The Efforts of People Saved Me—Not Prayers, Faith, or Belief in a God Who Isn’t There

A Former Christian Returned-From-Coma Patient's Expression On Atheism and How Humans Saved His Life; Not Any Imaginary Deity

Some of us need everything to be stripped away before we realize how amazing this one life is. I took it all for granted before it was all taken away from me. I made the mistake of thinking that it would all be thereafter it all ended. 

My Christian faith told me that all I had to do was believe and repent my sins; the rest would sort itself out in the afterlife. But it was the fight to hold on to this life that showed me true salvation. Before my fight began, I was complacent about my life. 

I had a good family and many good friends. I loved them all, but because I assumed we would all be together in paradise one day, I didn’t love them as if this life were the only chance I would ever get. That thought process led to some drinking, a lot of smoking, and even more eating. 
By age 32, I weighed 670 pounds. One day, in September 2007, everything changed when I began to have trouble breathing. The fear of having to confront a grave illness or even death kept me from calling 911 at first, but I finally did. I don’t recall anything that happened next—not my trip to the hospital, not being intubated, not the dialysis, not my tracheotomy. 

But those were the very things that saved my life, not the prayers pouring in from family and friends. Six weeks into my stay, I met someone who would make a profound impact on me: my nurse Tom. Whenever he came by, he would share his own recovery story with me. 

He had—barely—survived a motorcycle accident that broke his back, and for a while, was paralyzed. Listening to Tom’s story became the center of my universe. It helped get me through each terrible, painful minute, hour, and day. 

I looked forward to hearing it every night. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the compassionate way he related his struggle to my own laid the foundation that would eventually bring me to the conclusion that faith, hope, and prayer weren’t going to save me. 

Recovery was going to take effort and hard work, and if he could do it, then I could do it. So as the doctors handed out orders, I did everything in my control to fight through the pain and get off the machines that were keeping me alive. After a couple of months, I was finally moved out of ICU. 

Shortly thereafter, I was able to speak for the first time, thanks to a device fitted to my tracheostomy. I had only been using it for a few days when I developed a dangerous infection. I was moved to a better-equipped hospital. I died several days later, on three different occasions. 

My trips to the “other side” were never filled with family, friends, or any of the images or sensations Christianity tells you will be there. 

At times it was darkness, silence, and a very peaceful nothingness. Other times, the pain killers and a chemically induced coma gave me exactly what I wanted. Whenever I was periodically pulled back from my bliss, I would realize who was waiting for me. 

Eventually, I began opening my eyes more often and staying in the real world longer. But I was worse off than before. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk, and I couldn’t move. For a while, I just wanted my medications so that I could go back to sleep, and it would all go away. 

As I wallowed in self-pity, the nurses kept working, the doctors kept visiting, and my family and friends stayed by my side. Once again, the efforts of people saved me—not prayers, faith, or belief in a God who isn’t there. 

Once I was completely out of the coma, everything started all over again: the breathing machine, the rectal tube, the catheter, the bedsores, the tears. 

I spent a few more weeks in the hospital before moving back to a long-term care facility to start physical therapy and to re-learn how to walk. 

I fought, I argued, I complained, but I kept working. So did my doctors, nurses, therapists, family, and friends. Eventually, machines were unplugged and medications were stopped. 

On the day I stood again for the first time in seven months, all of my therapists were in the room as I pushed myself to the limit and was finally able to stand. As the emotions poured from me, I sat back down on the bed crying. 

I looked up and I saw one of my therapists crying, too. My next hurdle was the oxygen that I had to carry around with me. My doctor was of the opinion that my lungs were too damaged to be able to function without it. 

But the support I had around me emboldened me to refuse to accept that conclusion. The following day, I began to take the oxygen off for as long as I could tolerate it. The feeling of being unable to breathe is horrible. 

But I continued to try every day and even more so during therapy. Two months later, the tube was removed. By this time, I was taking daily walks with a walker through the hospital. I went outside and felt the sun on my face for the first time in a year. 

I finally left the hospital for good in August 2008. Through it all, people cared for me, supported me, and loved me. They collectively showed me what true love and compassion really are. 

For some of them, I was a complete stranger whose life they were fighting to save. For others, I was family or a close friend. For all of them, I was a lost cause at some point. My own humanity took me down, and the humanity of others brought me back up. 

That humanity did more than any book of faith could ever do or any god ever will do. Having the best and worst of myself held up under a magnifying glass has led me to question my entire way of living. In the years since my near-death experience, I came to realize that I lacked direction. 

That realization brought me to authors like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, and Richard Carrier. 

By applying their words to my experience, I found the direction I needed. And I love my family, friends, and myself much more, now that I know I only have this one chance to do so.


Peter Santalla owns and operates a state-licensed facility in California for adults with severe autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and mental retardation. Before acquiring the facility twelve years ago, he worked as a direct care staff member for eight years.

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