When Bernie Knowles woke up from a coma, he couldn’t remember who he was. He didn’t know his family or that he was a Salvation Army officer. He couldn’t walk or talk. The only thing he could remember was a single name. And that name was Jesus.
The day that my life changed forever started with a fun family outing. My wife Elinor and I were Salvation Army officers and we were on holiday with our three kids. We all went out to play with some local farm animals—a couple of donkeys, goats and sheep. Within three hours, I was having convulsions. Within two days, I’d fallen into a coma. I was 34 years old. It was late November in 1977, and I didn’t wake up until early January.
While I was unconscious, I had two vivid experiences. In the first, I saw a beautiful avenue of trees with bright sunlight at the end. There was someone there that I knew to be a person called Jesus. Although I didn’t know anything about him, I felt compelled to go to this person. But I said to him, ‘If you want me to stay, I’ll fight with everything I have to stay here. You have to tell me if I'm coming to you.’ And he simply responded, ‘Not just yet.’
Another time, I was in my hospital bed looking down at myself from above. There were a whole lot of people in white surrounding me. I didn’t know who they were, but I took note of their characteristics, and what they were wearing. Then, I saw another person, only he was clothed in a more pure white. He stood with these people.
When I woke up from my coma, the doctors told me that on two occasions my vital signs had gone and I had been dead for between two to three minutes.
Much later, when I could communicate, I told my registrar about the second vision I’d had, of people in white surrounding me. I described the people, and he started crying. He told me that I had described his colleagues to a T, even though I had never seen them when I was conscious.
But I still didn’t know who the man in pure white was.
The day I woke up from my coma I could not remember who I was. It was terrifying. I did not know my name. I tried to speak, but only guttural sounds came out. I could not see properly. I had no control over my body, and could not move.
I only had two memories from before my coma. One was of falling off my bike when I was 10. Another was just a single name. I didn’t know who it was, or what it meant, but I remembered the name. Jesus.
A young lady kept coming into the Intensive Care Unit, and I heard one of the nurses refer to her as my ‘wife’. It would be four months before I plucked up enough courage to tell her, ‘I’m very sorry, but I don’t know who you are.’
My brother (although I didn’t know him at the time) and Elinor held me up one day so I could look out the window where a little boy was riding his bike. I wondered, ‘Why do they want me to look at that boy?’ Later, the same little five-year-old came into the ICU and sat next to me, stroking my hand for two hours.
I realised much later that he was my precious youngest child, Ben. I also had two older children, Greg and Raewyn, who were too traumatised to visit me in ICU.
I was eventually diagnosed with viral encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain that is passed from mules to humans. I joke that it was passed from a mule to an ass. I should have died within 30 hours of contracting this illness, but I became the first person in 27 years to recover.
Encephalitis penetrates the layers of the brain and, for me, it scarred the part that stores memory. This means I have no memories from before the illness—and they will never be recovered. I have had to learn how to walk, talk, read and speak from scratch. But I had that name. The name of Jesus.
I discovered that I had kept a personal diary for 18 years before the illness, and began poring over the entries. I learned from those diaries that my wife was chronically ill, and that I had taken on the role of caring for her as well as raising my three children. Her physical illness was accompanied by clinical depression. Because of this, Elinor had not been able to care for me the way that I had cared for her.
I realised my family needed me, and knew that I had to get better in a hurry so I could look after them.
Emotional scars are harder to recover from than physical scars. But it was my children’s love and acceptance that taught me to love them again.
It took about 20 months for the pain to begin to subside. I learned to walk again—at first only walking to the end of my bed. By practising every day, I learnt to read again. It took a long time, but I learnt to talk again too.
It was through my diaries that I discovered who Jesus was. This Jesus became my constant companion. He was the one I relied on to get me through every day. And every night, I cried out to him.
I now knew that the man in pure white was Jesus. He was there holding my spirit in the space between Heaven and Earth. I dedicated my life to Jesus, once again. Despite all my physical and emotional pain, this was a time when everything felt beautiful.
My good friend Bruce Nicholson advocated for me to continue working as a Salvation Army officer (minister) while I recovered, so I could be around people and have something else to live for. He drove us to his appointment, which was managing an aged care facility, and this became my family’s new home. I stood in for him during the weekends, and bluffed my way through the first year. I continued to look after Elinor as well.
This became the pattern of my life for the next 20 years. I had several appointments managing aged-care facilities. I nursed my wife and raised our children. At the age of 38, Elinor showed signs of, and was eventually diagnosed, with Alzheimer’s. Then, at 54, she was diagnosed with cancer. She was given 10 months to live, but she died within three weeks.
Elinor passed away less than a week before my son Ben’s wedding, at which I officiated. It was only the hand of Jesus covering me in this time that got me through.
To help me overcome my grief, I set myself four goals to achieve in four years: skydiving, abseiling, piloting a light aircraft, and riding a motorbike at 200 km/hr. A new phase in my life had begun.
I achieved my goals, but little did I know that was just the beginning of the adventure. One day, I heard a Nepalese Sherpa named Nima talking about the needs of his country. I already had tickets to Europe, but found myself cancelling them and booking a flight to Nepal instead.
I arrived within hours of the borders closing due to civil war. Every few kilometres military guards would stop Nima and me in our car. During my time in Nepal I stared down the barrel of a gun four times, as guards threatened to kill me.
But one of the most memorable moments from that trip was meeting a 14-month-old child who had been badly burnt. Nima said to me, ‘You heal her.’ Well, I didn’t know what to do. By candlelight, I set to work, cleaning up a thick layer of pus. I sterilised my hands over an open fire and didn’t realise until later that I had burned them. I got my Swiss Army Knife out and cut off her dead flesh. I poured Betadine over the wound, and cut up strips of cotton as a bandage.
One of the joys of my life was returning to Nepal on another visit and seeing this young girl again, with only a small scar where the burn had been.
But God still had the biggest adventure in store. I was working as a chaplain on The Salvation Army’s addiction centre at Rotoroa Island when I met a beautiful young Salvation Army officer called Helen. I fell for her immediately, but I was terrified of getting into another relationship.
After several misunderstandings and a lot of toing and froing, we finally went out for a coffee. I reached across the table and stroked her cheek—I think that’s when Helen clicked that I had more than friendship in mind. We were married in 2008. I don’t know why she loves a silly old twit like me. But as Helen says, I’m her silly old twit.
There was a time when I lost everything. I couldn’t walk, but at the age of 73 I am still climbing mountains. God has given me purpose, he has restored my life and given me true love. But there is one who has been with me through it all. His name is Jesus. The name above all names.
as told to Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 10 December 2016, pp6-9
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