Schwartz Circuit #6: The Lazarus Procedure
Who'd expect bringing a kid back to life could get complicated?
I hope you’re doing ok. This all seems to be going on for longer than anyone thought. I’m sending you a hug, in the form of this story, which may not be the hug you were looking for, but could it be the hug you need? The story is for my mom, and all the moms, but for my dad, there are references to both golf and magic.
The Lazarus Procedure
Twelve hours after they declare him dead at the scene, Everett wakes up in a hospital bed. He remembers running down the dock, the light shining off the lake. But in the spot where the next memory would be, he finds a dark room. And whether he closes his eyes or opens them, the room stays there. It’s a physical presence, like a new place he can go in his brain. It stares out at the bed, the tubes, the machines hooked up to his heart and his head. You're very lucky, everyone tells him, over and over. The dark room doesn't say a word.
The local news did a story when Ev got home, calling it a miracle of modern medicine. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Sarah thinks it’s better to separate the medical from the miracles: Marc had to only get shocked, not knocked unconscious or worse, when he dragged Everett out of the water. Their son had to have the kind of electrocution that simply, merely, resulted in heart arrhythmia. Marc had to be friends with the only practicing Lazarus reanimation specialist in the state, and Everett had to be the ideal candidate: 12 years old and in perfect health, besides the issue of his death.
When he comes home from the hospital, Everett tries to see if the internet says something about his dark room, but it doesn't. Wikipedia says the Lazarus procedure is very new and groundbreaking. It’s the first example of reanimating a person after they are declared clinically brain dead. The Lazarus procedure only has a 2% success rate. Most patients succumb — did he pronounce that right? — due to complications from the procedure. As he reads this part out loud his mom starts crying. What did I do, he asks.
Even though it’s been all summer and into fall, the wound is fresh and tender right under her skin. Marc can call him the boy who lived and Sarah will weep thinking that they need to read those books to him and why haven’t they yet. She wants to take her son's shoulders and shake him when he runs in his socks down the stairs, when he grabs a huge chef’s knife to cut an apple, when he comes home from school riding his bike with no hands. You don’t get another miracle, she wants to scream.
All the kids in class wrote saying that they couldn't wait for him to be back, but they don’t know what to say now that he is. The best they have are questions. Yes, he actually died. Probably a boat was leaking electricity into the water by the dock, though it's still being investigated. No, it didn't hurt, he doesn't even remember it. No, he didn’t see heaven or hell, or in-between, or anything. Who knows, maybe he’s in the afterlife right now. He says that one time, kind of as a joke, but everyone looks freaked out. Later he overhears some 7th graders calling him zombie boy.
The procedure took hours longer than expected. They couldn’t get the whole brain to come online all at once, just parts. She watched her son’s limbs jerk; he gasped and his eyes rolled back like he was possessed. You don’t have to watch, Marc told her. I do, she said. Sarah is not a religious person, but she prayed for her son, she offered to give anything. And her prayers were answered, only not the key question: what did she owe? What would now be asked of her?
I don’t know what the room is for, Everett says. This dark room sounds like a metaphor, Dr. Kyle replies, a symbol of fear, anger, or even death. But it’s a real place, Everett says. He knows it sounds stupid, but he can’t figure out how else to describe it. Dr. Kyle gives him one of those stress relief balls to squeeze whenever he starts to think about the room, but it doesn’t stop the room creeping on the edge of his thoughts, sneaking into the corner of his eye. Then one day, when he’s talking to his mom after school, something appears in the room, and he goes inside.
The first time it happens, Everett closes his eyes and gets a serious, focused look. When he went through his magic trick phase and pretended to visualize her card, that’s how he looks, and Sarah almost wants to laugh. But suddenly Ev speaks in a quiet, high voice. I can’t swim, he whimpers. Help. He starts to gasp for breath and shake all over. She grabs his shoulders and holds him close. It’s ok, she says. Look at me. He opens his eyes and they’re like a trapped animal’s; his mouth hangs open. You’re ok. She kisses his forehead, the soft downy skin, the way she did when he was on the hospital bed, the way he normally wouldn’t allow, until his eyes slowly find hers. You’re safe.
Please Ev, I don’t know what to do. Everett can hear his mom but he can’t reach her. They’re in the middle of the kitchen, and he’s been pulled inside the room again. He’s in a car, and his chest hurts. His throat is closing. It feels like fire’s running through his veins, down his arms. He knows he’s about to die. But instead he looks down and sees a golf ball, sunk into bright green grass, and he feels fine — magnificent, even. The ball shimmers playfully, each blade of grass polka-dotted with dew, and he looks out across the fairway, knowing he is about to hit the most incredible drive of his life. Everett’s never been happier, and he’s never played golf.
We don't get to talk to many people who have experienced death, Dr. Kyle says, but we know it's a very traumatic experience. Your son's vivid nightmares, his false flashbacks, are a result of this trauma. But what about the rush of joy Ev gets at the end? Marc told her certain endorphins are released in the brain when you die, could that be related? Dr. Kyle doesn't know, thinks it's a coping mechanism of some kind. What you can do is you can develop a superpower, he tells Everett. The superpower is to not “go inside the room.” Sarah doesn’t like the way he puts quotes on it with his voice. That’s like saying not to think about pink elephants, she says, rubbing her son’s back. Exactly right, Dr. Kyle says. That’s what cognitive behavioral therapy is for, coupled with the right medication.
I don’t like Dr. Kyle, Everett says in the car. I don’t care if he’s dad’s friend. His mom looks at him as if she understands, but the brown paper bag of pills between their seats reminds him that she doesn't. Now he’ll be the zombie kid on anti-depressants, which is basically medicine that makes you a zombie. Don’t say that, his mom says. Don’t you hate the room? I do, he says, I hate it, but sometimes it feels like the only thing that’s real.
Sarah thinks about that comment often. She joins a social media group for Lazarus parents, where everyone’s self-diagnosing their kids with all kinds of psychological damage, but nobody sounds quite like Everett. Without telling Marc, she begins a new post. My son died instantly, and after he woke up from the procedure, he had no memory of what happened. I thought he was spared the mental suffering that so many of your kids are going through. But then he started talking about a room.
Even if nothing is in the room, Everett can still go inside. He doesn’t have to wait for one of the dreams, false flashbacks, whatever they are. When things get awkward at school, or when he's bored, he just goes in the room. Time passes quickly in there, you don’t even realize it. Everett, someone says. It’s Rosa, who sits next to him in homeroom because their last names are the same even though they’re not related. She’s staring at him. You looked like you were on drugs or something, she says. I’m not, he says, but then he remembers that she’s right.
Since starting the medication, Ev seems distant, withdrawn. Should they try something else? Other parents have had success with psychotropics. That’s like changing horses in midstream, Marc says. And changing your horse for an acid trip. Marc’s right, they are beginning to see a decrease in the number of panic attacks. But what if Ev never gets better? Then we’ll cope until we find a cure, Marc says, kissing her. And we’ll still have our son. Sarah thinks of the fable about the mother who was willing to divide her kid in half. And the other mother, the true one, who would rather give him up.
The more Everett spends time in the room, the more he gets used to the nightmares. He looks forward to the good part at the end. Right when he expects to take his last breath, his fear will explode into sweetness, and he’ll go somewhere else, away from death, into life, a full and perfect moment. He goes from suffocating in a hospital room to skiing over fresh snow, he goes from crashing in a car to soaring in a helicopter. The good part is a bite of pure joy. It makes everything that came before it ok.
We’ve learned to let the dreams run their course, Sarah tells the Lazarus parents group, because my son will go from sobbing to smiling. He’s experiencing different deaths, inside this room. And his life — but not his life, someone else’s — will flash before his eyes. He’ll say things out loud, and afterward he remembers exact details, only I don’t where he’s getting them from. The deaths, maybe — our kids are exposed to tons of violence in the media. But it’s the flashes of life I don’t understand. He’s 12, and he’s talking about walking along the Seine with his girlfriend, or meeting his grandkid for the first time. A mom replies and says Sarah should talk to a news outlet. You had a complication with the procedure, right? You need to get someone to listen to your story. My husband is a neurosurgeon, Sarah writes back. Believe me, access is not the problem. But then she starts thinking that maybe they could reach other former patients who aren’t talking. Maybe someone out there knows something they don’t.
Everett refuses to watch the interview, but he sees the headline — “I feel like we’re losing him a second time” — right above a picture of his mom looking like she’s about to cry. Well I’m right here, mom. I’m right here in reality, where everyone I know is about to see this. As if I wasn’t already a freak. I’m going to have to change schools, he tells her. From what your teachers are saying, you aren’t even really there at school, his mom says. And I think it’s because you’re going in the room. I can tell you're choosing to go in there. You’re going in there right now, and I don’t know why. He slams the door.
The interview made Sarah feel like she was doing something, not just sitting back and watching her son wither — but does any of that matter if she ended up pushing Everett further away? Marc went along with it but only said a few words, believing whatever they shared would just invite speculation, proselytization, and harassment. I’ll dig through the trash, Sarah promised, if it means we have a chance of learning something. Amid the flood of sympathy and random hate, messages from all kinds of snake oil salesmen and mystics, she finds a note from a rabbi two cities over.
Please talk to us, Ev. He can hear them in the distance. He doesn’t want to answer, but when his dad threatens to send him to a psychiatric hospital, he has to come out of the room. What, he says. What’s going on with you? His dad’s furious. You look like — what, Dad? A zombie? His mom yells at both of them, shut up, what I need is for everyone to calm down and Everett, I need you to tell me more details about that dream I talked about in the interview, where you had a heart attack at a wedding. I promise it’s to help. The way she looks in his eyes, he feels like she is actually noticing the room for the first time. Fine, he says. He doesn’t have to think too hard to remember the dream. He remembers them all.
After reading the details you’ve sent me, the rabbi writes, I now believe beyond a reasonable doubt that your son’s dream accurately describes the wedding I officiated on Saturday, June 14th, earlier this year. I’ve even contacted the bride and groom’s family to confirm the colors of the bridesmaids’ dresses, the details of the venue, the seating layout. But the most astonishing thing has to do with what your son calls the good part at the end. I knew the deceased, and he was an avid fisherman. On a hunch, I shared Everett’s description with the deceased’s family. His son said he remembers that scene as if it were yesterday, catching a marlin together off the coast of Cabo San Lucas. Sarah reads this, and then she goes and draws the curtains and lies down in bed. June 14th was the day of Everett's accident.
All of a sudden, his mom wants more details every time he has a nightmare. She tries to be subtle about it, but he watches her open her phone afterward and take notes. Why do you need to know so much? he asks her. She keeps saying it’s to help, but she won’t tell him why. He’s always known the room was a real place, and the nightmares weren’t like the dreams you have when you’re asleep, but when he tried to tell people, nobody listened. And now that his mom’s finally starting to believe him, she won’t even admit it.
One religious man’s account is not enough to prove — well, she’s not sure what, but something her husband might never accept even with all the proof in the world. Something far too spooky to share with the parents’ group. Sarah stays up late searching for news reports, memorial services, and obituaries from June 14th. It’s slow going. With fatal car accidents, she can’t trace the victims. Elderly people who passed away in hospital beds are hard to tell apart. Even when she manages to connect a few dots, without contacting relatives or friends, which seems out of the question, she can’t confirm, say, that the man in India who collapsed while hiking had loved to fly kites. Then she finds a memorial website for a girl who drowned at a beach in Australia. She tracks down the parents on social media, and has her first breakthrough: a picture of the family’s Irish Setter, the copper-colored dog Everett remembers hugging before he woke up.
His mom and dad are fighting. Everett thinks it’s about Dr. Kyle, or his meds; either way it’s about him, but they don’t want to talk to him about it. The room is safe and quiet, and in the dreams, he can travel the world, do things he would never be allowed to do. He can live a thousand different lives.
When at last Sarah makes a handful of connections between Ev’s dreams and real deaths, some tenuous but a few almost irrefutable, she tells Marc everything. She wants to start a website. They’d ask the families of people who died on June 14th to share their stories. They could publicize it again, go national this time. The rabbi and the family of the man who died at the wedding would make statements, she’s sure more people would come forward. Marc says he doesn’t know what to make of the evidence, but the last thing they need to do right now is continue down this path. Because where does it lead? How does it help Ev? He asks her if she really, honestly believes in ghosts. I don’t know what I believe in, she says. A few years ago, I didn’t believe my child could be raised from the dead.
In between the dreams, Everett can just exist in the empty room. He doesn’t have to do anything at all.
They’re losing him. He doesn’t leave his bed, he’s too sick to go to school, unresponsive to anything except an occasional meal, a glass of water. She and Marc agree they need to do something, but they don’t agree on what. She hears Marc talking to Dr. Kyle at night, discussing electroshock therapy, like her son’s an appliance that got shorted in the water. The problem is that Sarah doesn’t have an answer of her own. When she looks at Everett, she feels like she’s looking into the room, into the unanswerable face of death.
They never expected Everett might slip into unconsciousness, but one afternoon they go to check on him and find only the faintest pulse. They rush him to the ER. He’s still alive, the attending doctor tells them, but his vitals are weak. Could it be an effect of the Lazarus procedure? The attending looks scared in front of Marc, in front of the only kid he’s ever seen who’s been brought back to life, who’s now fading away before their eyes. Sarah walks into the hallway and calls the Lazarus specialist’s personal number. Her hand is shaking when he picks up. There was a complication with your procedure, remember? You left part of our son there, on the other side. And now he’s going back. Who are you talking to, Marc says.
The specialist needs their signatures to perform the Lazarus procedure. We have never attempted to reanimate a person who is still alive, he tells Sarah and Marc. I can’t say that our chances for success are any higher than usual. They might be lower. Sarah grips her husband’s hand and looks at her child, pale and catatonic on the bed. Please, she says to Marc. Please trust me. I’m his mother, and I can live with what happens if we do this, but I can’t live with what happens if we don’t.
Everett’s swimming in the cool water. Light sparkles off the surface and he follows the reflection to where his mom’s standing on the dock, shielding her eyes and waving at him. He should get out, go to her. But he doesn’t really want to leave. You can do it, his mom says. Here. She lowers the ladder into the water off the dock, and he swims over and touches the bottom rung. With each step it’s like he’s climbing stairs out of a dark room, and his mom’s leaning over him, reaching down. He has a sad feeling that the summer is over, floating in the lake, stretches of nothing time. Once he gets out, they’re going home. But I’ll be back, he thinks. He takes his mother’s hand, and opens his eyes.