« Catch-A-Call — 'Stay online with a dial-up modem and one phone line' | Home | ChopStir »

July 24, 2006

'How Faith Saved the Atheist' — by Pamela R. Winnick


This wonderful essay appeared in last Friday's Wall Street Journal.

You don't need to have a position on whether or not God exists to enjoy it: all are welcome.

Here's the piece.

    How Faith Saved the Atheist

    A medical resident -- we called her "Dr. Death" -- at the Intensive Care Unit at Long Island's North Shore Hospital chased us down the hallway.

    "Your husband wants to die," she told my mother, again. Just minutes before I had asked her to leave us alone.

    "He can't even talk," I reminded her.

    "He motioned with his hands when we tried to put in the feeding tube," she said.

    Not exactly informed consent, I pointed out as we turned our backs on her and walked down the hallway, trying to avert our eyes from the other patients in the ICU that night, each of them at various points in the so-called "twilight zone" between life and death.

    Afflicted with asbestos-related lung cancer, my father, Louis Winnick, was rushed into the ICU in late May after a blood clot nearly killed him. The next day, my husband and I raced to New York from Pittsburgh. I packed enough work and knitting for what might be an extended stay, but I also put in a suit for what I was certain would be my father's imminent funeral. Still, he wasn't dead yet. And we had no intention of precipitating the inevitable.

    "Dr. Death" was just one of several. A new resident appeared the next day, this one a bit more diplomatic but again urging us to allow my father to "die with dignity." And the next day came yet another, who opened with the words, "We're getting mixed messages from your family," before I shut him up. I've written extensively about practice of bioethics -- which, for the most part, I do not find especially ethical -- but never did I dream that our moral compass had gone this far askew. My father, 85, was heading ineluctably toward death. Though unconscious, his brain, as far as anyone could tell, had not been touched by either the cancer or the blood clot. He was not in a "persistent vegetative state" (itself a phrase subject to broad interpretation), that magic point at which family members are required to pull the plug -- or risk the accusation that they are right-wing Christians.

    I complained about all the death-with-dignity pressure to my father's doctor, an Orthodox Jew, who said that his religion forbids the termination of care but that he would be perfectly willing to "look the other way" if we wanted my father to die. We didn't. Then a light bulb went off in my head. We could devise a strategy to fend off the death-happy residents: We would tell them we were Orthodox Jews.

    My little ruse worked. During the few days after I announced this faux fact, it was as though an invisible fence had been drawn around my mother, my sister and me. No one dared mutter that hateful phrase "death with dignity."

    Though my father was born to an Orthodox Jewish family, he is an avowed atheist who long ago had rejected his parents' ways. As I sat in the ICU, blips on the various screens the only proof that my father was alive, the irony struck me: My father, who had long ago rejected Orthodox Judaism, was now under its protection.

    As though to confirm this, there came a series of miracles. Just a week after he was rushed to ICU, my father was pronounced well enough to be moved out of the unit into North Shore's long-term respiratory care unit. A day later he was off the respirator, able to breathe on his own. He still mostly slept, but then he began to awaken for minutes at a time, at first groggy, but soon he was as alert (and funny) as ever. A day later, we walked in to find him sitting upright in a chair, reading the New York Times.

    I've never been one of those Jews who makes facial contortions at the mere mention of the Christian Right; I actually agree with them on some matters. And this experience with my father has given me a new appreciation for the fight many evangelicals have waged against euthanasia.

    But I'm offended that so many conservative Christians believe that theirs is the only path to salvation. I'm sick of being proselytized. We Jews enjoy a more basic type of faith, a direct relationship to God that requires no salvation, no penitence, no supplication. We do not proselytize. And we don't worry about the next life; we conduct mitzvahs -- good deeds -- that enhance life for ourselves and others in the here and now. Religion is said to have no grandparents -- meaning, we each find our own path to (or away from) faith. Yet it's my grandparents' faith -- and not my father's Jewish atheism -- to which I find myself being drawn.

    A few years ago -- perhaps just to fend off the Christians -- I joined a local synagogue in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. But the annual dues shot up from $750 to $1,000. And the fund-raisers called nonstop seeking donations to the temple's capital fund. "Jesus saves, Moses invests," my father always joked. Hey, that's our tradition.

    On Father's Day, we packed my father's hospital room: his wife, daughters, grandchildren, each of us regaling him with our successes large and small. "Life's not so bad, after all," the atheist said. I wanted to go back to ICU, find Dr. Death, drag her to my father's room and say: "This is the life you wanted to end." But if I'm really to be a person of faith, I'll have to tackle forgiveness.

July 24, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference 'How Faith Saved the Atheist' — by Pamela R. Winnick:


I think it is so strange that people get so weirded out by death. I mean come on, the moment we are born we begin to die. I am sorry if that freaks some people out but that is total fact. I mean at least our bodies begin to die. The mind and soul of course begins to live.
The church I attend welcomes all faiths, believing that there is only ONE and whatever path you choose to get there is your decision but there is only ONE truth. Whether you are a Christian, Jew, Mormon, Scientologist, Jehovah Witness, Moonie and the list is endless, we are all really only believing in ONE truth.
I thought it was rather interesting that in the story that as soon as the 'death doctors' ceased the continued energy about dying, that he got better and recovered. I truly believe that if the energy in hospitals changed to create more of a living environment instead of a dying one, more people would recover. As soon as we have to go into a hospital we have to sign a waiver that if we die there its not their fault, or the doctors, which immediately places that thought in our minds and the energy around our beings. I know its for all practical purposes but just think if it were all a positive experience how different it would be. I know I am sounding a bit pollyanna but I am all about energy and how it affects us. I am sure Joe you have experienced some amazing things in your life dealing with this being in the profession you are in. Anyway, an interesting story. thanks

Posted by: me | Jul 25, 2006 12:35:30 PM

What a thought today. Dr. Death?.hmmmm I know a few ppl like this. They are preoccupied by morbid thoughts all the time. Sort of like having the person dead before they've even lived.

Death with dignity?

Can someone die and still have dignity?

I do not believe that death will be very dignified. I do think it will resemble birth in some fashion. We come into this world all naked and bloody, slimy even and usually with loved ones crying and screaming excitedly. Then we get to go home and get all cleaned up and pretty for a little while. Then after 80 years or so (if we are lucky)of what we think is living...we leave this world in little flimsy,cotton, backside shining to the world, gowns...maybe a little bloody, maybe a little slimy even and hopefully with loved ones crying and screaming. Not a pretty site.

But then again no one told us it was gonna be fun or a party even. Hey wait a min..I do think we can have parties for funerals now. I do hope all my loved ones put some loud dancing music on and do a little dance and eat ice cream, cake. Or maybe margarita's, some chips and salsa...ok..it's their choice...but if'n they choose margarita's..then they best prop me up by the jukebox if I die...hehehe

Either way life goes on. And right now I say..ENJOY the day. It's a gift....that's why it's called the Present. =)

Posted by: Rhonda | Jul 25, 2006 8:50:25 AM

Why is being allowed to die when your body wants to a bad thing?

We are so preoccupied by living that we can't accept that it comes to an end -- and sometimes not on our timetable.

Personally, I have a living will that prevents a doctor from pulling the plug. At the time my family knew my wished, as did my lawyer and my best friend and they all had copies of this to prevent someone from doing so against my will.

I had this done before a few illnesses that have degraded the quality of my life as well as taught me the value of the life I've lived. I'm no where near wanting a DNR but I think that if I got to that point, I'd be a little more gracious towards the doctors trying to put my family at ease. Honestly, I'm not sure which way I'd go now (though with the papers in everyones hands, is highly unlikely anyone is going to allow anyone else to pull the said plug).

Either way, its not too hard to make these decisions before you are put into the situation where your family needs to make the hard decisions -- and physicians are called bad names because they are trying to preserve the sanctity of life (yes, allowing someone to die is preserving the sanctity).

Posted by: clifyt | Jul 24, 2006 8:57:33 PM

Sadly, I don't find this story all that unexpected given the assembly-line form of healthcare usually practiced today. It's worth wondering whether a physician who'd been working with him for the past 20 years would have said anything like this.

Posted by: Mark F | Jul 24, 2006 7:33:21 PM

Very moving. And funny. I know two people who -- with help from the orthodox community -- were buried quickly and simply in the simplist of wooden coffins.....Ginny pretended to be orthodox. My mother was "adopted" by our good friends who are nearly orthodox.....best funerals ever....

Posted by: Mb | Jul 24, 2006 7:09:50 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.