Pondering the cliche ‘It wasn’t his time to go’

Ever since my 56-year-old husband had a heart attack three weeks ago, doctors, firefighters, friends and family have repeatedly told us “It wasn’t his time to go.”

Though there’s so much I needed — and still need — to process, this statement weighed heavy on my mind.

Yes, he defied all medical odds. Our electrophysiologist told us only 1 percent survive what he went through. Had we not been home and immediately started CPR until the firefighters arrived, I would have lost my husband, and my three teenage daughters would have lost their daddy. Is this what “It wasn’t his time to go” means? Is there a higher power who has control over this?

It all happened so fast. It was “Family Movie Night” and the credits were rolling. Typically my husband stays up to watch TV, and we go to bed. For some reason we stayed up laughing about the cheesy, hilarious movie we had just watched.

It was at that moment when time stood still. My husband suddenly passed out — this was a first. I told my oldest daughter to call 911, and before I finished saying this he was having convulsions. My daughter’s hands were trembling so much that she had difficulty typing her cellphone code.

He wasn’t breathing, there was no pulse and he was turning purple. Thinking he’d fainted or choked on popcorn, I screamed at him and began doing Heimlich Maneuver. Knowing we were in a state of emergency, and having just gotten certified in CPR, my youngest daughter, 14, started doing chest compressions.

I will never be able to erase that feeling of being completely helpless as the two of us desperately tried to revive him.

Seconds after our worst nightmare started, my middle daughter got home from a birthday dinner. She walked into our living room, saw her dad unconscious, and saw us hysterical and frantically working to save his life. She checked for a pulse. There was none.

She was thrust into our same state of panic, terror and feeling of helplessness. With every minute I knew our chances to save him diminished immensely. I screamed “Don’t leave us! We need you! We are all here! You can do this!”

Minutes seemed like days before we got through to 911 and got expert help. The 911 dispatcher first instructed us to get him on the floor. We each grabbed a leg and an arm and strained to pull him onto the floor, rather ungracefully. Knowing the rest of us had completely come unhinged, my oldest daughter took over counting chest compressions out loud with the dispatcher until the firefighters arrived.

It seemed like the firefighters spent an eternity in our living room trying to revive him. We sat just outside our front door, bodies intertwined as we cried and screamed for them to save him. I believe in the power of prayer, and I earnestly prayed silently and then deafeningly loud to keep him alive. The idea of the fragility of life and how it can change in an instant hit me like a ton of bricks.

Fifteen minutes after the firefighters performed CPR, one of the firefighters stepped outside and gave us the most miraculous news. Our prayers had been answered. He was breathing on his own and his was heart beating.

Was this a miracle? For sure, luck was on our side: My husband didn’t have his heart attack alone, we had the wherewithal to start CPR, and we live blocks from a fire station and a top-notch hospital. But what if the firefighters had gotten here too late? What if we had become paralyzed in fear and didn’t do CPR. What if the hospital was far away?

It’s the what-ifs that take me back to wondering if he is alive simply because it wasn’t his time to go. Does God make this decision? What about the people who tragically died way too young? Was it their time to go?

In the days that followed — and after several bumps in the road, including three more cardiac arrests in seven hours (I witnessed them all) and his needing a second angiogram that same day — we began to believe he would survive. Doctors said it was remarkable he pulled through and how well he was doing.

Though my husband is the epitome of good health, the doctor said this was going to happen no matter how well he had taken care of himself — given his family history of heart disease.

He had amnesia, asking the same questions in a loop, but doctors reassured us that would be temporary. I calmly answered each question as if it were the first time I heard it. He needed to know and I tenderly told him — over and over and over again.

I was grateful to be with the man I thought I’d lost, and I said that I would leave the hospital when we leave together. Six days later, we did just that.

Somehow we managed to return to our living room — the scene of fright and terror — and we watched the Olympics together. At first it was very unsettling to think that this could have been the place where we last saw him alive. This was nearly impossible to process. Friends and family  came by to visit, hug, and bring flowers and food. Hearing how he survived against all odds evoked that same platitude that it wasn’t his time to go.

Does God choose when it’s someone’s time to leave this world?

I needed to talk to our rabbi. I asked him to help me understand the idea that when someone survives a near-death experience, against all odds, is it because it wasn’t their time to go?

The rabbi explained that this isn’t a helpful, healthy or accurate way of looking at our lives. I found comfort in hearing that everybody and everything worked right, and his life was saved. That he will flourish and thrive once again, not because it wasn’t his time, but because the life-saving measures worked.

A great weight was lifted off my mind when the rabbi said that God does not make people die or live longer because it’s their time or isn’t their time. God is real, and God is powerful, but God does not work in that way.

Knowing that a set of circumstances fell into place, and influenced the positive outcome, allows me to put aside obsessively dwelling about whether or not it’s someone’s time to go. I’m now focusing on the life-saving measures that saved my husband’s life.

We met with the chief of the Central County Fire Department, which serves Burlingame, Hillsborough and Millbrae. He  has a passion for teaching CPR, and he offered to train as many people as are interested. So we sent an online signup sheet to friends, neighbors and community members at-large. As of early this week, we had more than 200 people signed up to learn CPR. We know firsthand that CPR saves lives and we’re actively working to raise awareness about the importance of knowing CPR.

Perhaps CPR is God’s handiwork.

Andrea Sobel lives in Burlingame, where she is a member of Peninsula Temple Sholom.

Andrea Sobel
Andrea Sobel

Andrea Sobel lives in Burlingame, where she is a member of Peninsula Temple Sholom.