The First Time I Nearly Died

Up until my heart transplant in November of 2009, my heart problems nearly killed me a number of times. There was a particularly bad period from November of 2005 until February of the following year when my heartbeat became so erratic that (no exaggeration) twenty or so times every day I would feel a skipped beat or two or highly irregular thump in my chest or some other scary movement, and think, “This is the moment I’m dying.” Twenty times a day for over three months. That gets old. I found myself wearying of it all; “Just die,” I’d think. But a change of medication in February put my heart back into a regular rhythm, and, as is true of all of us, when the heart’s beating normally, one ceases to notice it. Life went back to normal.

But the first time I nearly died occurred in February 1978, when I was 34. I ruptured my appendix, but had none of the traditional symptoms. Instead I thought I had the flu—a rather bad case of flu, with fever, and vomiting, and cold chills. This went on for two weeks! I certainly would’ve died during this period since I couldn’t keep food down, but my good friend Mary Bush, who has a Master’s degree in nutrition and who has figured in these posts in the past (see “Escape From Hospital Hell,” January 17, 2010) saved me by coming up with a powder you could mix with water that provided a completely nutritious meal, and which I could keep down. But I was clearly failing, so on March 9th I was admitted to the hospital at Ohio State (where I teach law), and the doctors decided that exploratory surgery was called for.

The surgeon in charge was the amazing Dr. John P. Minton (I tried hard to find a photo of him for this post, but, alas, failed), one of the great characters of our time. He was a master surgeon with an enormous ego, a man bigger than life, and people either loved or hated him (when angry at someone's behavior during surgery, he’d been known to throw scalpels). Some of the nurses were thrilled to be working with him, taskmaster that he was, while others, on hearing his name, would spit on the floor and rub it with their foot. When Dr. Minton sliced me open at midnight he discovered peritonitis had spread throughout my entire abdominal cavity. I later learned he calmly informed those in the operating room, “This one isn’t going to make it.”

But, by golly, his surgical genius combined with what he called my “strong life force,” pulled me through. I spent four days in the ICU (reading a murder mystery), sore and tired, but bored—the scary part was that patients around me did die. My parents, much alarmed by all this, flew to Columbus from Dallas (where Dad was a prosecutor), and Dr. Minton greeted them by shaking their hands and announcing, “I’m the man who saved your son’s life.” Dad was both appalled and amused by that statement, and he and Dr. Minton subsequently got along well.

So did I. I have always dealt with hospital stays (and similar depressing situations—control freak that I am, it’s awful to be powerless) by humor, and Dr. Minton, as it happened, had a wonderful sense of humor. He would sweep into the room, his entourage of nurses, medical students, and other doctors in tow, and we’d have banter of various kinds until he left, much enjoyed by both of us and our little audience. While I was under his care it was publicly announced that I was a recipient of an all-OSU award for outstanding teaching (eight professors from various disciplines are chosen each year), and he bragged about that to everyone he knew who came into contact with me (which I didn’t, somehow, object to). Mostly I used my argument skills as a lawyer to try to persuade him to let me go home, and, after a month in the hospital, I won him over (probably less by my gift of gab than the fact that I’d finally produced a solid bowel movement).

Comes the final day, and Dr. Minton and his court arrive in his usual dramatic fashion. “Well, Professor, today’s the day,” he grandly announces. “Have I given you your discharge instructions yet?” I replied no, but pronounced myself oh so ready to receive them.

Most were mundane and passed by quickly without comment from me, but then he intoned, “No driving for two weeks.” I wanted to know why not. “Because,” he replied gravely, “if you had an accident, you’d be liable.” “Why?” I wanted to know. I knew that if you’re in an accident, you’re only legally accountable if you did something to cause the accident. Dr. Minton frowned at the question. “Just because . . . well, you would be.” Now I frowned. “Are you giving me legal advice, and, even worse, wrong legal advice?” I asked.

“Moving on to another topic,” he said, “No Sex for the Next Month!” At that I smiled. “Uh, gee, Doctor,” I said, “you’re too late, I’m afraid. You let me go home for one afternoon last Saturday, and David and I—how shall I put this?—had a good time, very, very gently.”

At this Dr. Minton (who knew I was gay) turned bright red. Standing suddenly, he hurriedly said to one of the nurses, “Give me the discharge papers and I’ll sign them, and we’ll get Professor Whaley out of here right away.” He shook my hand and fled the room.

Following that discharge there were complications. I developed a fistula, which Dr. Minton cut me open again in December to remove, and I subsequently had major hernia problems along the large surgical scar that ran (and still runs) up and down my abdomen. This led to four subsequent hernia operations before the problem was finally solved in 1995 (thus my ruptured appendix led to six major operations, and as a consequence of all this surgery on my belly I have no navel---which lets me win bets in bars---and this combined with the heart transplant chest scar and my tattoo makes me, shirtless, something to marvel at). The last time I saw John Minton was at a follow-up visit after the first of these hernia operations (in the late 1980s), when he picked up a syringe and, with me lying down on an examination table, belly exposed, prepared to draw from my abdomen some fluid that had built up around the incision. The syringe was enormous—looking like it was the sort of thing veterinarians would use on horses, large horses—and as the good doctor loomed over me, syringe poised, he paused and looked me steadily in the eye. Earnestly he said, “I don’t know if you have any influence on these things, but the man who’s going to marry my daughter is trying to get into OSU’s law school.” Laughing at his characteristic audacity (as he knew I would), I told him I didn’t have any such influence, but I’d mention the matter to the powers that be at the law school, and, satisfied, he plunged in and withdrew the fluid. His son-in-law subsequently was admitted (and was a student in my classes), but I doubt I had anything to do with that decision.

Sadly, John Minton died suddenly in 1990 in a bizarre traffic accident. He was sitting in a left turn lane, waiting for traffic to clear on a major Columbus thoroughfare, when a vehicle coming from the other direction lost control, flipped up in the air, and landed on top of his car. Dr. Minton lasted only long enough for some of his organs to be harvested for transplant. This wonderful man had died far too soon (he was only 56).

I owe him my life.

Related Posts:
"About That Heart Transplant," January 24, 2010
"My Heart Belonged to Andrew," February 17, 2010
"Another Letter to Andrew's Parents," March 10, 2010
"A Toast to Andrew," May 2, 2010
"Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad," May 19, 2010
"Rehabilitating Doug," June 12, 2010
"The Purring Heart," November 23, 2010
"1999-2001: A Dramatic Story, " December 15, 2010
"Naming My Heart," March 24, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


  1. What Doug left out of this post was the "flavor" of the supplement i gave him. It was designed for tube feedings that bypass the taste buds and go straight into the stomach so there was no attempt to make this palatable. Doug was a trouper and drink it he did. He never asked me if I could snag him some more of that delicious concoction ever again. Wise choice.


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