Sharon Butala, "The Brink"

In conjunction with this year's Massey Lectures, Canada Writes is proud to bring you "Close Encounters with Science": a series of personal stories about science or technology by winners of (and finalists for) the Governor General's Award for Nonfiction. This series is a collaboration between CBC and the Canada Council for the Arts.

In her Close Encounter with Science, Sharon Butala's skepticism is put to the test when her sister's heart fails.
"The Brink"
by Sharon Butala

featuredb-sisters.jpgI was just leaving a dinner party on a snowy winter night in downtown Calgary when the cell phone I keep only for emergencies rang. It was almost as if a higher power or a wiser self had known I would need that phone that night, because the message was that a younger sister was in an emergency ward in small town British Columbia, dying, and that I must come at once if I wanted to say good-bye. This was my little sister who I used to babysit and walk to school when she was small. I set out to see her right away.
I was a teenager when Sputnik left the earth, an art and English major during the period when science, already enjoying a privileged place, was further exalted. Governments began to put all available money into scientific endeavours, and to educate more people in the sciences, and thus to elevate scientists to the revered positions they hold today.

It is my nature to be a skeptic; I knew those science-student farm boys in their ill-fitting suits; they’d nail up a Matisse to cover a hole in a barn wall. They’d never read Dostoevsky, and I was sure, never would. Over the years my skepticism had grown; I’d driven my high school science teachers to yelling at me because I kept saying, but why? They seemed to think there was no ‘why,’ or ‘why’ didn’t matter, while ‘why’ was to me all that mattered. I didn’t get the point of some American walking on the moon, the whole thing baffled me. They truly believed, all of them, that science would save the world; I thought this idea laughable.

But when my cell phone rang with the news that my sister was dying from congestive heart failure, I was looking for a miracle. She was my little sister. She had a crooked smile, a wit that kept us laughing and those snapping, nearly-black eyes that watched the world with keen intelligence.

By the time I got to BC, I discovered that her hands had twitched in the night and she’d been helicoptered to a Vancouver hospital. She was in ICU, unconscious on a stretcher with tubes in every orifice. She was attached to two, sometimes three machines, a ventilator taped to her mouth, a monitor popping and pinging, fluids dripping into and out of her veins. There were three or four doctors and nurses working with, over, and about her in silent and intense concentration. Over the next few days and nights her kidneys failed and they put her on dialysis; her lungs filled with fluid and they managed to drain them; her liver sat down on the job and they repaired it. They sent her to the surgical ICU to put in stents, and then a different ICU where they kept her failing organs running by calibrating and juggling various machines. They watched her every second of every day and every night, monitoring input and output and body temperature, clicking knobs and dials off and on, a staff so highly trained and expert that it defies description. And through all this they talked to us telling us what was going on and why and what we might hope for and what would probably happen next, warning us especially of the terrible fear of irreversible brain damage.

This is when the world changed for me: up to then grudging and minimal, my respect for this use of science and technology was mushrooming into awe. She who had been dead, for all intents and purposes, was alive again, every day growing stronger, every day her vital signs improving. Even her brain was functioning normally. We thought we had lost her forever, and here she was, herself again, making feeble jokes and smiling that crooked little smile. She had been brought back from the brink of extinction to a full life, and it wasn’t a miracle that did it. In the fullest gratitude, I had to admit: it was science.


Sharon Butala is the author of sixteen books of fiction and nonfiction and has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in both of those categories. She has also had five produced plays.

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