Final part of a three-part seriesOn that Wednesday morning last April, the Rev. Betsy Godbold found Bill Eden in the precarious netherworld between life and death, clinging to existence in the intensive-care unit of Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine. His heart had stopped the night before at his Southlake home. Only the prompt efforts of his wife, paramedics and the Baylor medical staff had allowed him to hang on to the next day.But odds were greatly against the 57-year-old waking up from an induced coma, 1 in 5 at best. Even if he did, the likelihood of significant brain damage was high. Such were the grim realities engulfing his wife, Cathy, and daughters Megan and Ashley, when Godbold arrived at the hospital that morning.As a pastoral care minister at Megan's church, White's Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Godbold had seen it so many times before. In times of crisis, all anyone could see was the gathering darkness, the worst. So Godbold prayed over Bill Eden that morning, then, as they stood at his bedside in the ICU, she told a favorite story to the family.Years before, in the darkest African night, a Christian missionary in the Congo heard a noise at the window of her hut and found a tribal elder standing outside, holding just a small lamp. The elder had risked his life, walking through a dangerous area, to deliver a message to the grateful missionary."Such a pathetic light on such a dark night," the missionary said."It shines as far as I can step," the elder replied.That was the image Godbold wanted to share. God's light, hope and guidance were in the next breath, the next step. Beyond that was great darkness where fear and anxiety lurk. No one could possibly know what would happen in the next day, the next hour. Try to stay in the present, the minister said.Ashley Eden, the oldest daughter, had inherited her father's laid-back philosophy and was generally inclined to hope for the best in any situation. But Cathy and Megan were worriers by nature. They needed Godbold's message and clung to it like a life preserver.Stay in the present, stay in the light, they reminded each other during that interminable Wednesday. It was a day of waiting as the medical team slowly lowered Bill Eden's body temperature by about 10 degrees. The hypothermia treatment had been shown to increase chances of survival and reduce brain damage in cases like his.Mother and daughter reminded themselves again Thursday morning, Bill's day of reckoning. That's when the warming process began, one degree every four hours. By the end of Thursday, his body temperature would be back to normal. He would be weaned off sedatives. He would either regain consciousness or, most likely, he wouldn't.If he did survive, how much of the husband and father they knew would come back?"We don't know," they told each other. "Don't go there."The warm-up periodNurse Julie May's 12-hour shift in the Baylor ICU began at 7 a.m. Thursday. She would care for Bill Eden during the warming period that was particularly fraught with danger. With his body temperature and pulse rising, his already enfeebled heart was most prone to fail again. That's when toxins released by the warming body could wreak havoc, when serious infections could set in.She met Eden's wife, daughters and other relatives and immediately felt a bond with them, and an admiration for their love and courage. As a veteran nurse, May knew the slim odds the patient faced. But the nurse sensed that Eden was a fighter, that there was something about this man and his family that would allow him to pull through.It was midmorning, several hours into the warming, that Eden opened his eyes, staring blankly before closing them again. That itself could have been meaningless. The most primitive human reflexes are controlled by areas deep inside the brain that are less susceptible to oxygen deprivation. Outer areas of the brain contain the synapses of human personality. The extent to which those areas had been damaged was the real question.But later that morning, when May entered the room, she was almost certain that Eden's eyes had followed her. If true, that would suggest meaningful brain function. Just before Megan left her father's room to grab a quick lunch, the nurse decided to share her observation."I don't want to be too hopeful," May said. "I usually don't do that, but I swear, when I was coming in the door, he looked at me."Megan went to the head of the bed, but her father's eyes were closed. Bill's sister from Arizona, who is also named Cathy Eden, came in to sit with him while Megan, her mother and sister went to the hospital cafeteria. As they picked at their food, Megan told them about her conversation with the nurse. After two days of dire news, they forced themselves to tamp down their excitement and hope.Twenty minutes later, they returned to the ICU and found great commotion.Eye contactFrom the day Bill Eden was born in Arizona, 57 years before, his older sister had considered him her best friend. Cathy Eden, three years older and a professor at Arizona State University, never made a major life decision without consulting Bill first. In 2010, when Cathy ran unsuccessfully in Arizona's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, Bill moved to Arizona for four months and helped run her campaign.As the older sister, Cathy had also believed it was her responsibility to shelter Bill from harm, to make everything OK. That Thursday in April, as she sat by his bed in the intensive care unit, she felt that she had failed."I don't think I can make this OK," the sister thought.Then Bill opened his eyes and looked at her.Cathy sprang from her chair and screamed."Billy! Billy!"He continued to look at her until she ran from the room to find his wife and daughters.Cathy Eden, his wife, went to the head of the bed and began stroking his hair."Daddy! Daddy!" she said.Her husband looked up at her. Megan called to him from the other side of the bed. He turned in her direction and smiled.Moment to rememberThe breathing tube was removed the next day. Bill Eden was under strict orders not to speak, so he looked at his wife and mouthed the words instead."I love you, Mama."'He was still there'Dr. David Scherer would have been the one to initiate a terrible discussion with Bill Eden's family. It was a wrenching thing under any circumstances, talking to loved ones about withdrawing life support. The task would be even more difficult in this case because Scherer, a veteran cardiologist, had treated Eden for years, had been subjected to his droll wit, had become personally fond of the guy.But the relationship with his patient also gave Scherer confidence."Even though it would have hurt a lot more, I felt a lot more confident I could talk with the family," Scherer said later. "I've known this guy for years. We've done all we can do. He's not coming back. And I know for a fact that he would not want to be continued in this state."But on Thursday afternoon, word began to spread throughout the hospital about the near-miracle in the ICU. Scherer heard it from Julie May when he came by on his rounds."He's moving around," May said. "He's in there."Scherer was as surprised as he was elated. Eden had awakened. He followed voices and smiled at his loved ones."He was going to have some kind of meaningful existence," Scherer said. "We didn't know how much it would be, but we knew he was interacting with us. It was going to be difficult. There was going to be a lot of things involved, support wise. But he was still there."Bits and piecesIn the first few days, his wife was the only person Bill consistently recognized. The sight of her often made him weep and caused his heart rate to soar so much that nurses ordered Cathy Eden from the room. He tried to get out of bed, muttering one of his trademark expressions, "Let's roll." But he still didn't really know where he was, or why. He called Ashley by the name of a football teammate from four decades before.Every time he woke up, his daughters would need to tell the story again. He had collapsed at home. His heart had stopped. His wife had saved his life with her prompt response in terrifying circumstances."Mama saved my life?" he would ask, looking at her. "You didn't want to trade me in for a better model?"The next time he woke up, the fog would have rolled back in, and he would have to be told the story again. But there was steady improvement, and after a few days, Bill began to remember the names of his daughters. He remembered the Dallas Mavericks had started their championship run.Taking a lapOn April 20, eight days after he died, Bill Eden took a lap around the ICU, slowly pushing a walker. Good friends Jess Cole and Rob Frye supported him on either side. Doctors and nurses stopped to watch. Families of other patients came to the doors of their rooms. Bill wore a hospital gown and a broad smile. The man who nearly had a career in professional football was showing off by making a second lap around the ward with his walker. Megan snapped a picture.Back in his room, Bill excused his wife and daughters, saying he needed some time alone with his two buddies. Loud laughter spilled out from behind the closed door. A nurse came in and took his vital signs."Mr. Eden, everything is elevated," she said. "You boys need to go."With each passing day, the old Bill was more in evidence. During one hospital visit, Godbold asked if Bill saw anything of the afterlife when he was near death."The only thing I saw were flames, so I threw it into reverse," he said.On another visit near Easter, Bill asked the minister if the holiday could be renamed "The resurrection of Bill."The patient's family cringed at the sacrilege. Godbold laughed.A reality checkHe was released from the hospital April 26, with a tiny defibrillator newly implanted in his chest. He began a monthlong stay at an Irving rehabilitation facility for brain injuries. Bill was surrounded there by people who couldn't walk or talk because of oxygen deprivation. That's when it hit him."I thought: 'Whoa. Within minutes or seconds I could have been anywhere from a kindergartner to a 2-year-old,'" he said later. "At first I was like, 'Let's roll.' Then I started to realize that I did get the wind taken out of my sails. That it was going to take more than five minutes for me to get back in the ring."But by the end of his therapy this summer, friends and relatives could tell no discernible difference. One day in July he played nine holes of golf in the blistering Texas heat, then ordered a cheeseburger at a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth. After all, he reasoned, tests had shown that his arrest had not been caused by arterial blockage.Even his doctor did not mind."I'm glad he's eating them, man," Scherer said. "From where he was ..."That day at lunch, when Bill finished his first beer, he ordered a second.Making it officialFor the July ceremony at Southlake City Hall, Bill traded his hospital gown for a beige sports coat and blue shirt, shaking hands with five firefighters in their dress uniforms. For the large crowd in City Council chambers, he described how his wife had saved him, and the firefighters, Scherer and the medical team at Baylor."Everything happened exactly right, or I wouldn't be here," Bill said.He looked at the firefighters and smiled sheepishly."I don't know how you thank somebody for saving your life," he said. "But I humbly wish you would accept my thanks."Changes for others ...Megan Eden captured the city hall ceremony on video, put it to music, and posted it on YouTube. The smiles, the hugs, the handshakes, the applause. Such a happy ending. So why, months after it happened, did she feel so raw inside? Why did she cry that day at work when a tape dispenser ran out? How long would she watch her father as he napped, making sure that his chest was still moving?She and Ashley talked on the phone almost every day, asking each other the big questions: Is my life making a difference? Am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing?When Bill was out of the woods, Ashley went back to Washington, D.C., and ended it with a guy she was dating."It's just not working," she told him. "You don't bring enough to my life."She delivered an ultimatum to her boss on a Senate committee."You need to tell me that there is an opportunity for me to do something significant here," Ashley said. "Or I'm going to move home."But Bill was oblivious, like the whole thing was a big joke. Megan took him back up to the ICU one day, and the nurses there touched his shoulder, as if to make sure he was real. Then, as he and Megan left the hospital, Bill turned to his daughter and said, "I'm just a ghost."Megan was furious. It was not funny."It's extremely frustrating that my dad was the reason we went through all that, but he doesn't get it," Ashley said later. "While it was happening, we definitely played through every sentimental or funny or happy moment from our whole lives. We came to understand how precious life was, how precious our relationship with him was. But he didn't go through any of that. How do you explain it to him?"There is no way to make him understand what we went through."... but the same BillOn another steamy night in August, Bill, Cathy and Megan sat around the kitchen table in Southlake, a few feet from where he had slumped in his chair last April. As they talked, Ashley checked in from Washington, D.C., chatting with her parents before getting on a subway. Around the table, Bill was pressed to explain what the episode meant, how it had changed him.People wanted him to speak of life on the other side. People expected otherworldly wisdom after his dance with the hereafter. And he was sorry. Gratitude, yeah. In spades. But no great epiphanies, no inviting white light. Just life as it had always been, which had been pretty great to start with."The question has come up: 'Have I re-evaluated my life?'" he said. "But without sounding too cocky or egotistical, I've always tried to get 26 hours out of 24. That's just the way I lived my life. People who know me know that hasn't changed. I try to be positive. I try to be helpful. I'm still an asshole. I still have my moments. I still have constipation. I mean, those things continue."It's not like now I'm an angel and I'm on a mission to save the world," he said. "I was on a mission to save the world before. I mean that, and I think there is still a chance. We're all going to leave. Everybody comes and everybody goes. That doesn't bother me. I think at one time it did bother me. I mean, who wants to frickin' die?"Come to think of it, maybe there was an epiphany after all."But now, knowing that I did die, it ain't that big a deal."
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544