When I was a young man of 22, I was the picture of good health. I had already played my rookie season with the Washington Redskins, led the NFL in kicking and played in the Pro Bowl, and was back in Mississippi, practice teaching at a high school in Vicksburg.
The last thing I expected to encounter was a health crisis with the potential to claim my life. I was young and in my prime. I had met the girl I would marry (still married 52 years later). I had my whole life ahead of me, or so I thought.
Then one morning, without warning, I woke up with a burning pain in my abdomen. The doctor who examined me that day wasn’t sure in his diagnosis. He thought that the pain could be stemming from a ruptured appendix.
The decision was made to do exploratory surgery. Specifically, the doctor made a 10-12 inch incision in the center of my abdomen.
In hindsight, he acted too quickly. He probably should have tried to identify the problem before surgery. I do not know the state of the science at the time, but perhaps pancreatitis could not be detected by blood tests or other medical evaluations.
I really didn’t wake up for weeks. I was heavily sedated for most of that time, being kept alive on IV’s, with no food, no bowel movements. Everything pretty much stopped. It is no exaggeration to tell you I was dying. I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but that illness almost took me out of the game.
I remained at Mercy Hospital in Vicksburg for 105 days ––from April 15 until the end of July. Midway through my hospitalization, a priest was called to my bedside, and I was administered last rites.
Obviously, since these last prayers and ministrations are only given shortly before death, the doctors and medical staff at Mercy Hospital did not believe I had much chance of survival. The second opinion, my own, was more optimistic. I never gave up, and I always felt that I would be healed and would get well.
I’ve read accounts of near death experiences written by those involved in potentially fatal traffic accidents and other life-threatening situations. Often, they relate dramatic episodes of traveling through a tunnel of light, out of body experiences or encounters with loved ones who have passed away.
Nothing quite as dramatic happened in my case, but the night I reached the lowest point, on the brink of dying, my brother and sisters were called to Vicksburg. My mother and dad were already there. Our doctors had pretty much given up. My family was gathered around my bed when two extraordinary things occurred. One, I suddenly was pain free and felt cool. I didn’t see people or angels, but the view was sort of a blue-grey-green mist — translucent structures were in the foreground — no voices, no looking down on the bed, but something extraordinary had occurred.
Simultaneously, an African-American preacher in Moss Point, 170 miles away — a man I didn’t know, got out of bed at midnight and prayed for me throughout the night. At dawn, it was clear that a significant change in my condition had occurred. From that day forward, my health improved each day until I was finally free to return to my home in Moss Point.
It was only later that I realized something just as profound in terms of the lasting impact that the prolonged illness had on me: None of us is immortal. No matter whether we are eight or eighty, we never know when our time is up.
Life is precious and can be lost in a heartbeat. Understanding there will be defeats, losses, disappointments, challenges — sometimes life will seem and actually be unfair. At the same time, there is so much to be enjoyed and cherished, so many opportunities in knowing that giving —- that is, reaching out to others, is where the true value is found.
Peace is the ultimate goal and can be found only by reaching out, looking out and forward –– trying to make the world a better place.
Robert C. Khayat is former chancellor of The University of Mississippi. He played professional football for the Washington Redskins before attending Yale Law School. He was also a professor of law at the University of Mississippi Law School that now bears his name.