With an aorta leaking blood inside his body, John Sardella’s survival chances were grim.
His wife insisted the ambulance bring him to Upstate University Hospital. Gregory Fink MD swiftly took the 60-year-old man to the operating room in the middle of the night. Then, during a coma that lasted 11 days, Sardella’s friends and family filled his room in the intensive care unit with chants and covered him with a red prayer blanket.
A year after the ordeal, Sardella is missing some dexterity and some of his memories, but he has recovered enough to drive and play guitar. He credits the Native American healing customs with aiding in his recovery, and his surgeon does not disagree.
“The family was extremely involved, and they helped him through that period when he was just beginning to wake up,” Fink said.
Chanting, prayers and other non-tangibles “are so real to many of us,” said Rev. Terry Culbertson, who manages Upstate’s Department of Spiritual Care.
“There is a lot of amazing research out there. It’s no longer contested that having a regular, active worship life extends life expectancy by an average of seven years.”
She said “that means there’s something that happens that makes a difference in our sense of wellbeing, or wellness, or healing, or care.” Ask any hospitalized patient what keeps them going, and Culbertson said almost every one mentions some form of prayer.
In Sardella’s case, the prayers included songs that are sung at a Sun Dance. He is a descendant of the Mohawk from the Iroquois Confederacy and the Micmac people of Nova Scotia. His wife, Cherie placed a red blanket on him with tobacco and sage attached; red is the color used for prayer. John’s aunt, an elder at Akwesasne Mohawk territory, placed her own personal medicine bag on the blanket, and many of his family members then attached prayer items, pictures and Native medicines on the blanket. Of course, Sardella does not remember much of what happened.
Pain awakened him about 1 a.m. May 15, 2011. The pain was sharp, in his chest and back, and he began sweating profusely. He told his wife he felt like he was having a heart attack.
“I wanted him to have the best hospital,” she said, “so I insisted on him going to Upstate.” She kissed him just before he was taken to surgery, telling him he better survive because she wasn’t ready to live without him.
His prognosis was not good. Sardella did not awaken after surgery, and doctors feared he had suffered a brain injury during the operation. He was on medicine to control his blood pressure. His kidneys and lungs were starting to fail.
His wife, Cherie spoke primarily with Fink because the surgeon expressed the most optimism. “I always had faith that he was going to recover,” she said.
Friends, family and fellow Native Americans came to his room in the intensive care unit chanting songs of the Sun Dance. They covered him with the prayer blanket. Occasionally Cherie would notice a facial gesture or grimace, but otherwise, day after day, Sardella was still.
By day 11, most everyone had gone. Sardella’s brother and his wife were telling him goodnight at about 8 p.m. that night. “He opened his eyes for the first time. It was only for about 10 minutes,” Cherie recalled. “His brother was on one side, and I was on the other, and he squeezed my hand.
“We were ecstatic. We cried. I was overjoyed.”
Then his recovery began to make sense, Cherie said. As the activity in his room subsided, Sardella began to come out of his coma. “Knowing my husband, he was waiting for it to get quiet and peaceful.”