Since receiving a double lung transplant in 2014, I’ve found few representations of my experience in pop culture. When a story does broach the topic, usually a medical drama, the specifics are often sensationalized and wildly off the mark. Imagine my surprise then when the most accurate understanding of my trauma and personal struggles turned up in Star Trek: Discovery—a show set more than 1,000 years in the future, where science-magic cures near-fatal injuries in a matter of minutes.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Death is remarkably impermanent when it comes to sci-fi. Whether it’s cybernetics, Lazarus Pits, or time-travel shenanigans, characters rarely leave for long. And the Star Trek franchise, specifically, has found countless ways to bring back the deceased: the Genesis Effect, synthetic bodies, and even evil twins from the Mirror Universe have appeared over the years.
Here in the real world, of course, death remains a final inevitability. The closest thing we have to resurrection is life-saving surgery—and more specifically organ transplantation. To be eligible for a lung transplant, for example, patients are required to be not simply sick, but uncomfortably close to death. Many don’t survive the surgery. And even when they do, some, like me, die a little along the way. The entire process comes couched in preparations for the end of your life as much as the start of a new one.
However, most transplant stories in movies and television—and we see precious few—choose to put a sordid spin on things, reveling in black market organs or haunted hearts. The rest go too far the other way, skipping over the hard parts in favor of uplifting “inspiration porn.”
Broader sci-fi solutions to eternal slumbering follow a similar path, painting a return to life as miraculous and leaving it at that. Even cyborg stories—easily the most maudlin of the bunch—tend to skip over the trauma of death and focus instead on a newfound lack of humanity.
Few if any stories focus on what it’s like to be so close to death, to die, and then return. On what that impossible shifting of states can do to a person. But Dr. Hugh Culber’s resurrection on Star Trek: Discovery does. In fact, the aftermath of his return is shockingly similar to my own experiences.
Culber, played by Wilson Cruz, died at the end of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, only for his consciousness to be found trapped in the mycelial plane a few episodes later. His partner Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) figures out a way to return him to the land of the living. As Culber appears in a new body, Stamets is ready to revel in the miracle of it all. To celebrate. But Culber isn’t ready for that yet.
In the days immediately after his return, Dr. Culber feels like a stranger in his own skin. He’s moody and angry, actively shunning his partner and literal savior. He eventually gets past that, but, in Discovery’s currently-airing fourth season, he’s still struggling with his return. He’s burning himself out, taking on the role of ship’s counselor in addition to his other duties, trying to live up to a greater purpose. Trying to make some sense out of dying and coming back.
This struggle with purpose, with why, isn’t unfamiliar to transplant recipients. Especially not ones like me, who grew up with a terminal illness. But as David Cronenberg’s Kovich explains during the episode “The Examples,” finding a purpose is only a self-justification to “escape the persistent guilt of being alive.”
You died. You died and came back to life. Little wonder you’re a mess. … ‘Why me?’ It’s the question you ask yourself every morning and every evening. ‘No one else gets a second chance, so why me?’ That led you to the idea that there was a reason for your survival. A purpose you’re meant to fulfill right here, right now. And that led you to a savior complex, because if there is no reason, if there is no purpose, then your very existence is a middle finger to anyone who’s ever lost someone. Which is everyone. How’s that for brutal honesty?
Brutal or not, it’s something I wish I’d heard earlier.
Wilson Cruz has spoken previously about approaching Dr. Culber’s resurrection through the lens of post-traumatic growth. He mentioned soldiers and emergency medical providers and their trauma. But there’s an unlikely specificity to Culber’s return that speaks directly to the struggles of transplant recipients.
The immediate aftermath of a transplant surgery is disorientating. The high doses of medications altered my mood and left me quick to anger. Despite my wife and my support system, the friends and family cheering me on, I felt isolated and alone. Survivor’s guilt ran rampant. With the whole world once again open to me, I found myself shutting down and turning inward.
Growing up with cystic fibrosis, I didn’t have any choice but to learn to live with it. The disease became an integral part of who I was. After the transplant, I struggled with identity issues. The surgery removed a cornerstone of my existence. For the better, yes, but it was still gone. Almost a decade later, I’m still trying to figure out what to do with a life I didn’t think I’d ever have.
Hugh Culber’s return reflects all of this. From the specifics of surgery and bodily trauma to the longer-lasting mental health aspects. Rather than ignoring the real-life trauma surrounding the cheating of death, Star Trek: Discovery is leaning in. While the second season finale did show Culber and Stamets reuniting quickly and a little too cleanly, later episodes have made sure to point out that Culber is still reckoning with the ramifications of his resurrection.
The most recent episodes of this season have found the Discovery boldly going through the Galactic Barrier. But the show’s patience, care, and understanding of the trauma around life after death might truly be where no one has gone before.