Interview with Dr Sharon Syriac
Q: Can you describe your work life before your illness when you were 29?
I was in Papua New Guinea, living and working there as a secondary school teacher at a mission school, a Catholic boarding school, run by missionaries. Before that I was a primary school teacher at first, and then I was a secondary school teacher.
I got married to a Papua New Guinean, so I left Trinidad and went to Papua New Guinea to live. I was teaching English Language and English Literature, to Grades 11 and 12, which was equivalent to A’ Level students in Trinidad. I lived and worked at the school.
Q: What were the events leading up to your hospitalisation?
I left Papua New Guinea, and when I landed in Trinidad was when I got sick. I was vomiting, and in the night, I had fever. I knew I had malaria. I told my dad and the very next day my dad took me to Insect Vector Control Division in St Joseph, and they sent me to Port of Spain General Hospital (PoSGH).
At this point they realised I had malaria, I am a threat to public health, and I had to be isolated. While I was at PoSGH I got better from malaria, I got negative readings, so we knew I no longer had malaria.
My experience at PoSGH was not the best one, so I was keen to leave. I left the hospital, and after, I got sick. My legs started swelling, I was having difficulty breathing.
I told my dad, and he took me to see The UWI doctor, because I was a student at UWI at the time [Master’s in English Literature]. I saw Dr Wilson and she recommended Medical Associates, in St Joseph. It was here they tried to discover what was happening, but they didn’t know what it was. I started to get worse and worse and worse.
I began to die in there. I was later diagnosed in the San Fernando General Hospital with a pulmonary embolism [after Medical Associates].
Q: What are some of your distinct memories from that period?
There were times I was conscious, and unconscious, and I am beginning to think that people didn’t know whether I was conscious or not. They would come around the bed and have conversations, not knowing that I could hear what they said.
I remember one day my sister and Dr Wilson had come to visit and they were having a conversation. I heard Dr Wilson tell my sister that I would die. So, I knew that was going to happen. But when I said I knew I was going to die, I felt like if…I was lying there and something was separating, pulling away.
The thing that was essentially myself, the core of my being, whether you want to call it spirit, will, soul, I don’t know, it was very clear and very strong, but this other thing was pulling away. It was pulling away very slowly.
It wasn’t painful. It was like when you are peeling a banana. The core was there, but the skin is peeling off, that was what I felt. I think it would have been my body that was failing. I am dying and I knew that at that moment.
I remember one night saying very clearly, “Come, Jesus, come. Lie down next to me.” When He did, I said “Look, why are You doing this to me?” and He said, “I am not doing; I am allowing like Job.”
Clearly, I heard, “You shall not die. You shall live. You have a lot of work to do for me, and you will not die until that work is done.”
After that conversation, I got progressively worse but somewhere in my soul, I knew I wasn’t going to die. My best friend was the only other person who knew I wasn’t going to die, and she is also a person who prays a lot.
I got Extreme Unction at that time, and it was one night the doctors were sure I wasn’t going to live. I was hooked onto every machine imaginable. They called my dad and my whole family gathered.
My dad wanted me to get last rites, and a friend’s wife knew a priest in St Joseph. That priest came and I remember lying on the bed, and while he was saying the prayers, I opened my eyes, and I saw all of these people.
The room had absolutely no walls. I saw my mother, my father, my brothers, my sisters, but there was no wall to the back of the room. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people, way back.
I don’t know who all those people were. I only recognised the ones that were closest to the bed. It didn’t occur to me at that time, that the people who were standing there, some of them were dead.
My mother was already dead eight years. How could she be standing there? I couldn’t tell who was living and who was dead.
Q: What did you learn coming out of it?
I know from that experience, even though I didn’t know who came into the room, it was like people came with a certain amount of energy, and whatever they came with, I could plug into that.
If they came with a lot of fear and anxiety, from the minute they came into the room I would become very agitated. If a person came with a lot of calmness and faith, then I would become very calm.
My best friend was the one person who I was able to pull a lot of strength from. Eventually, the doctors noticed whenever she was in the room, my heart rate would become calm, breathing would become close to normal, and they let her stay.
We are all connected, and I think Covid-19 tried to teach us that message. We can choose to share in someone’s suffering. As human beings we suffer. There are benefits that come from suffering that we often don’t recognise. It allowed me to recognise there really is a communion of saints, visible and invisible.
If my father had said unplug that thing, he would have cheated me out of that experience. He would also have denied me an enriching experience, to strengthen my faith.
The other lesson is that many people, my friends who slept in chairs…all these people stood in the gap for me. A gap is a space. Sometimes we are on one side, and there is a gap in our life, and we can’t reach the other side, people could help.
I think we are called to stand in the gap for people, especially when people cannot bridge the gap themselves. I think Christianity is a hands-on, practical experience of this reality. We are called to bridge the gap. End of story.
When Catholic Social Teaching calls to help the poor, it is not just giving charity. It is something bigger. I think we miss that lesson a lot.