him through heart surgery—and made him a changed man.
One morning two years ago I was taking out the trash when I felt a quick, sharp pain in my chest. What was that? I wondered, a bit scared for the obvious reason. I tried to shrug it off as just a passing ache of old age. Maybe a muscle spasm or heartburn. Nothing to worry about, I assured myself. And surely nothing to worry anyone else about. Back inside the house, the pain faded.
I’m not one to confide my troubles, even to my wife, Jean, though if I do turn to someone it’s her. Most people assume actors are garrulous and outgoing, but without a script in my hand I’m often at a loss for words. Besides, I didn’t want to scare Jean or make a fuss out of something that was probably no big deal. Best not to dwell on it.
Then one pleasant day I drove to Bradley International Airport to meet a friend who had come to visit. I had grabbed her two large bags from the luggage belt and was walking to our car when I suddenly felt as if a fist were clenching my heart. I put the bags down for a second to catch my breath. Jean and our friend were up ahead, busily chatting.
Again I decided to stay silent. The pain would pass, I was sure, and by the time I threw the bags in the trunk of our car it had. But the memory lingered, and a week later, when the tightness in my chest returned, sharper and longer this time and with no precipitating physical strain, I finally confessed to Jean, “I think we’d better see a doctor.”
We went to Dr. Stephen Franklin, a well-recommended cardiologist. Laid-back and reassuring, Dr. Franklin couldn’t help but frown when I mentioned that this had not been my first episode of chest pain. “You didn’t tell anyone?” he asked, raising an eyebrow and scribbling on my chart.
Over the next couple of weeks I was put on a treadmill for a stress test, underwent an echocardiography and began taking heart medication. Dr. Franklin still wasn’t satisfied, and I was getting nervous. One day he asked, “Ever have any leg problems, Art?”
“Some,” I answered, tapping my right leg and explaining I had had a total knee implant to alleviate arthritis that had resulted from my catching some German shrapnel on a battlefield in France shortly after D-Day.
“Then we’ll have to use your left for the angiogram,” he said evenly.
I felt a wave of apprehension break over me, but I just nodded my head and said that was fine.
The procedure started with me swallowing some stuff that smelled like insecticide, followed by the insertion of a catheter-like probe into a leg artery. Dr. Franklin threaded the device up into the chambers of my heart, where he was able to look for arterial blockage. He concentrated intensely on his work. When he was through he gently but firmly informed me that coronary bypass surgery was imperative.
“Don’t worry, Art. Bypass surgery has become virtually routine in this day and age. You’ll do just fine.”
What wasn’t routine was that I would require a quintuple bypass.
When I got home that day I retreated to the bedroom, where I could be alone. I started pacing and worrying. At 77, I was facing major surgery—open-heart surgery. I threw myself into a big easy chair, hoping to harness my racing panic. I stared at the blue walls filled with family photos of Jean, our three children and six grandchildren, sharply aware of how much I loved them.
I could not face this alone. I knew that. I would need my family and I would need the One who was the greatest physician of all. I implored God with all the strength I had, “I have not been one of your best servants, but I never stopped believing in you. I know Jean is praying. I need you too. Forgive me and help me.”
A few days later I was admitted to Hartford Hospital. My anxiety diminished considerably when I met Dr. Hiroyoshi Takata, the man who would operate on me. He was open and unassuming; I sensed at once God had placed me in good hands.
While I waited on a gurney in pre-op the morning of my surgery, Jean and our children, Eileen, Brian and Paul, prayed. Silently I joined them: God, please give comfort to my family. Then I was wheeled into the operating room.
The surgery went well and by the next day I was put into step-down intensive care, for patients who are expected to recover without complications. It was as I lay there in my hospital bed, weak, in pain and uncertain about the future, that I became aware of a figure in the room with me.
I was fully conscious, and though I was surprised by his appearance, I was unafraid. The figure stood quietly before me. He was wrapped in a soft, diaphanous material that appeared to be as much air as fabric. I couldn’t take my eyes off the figure. My gaze was held by an irresistible attraction. I heard a voice, rich and reassuring, say the words: “You are being given a new beginning.”
I leaned closer to the vision and saw...me. What I was looking at was a version of myself, healthy, strong, well again. I had a glow to my face. Yes, it was me, a new me. I was filled with peace and joy and a feeling of wellness, wholeness. I realized I had been powerfully blessed by God, shown the gift of health he wanted me to have.
As soon as Jean arrived that day I couldn’t stop myself from telling her what had happened. “I was wide awake. I’m certain of it,” I said. “This was no dream or hallucination. This was real.” She squeezed my hand reassuringly and pressed her cheek to mine.
The strangest thing happened the next morning. I awoke sobbing. I wasn’t in pain; I wasn’t unhappy. In fact, I felt better than I ever had. I just couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop crying a purifying torrent of tears. It felt good, a cosmic sense of relief and release, as if my soul had been bathed in love.
Later, Jean said it sounded like “a cleansing of the spirit.” I had never heard that expression but I understood it intuitively at once. “Sometimes,” she explained, “people who have undergone a religious experience can’t stop their tears. It is a kind of blessing.”
A religious experience? Is that what I had had? Something had happened, something powerful and irreversible. If it was God, touching my life with an incredible vision, then I could only believe I was no longer the same person I had been before. I was the person I had been shown.
I recovered with unprecedented swiftness, spending only seven days in the hospital. I went through some tough physical therapy and today I possess more vigor than I have had in years. The most enduring transformation, however, has been in the way I live.
An introvert since childhood, I was most comfortable on stage or on camera. Since that amazing day in the hospital I’ve been able to open up to the people I love and who love me. I’ve stopped trying to hide who I am. I don’t turn my eyes away from strangers or retreat into silence. And that, more than anything, is a freedom I had never known before.
A healing voice assured me I should have no fear, that I would be well again. I am better than well. I am changed.
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