In the 1978 movie Heaven Can Wait, Joe Pendleton, the character played by Warren Beatty, dies prematurely and pleads his case for reincarnation with the declaration, "I'm not supposed to be here.''
I wondered recently, however, if just the opposite might be true in some real life circumstances when people seem to anticipate their final breath. Here's why:
A patient's wife stopped by the office to let me know her 71-year-old husband in the hospital next door wanted to see me and all his family members that afternoon before he died.
He had been admitted in the hospital by his internist two days earlier for pneumonia. He was doing well and was being monitored closely.
I stopped by his room that morning for a courtesy visit, but felt compelled later to visit him a second time. He seemed peaceful and comfortable and thanked me for coming. I saw no anxiety or apprehension on his face. He could not tell me why he thought he was going to die, but he was happy to see all his family together one last time.
I originally saw this man as a patient about two decades ago. He moved to Florida with his family to live out the rest of what he believe to be a "short life." He had developed heart failure from an enlarged and weak heart without an obvious reason. He refused to consider a heart transplant, as he could not stand the idea of waiting for some young person to die.
After reviewing his medical reports, I concurred with his poor prognosis. I told him that we could certainly try a few more tricks and that heaven can definitely wait. He did well for 20 years, enjoying a decent quality of life (in spite of a few hospitalizations for the exacerbations of heart failure) with aggressive medical treatment and a lot of therapeutic lifestyle changes. Having a loving and caring family definitely helped his optimistic attitude.
Walking back to my office from the patient's room, I wondered whether he might be correct about a looming death. I hoped not. Was it fear or a premonition? A sixth sense or senseless delusion?
As a trained clinician, I like to have a scientific explanation for everything, even though as a person of faith I do believe in a supernatural superior force that controls all aspects of life.
It is not uncommon for people to literally die of a broken heart from an enormous and sudden production of chemicals in the body, as a result of losing a loved one. But, can people really predict the timing of their own otherwise unexpected death? I struggled as a scientist for an answer.
It came in the form of a call from the hospital nurse to let me know that he had indeed passed away. He just flat lined, the nurse said, and could not be resuscitated.
I felt sad to lose him. Then I felt thankful that he considered me part of his family. I also consoled myself with the thought that we will have a happy family reunion in heaven someday.
I am in no hurry though. Heaven can wait.
Dr. Rao Musunuru is a practicing cardiologist, serving the residents of Pasco and Hernando County since 1981.