Finding the Way Home

Finding the Way Home

Several years ago, I developed an undergraduate History course for a university in upstate New York. The course was based on my doctoral dissertation, Man the Machine. This meant pitching the course to the department, drafting a syllabus and relevant bibliography, proposing assignments, interacting with a jury, then making revisions so the course could be approved.

The course explored the use of the machine metaphor as applied to human beings, from Leonardo da Vinci to H. G. Wells. (You can listen here to some of my WildTrekker podcasts derived from the dissertation:

This was a completely new course, so it was gratifying to see the lecture-hall fill up on the first day. Since I was the professor, and this subject was new to the students, I pictured myself as the one teaching and the students as the ones learning.

After the first lecture, the class emptied out. A bright-eyed young woman on a mobility scooter, discreetly parked in the front row to my left, rolled over to my lectern. If memory serves me well (this was seventeen years ago), she had shoulder-length auburn hair, and was wearing a cream-coloured outfit. “Professor,” she said, with the brightest smile. “Do you know why I am taking this course?”

Misty weather in the Adirondacks

She then told me her story. She had grown up in a loving family in New York state. One day, she was involved in a dreadful car accident. “I died three times on the way to the operating table,” she said, with that lovely ever-present smile on her face. “Actually, the accident had decapitated me, practically severing my brain stem. At the hospital, they operated on me for ten hours, as they reconnected my spinal cord to my brain. I was in a coma for six months, my family praying for a miracle at my bedside. Then my inner light switched back on, I finally came out of the coma, and they brought me home.”

Her inner light switched back on

In a flash, this student reminded me what it means to come out of a coma. I mentioned it was a bit like being in the darkness, then one gradually becomes more aware of one’s surroundings, of the presence of other people; one connects indistinct sounds to people speaking; one emerges into a misty landscape, like finding the way home.

She sat on her scooter smiling: “How do you know that?”

I described visiting someone close to me in hospital as he lay dying, in a coma. The doctor had told me there was no point speaking to him: the patient could no longer hear me, there was no way to bring him back. But what did the doctor know? I settled in beside the patient, holding his hand, and started whispering. I kept the words simple, taking pauses now and then. I felt like Orpheus going down to Hades with my golden voice, to bring Eurydice back to the surface. It was a harrowing, fearful, heart-wrenching experience.

To my amazement, after half an hour, the patient emerged from the shadows of near-death, and although it was hard for him to speak, we had a conversation for a full hour about love and friendship. Then, as if stung by a desert wind, his eyes closed again. He seemed utterly spent, exhausted. An hour later, he died.

It was a harrowing, fearful, heart-wrenching experience. I felt like Orpheus going down to Hades

Now here I was, facing the young woman at the end of class. Students for the next course were already beginning to wander into the lecture-hall. “I know what you mean,” she said, “Anyway, I have so many cables inside of me that people call me ‘the Bionic Woman’. I am taking your course to find out whether I am more of a person or a machine.”

During the term, this young woman was unfailingly positive, polite, focused, self-disciplined. I remember one time students in the back row were chatting while I lectured. She steered her mobility scooter around to face them: “Our professor has worked hard developing this course. What he says is important. You guys up there are really misbehaving. You should show respect for our professor, and just listen.”

This student overcame her handicap, and is one of the most positive people I have ever met

I asked what she had learned from her coming-back-from-death experience. She spoke to me about the beauty of life, faith and taking nothing for granted. “Before the accident,” she said, “I remember sitting with my father on the sofa, and munching on popcorn while we watched our favourite horror movies. But after nearly dying in that car accident, I no longer find horror entertaining. I just can’t watch fake blood and gore on the screen. I have better things to do.”

This young woman attended every class, took lots of notes, did all the readings and did well on the assignments.

On the last day of class, she told me that her “take-away” was a better understanding of herself, and of other people.

Without question, she stands as the most interesting university student I ever had.

I have written a few blogs recently about intersubjectivity, the emotional journey from person to person, at a subjective level, as I reach into another person’s subjective world. This student taught me in a vivid way that intersubjectivity works in both directions.

Struggling out of a coma is like finding the way home, after months of being plunged into darkness

Authors and Intersubjectivity

March 16, 2023

Imaginary Havens for Weary Minds

March 16, 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *