Thursday, April 5, 2007

Good Friday tale

Channing Chase greeting us from the second floor balcony of her house in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.
Today, Good Friday for the Christians amongt us, is the 25th anniversary of one of the most remarkable experiences of my life, a real-life story of life and death, then life again. I published this story four years ago, so it is not new to many readers. Forgive the repeat but there is something obviously resonant about it on this day, an affirmation that is important to all of us, maybe now more than ever.

Many years ago, in another incarnation,
when I had dreams (illusions really) of being an actor, Channing Chase and I were partners in auditioning for agents. We never succeeded in getting me an agent and I eventually got the message (give it up) but Channing stuck with it and did very well.

In New York she built a very prosperous career for herself especially making television commercials (and lots of dough) playing a character she jokingly liked to refer to as “Mrs. Know,” hawking anything and everything you might buy in a supermarket.

By that time I’d moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a writer. In my enthusiasm for the place, I encouraged my friend to come out to Los Angeles to look for work. Eventually with enough prodding and goading, with more than a hundred commercials to supply residuals for income, Channing made the leap and moved into an extra bedroom in a house I shared with a couple of friends on Doheny Drive.

It was there on Good Friday morning in 1982 about ten o’clock that Channing dropped dead on the kitchen floor.

I was in my bedroom on the first floor of the house making my bed when I heard Channing come downstairs and go into the kitchen. A few moments later hearing what sounded like a glass jar fall onto floor of the kitchen, I made a smartass remark about my friend’s klutziness, loud enough for her to hear.

Since she always picked up on such remarks with repartee, I was surprised to hear no response. Then it occurred to me that perhaps she had returned to her room upstairs, and that one of the dogs had knocked the bottle out of kitchen wastebasket. So I went to have a look.

There on the narrow galley-kitchen floor, in front of the sink, lay Channing in a heap, as if she’d fallen knees first.

I thought it was some kind of joke. Don’t ask me why; but it was the only explanation my mind could come up with.

So I made a joke about it. But again no response. Her hands, I noticed, were splayed out, palms up; clearly not a “planned” fall.
"The operator came on the line. I said, now in a state of alarm, “'A woman has just collapsed on my kitchen floor and I don’t know what to do.'”
Alarmed, confused, I spoke to her. No response. Now at her side, I could see the skin color around her nostrils and lips had turned a purplish blue.
Was this what “turning blue” was? I lifted her arm. It was limp. I repeated her name loudly, then louder. Nothing.

I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to leave, leave the room, the house, to flee, to run away. Instead I called a housemate, Sara Romilly, who was working for a producer down on Sunset. Sensible, stable, she would know what to do.

She didn’t. “Call the paramedics and I’ll be right home,” she said.

I looked at the clock, the minutes ticking by. I dialed “operator.”

The operator came on the line. I said, now in a state of alarm, “A woman has just collapsed on my kitchen floor and I don’t know what to do.”

She asked for my address. Within seconds she connected me to paramedics.

A man’s voice came on. I repeated the phrase: A woman has just collapsed on my floor and I don’t know what to do!!

What was she doing? he asked.

Preparing some breakfast.

Did she aspirate on her food?

I don’t know.

Put your fingers in her mouth; see if you can feel anything.

I hate this stuff. I’m squeamish. I still wanted to run away. But I did as I was told. Nothing there, as far as I could tell.

Does she have a heartbeat?

I put my ear to her heart. I couldn’t tell; I couldn’t tell!

Does she have a pulse?

I put my fingertips near where I’d been taught the pulse was. I couldn’t tell. Now I was scared. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I can’t tell."

You’re panicking; stop it, the voice at the other end of the line said.

Okay okay.

Do you know how to give CPR?


DON’T PANIC! He stated hard and clear.

The CPR. Lay her out flat on the floor. Lift her head slightly by the back of her neck, letting her head rest backward, and put your mouth over her mouth and breathe in ...

Okay. Now, with both hands press down on her chest.

Okay. Now hold her head up again by the back of the neck, put your mouth on hers and breath in ...

Okay ... Now the chest ... Keep repeating those steps; you are giving her artificial respiration.

Okay ... We are on our way.

Don’t leave me, I said to the man on the phone.

Within moments I could hear the sirens coming up
the hill. Sara Romilly arrived having dashed home. The sirens grew closer and closer.

Eight or ten firemen, arrived. Two trucks and a car. I got out of their way to let them into the tiny kitchen. Standing in the hallway I heard one say to another: “it’s a total arrest.”

“ A total arrest;” I was too dumfounded to know what that meant.
"Usually it’s one of three things: they don’t survive or if they do, they remain a vegetable or in a coma for the rest of their lives.”
Two of them picked the lifeless Channing up by arms and the feet, like a sack of potatoes, and moved her into the dining room where there was more space.

As the men opened their kits and cases, brought in their equipment, oxygen, masks, with what looked like an oversized pair of shears, they cut open her pullover, all the while firing questions at me.

Was she on drugs? No.


What was she eating?
I don’t know. She ever do drugs? No.

You sure? I was sure.

There were so many around her, I stood in the doorway to stay out of their way, listening to their exchanges as they attempted to revive her.

Having failed with the oxygen, they took out what looked like two large rubberized paddles (called electronic paddles, I later learned) placing one on each side of her upper torso.

With these they were attempting to jolt her into a heartbeat. I could tell that she wasn’t responding. Wasn’t responding, wasn’t responding. But they kept at it.

I knew now that she had expired, was dead. I was thinking about things like out-of-body experiences that we hear so much about, wondering if she were indeed in that state, still in the room, floating above in the ether; and thinking that if she were: “Come back Channing,” I said under my breath, over and over, “come back Channing, come back Channing ...”

When suddenly, one of the firemen said aloud: “She’s coming back!”

The energy in the room was fiercely focused by these men who really are heroic members of our community, working totally as a unit with selfless certainty, with speed, with precision and efficiency, and with what I can only describe as care and sincerity, far more than I had experienced within myself before their arrival.

“She’s coming back, she’s coming back ...” another man repeated, and suddenly the mood in the room changed to a quiet exhilaration.

Within minutes, Channing was breathing again, although unconscious. Out of the house went two of them. In they returned with the stretcher. Now with an oxygen mask covering her nose and mouth, they removed her.

One of the men, dressed in an officer’s uniform and cap said to me, “you saved her life.”

I had no idea what he was talking about; I had done nothing but panic and then follow some authority’s instructions.

“What was it happened to her?” I asked.

He said he didn’t know.

“ Will she be all right?” I asked.

“ Usually it’s one of three things: they don’t survive or if they do, they remain a vegetable or in a coma for the rest of their lives. She was gone for close to ten minutes; there’s usually damage to the brain because of lack of oxygen.”

All I could hear was the “don’t survive, coma or vegetable for the rest of her life ..."

Within minutes, the men were gone, along with the unconscious Channing who was taken to Cedars-Sinai.

Die, coma, vegetable.

“But this woman is a very determined person,” I said to the fireman.

"Couldn’t that make a difference.”

He wasn’t optimistic. “I’ve seen too many of these,” he said.

Two weeks before this incident,
my other housemate, a man named Kenyon Kramer and I had watched Barbara Walters interview Joan Collins on television. We’d really only tuned in because Kenyon had been working on a project that involved Collins. In the course of the interview, Collins told a story about one of her daughters who had been in a terrible car accident, had come close to death and ended up in the hospital in a coma.

Collins related that the doctors had told her and her husband at the time, Ron Kass, that the child would either die, or be a vegetable or remain in a coma for the rest of her life.

Unwilling to accept the doctors’ prognosis, Collins and Kass decided to stay by their daughter’s bedside and talk to her and stroke her until she came out of the coma.

No one around WAS hopeful except Collins and Kass
but they stuck with it. Within days, the girl emerged from her coma and, according to Collins in her interview with Barbara Walters, the girl had survived completely and is a functioning, healthy human being today.

Thinking of that, I asked the officer if we could visit Channing in the intensive care unit. He said we could, asking us to give them a couple of hours to get her checked in and set up.

When Kenyon returned from his office we went down to the hospital. Once she was set up in her cubicle, all wired and plugged in to the life support systems, Kenyon and I stood on either side of Channing, holding her hand, while I did most of the talking.

She and I had taken a class a few years before called Silva Mind Control which taught a process of meditative relaxation, and involved instructing oneself to relax by concentrating on one part of the body at a time – the top of the head, the forehead, eyes, eyelids, mouth, jaw, neck, shoulders, etc.

So with that in mind, I began the process on Channing, talking to her unconscious self, identifying myself, Kenyon identifying himself, and then quietly instructing her, exhorting her, to concentrate and relax each part of herself where I placed my palms.

Doctors and nurses came by, as we began this process. They were curious and not discouraging although quick to add that they had “seen many of these cases, and ... Die, coma, vegetable.

“But this is a very determined woman,”
I always interjected, hoping that would bring a light of optimism from the professionals. Not really.

About eight o’clock that night, one of the nurses came by and suggested that we go home and get some rest, adding that Channing needed to rest also (“even people in a coma need to rest”).

We both went home that night physically exhausted by the five or six hours we’d spent at Channing’s side in the CICU. The following morning, for the sake of efficiency we decided to take shifts by her bedside.

When I arrived at the CICU about nine, the nurse told me they’d had to anchor her down during the night.


Because she was thrashing and flailing, the nurse replied, adding, “that means she’s fighting,” and she gave a sly wink.

I knew it, I knew it. I went back to work at her side. Same thing.
“Channing,” he said to the nurse in keeping his monologue with the patient, “has beautiful green eyes ...”
Relaxation exercises. Channing, this is David, I’m by your side, this is my left hand on your forehead, relax your forehead; all very quietly and deliberately, consistently, persistently, over and over.

By late morning, her eyes were open, darting around unseeing, although she remained comatose. And she was moving, trying to move, more and more, struggling under her bondage. And as I implored her to relax, occasionally she, the body as it were, would stop the struggling, and quiet down. I knew we were getting somewhere.

About two o’clock, Kenyon showed up for his shift. After telling him about the progress we’d made, I left the hospital.

By that time, my own body was burning with the sensation of a million pinpricks covering me from head to toe, a sensation I’d never experienced before (or after). When I got back to the house, I put on my bathing suit and went into the pool, hoping to relieve myself of this odd tension. No such luck. Out of the pool, unrelieved, I lay on the lounge hoping to relax myself into sleep.

About an hour later the phone rang. It was Kenyon, his voice quaking, but with exuberance. He blurted it all out. While at Channing’s bedside, working his healing hands and voice, a nurse came in to change the bedclothes. Kenyon stayed to assist her to continue talking to Channing in her open-eyed yet comatose state.

“Channing,” he said to the nurse in keeping his monologue with the patient, “has beautiful green eyes ...”

And just then the body on the bed suddenly said in a loud, awkward, tongue-tied sound, said: “greeeee—nnn-eyesssss."

“Beautiful green eyes,” Kenyon repeated, astounded, the nurse astounded ...

Again, the voice, “Greee-nnn-eyessss.”

Within twenty-four hours, on Easter Sunday, Channing was removed from the CICU to a regular hospital room. I went to see the following day. She was quiet but conscious. Her mind and memory were coming back slowly, reminding me of a computer bank turning on. She had no memory of the incident and for the first few days believed herself to be in Connecticut where I had a house that she often visited before I moved to California.

A neurologist told us that patients who have traumatic episodes often have no memory of the experience and even mentally remove themselves physically from the environment where it occurred. This turned out to be true for Channing.
Two weeks after entering Cedars, she checked out of the hospital. Her sister Lorna had flown in from the East and took Channing back to New Hampshire where their parents lived, for recuperation.

In August, almost four months later, Channing returned to Los Angeles. When I picked her up at LAX, she was her beaming self, looking very rested, obviously, and anxious to get on with her life.

Back in Los Angeles she underwent a thorough examination by the doctor who had taken her case that Friday at Cedars. Given a clean bill of health, he told her it was the first time in his career that he had ever written “Sudden Death Syndrome” on a living patient’s chart.

And what was the explanation for this episode of "Sudden Death Syndrome"? It seems that on the morning of her fatal collapse, Channing was suffering from a grippe, with diarrhea, as well as her monthly menstruation.

Channing Chase today, 25 years after her "sudden death."
Because of those circumstances, when she came downstairs to make herself some breakfast, she had naturally eliminated all the minerals in her system. One of them, potassium, is needed to make the electrolytes that charge the heart. Without that potassium, her heart just stopped beating. Had she eaten just a banana, she would have provided herself the nourishment to keep that heartbeat. But she hadn’t, and had she not knocked over the glass bottle that fell to the floor with her, she would never have had another heartbeat again.

Determined as usual, after her full recovery (no detectable incidents to the brain — we could joke that that was what came from my being so full of hot air) she stayed in Los Angeles and resumed her work. A few years later (now my memory fails) she met and married Dan Saxon, a former advertising executive who manages talent and has an art gallery in Los Angeles.

Industrious and determined, Channing has an actor’s resume that covers pages with its credits on film, on television, on commercials (she’s appearing currently commercials for Paulix and Triple A; recently on Detrol), and plays (most recently in the Pacific Resident Theatre’s West Coast production of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.”)

She has no memory of the incident/episode of twenty-one years ago. I’ve recounted it to her dozens of times, and it continues to amaze her, although because she is by nature self-reliant and responsible in her life she does seem to be slightly embarrassed by the fact that something went totally awry. And as far as the out-of-body experience, we always hear so much about, she didn’t have one. She just came back to be with us.