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When Your Doctor Has Bad NewsSimple Steps to Strength, Healing, and Hope
By Al B. Weir
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBad News: Broken Dreams
"MEET ME AT THE EMERGENCY ROOM. HURRY, IT'S CATHERINE."
Life changes in a heartbeat. As a doctor treating cancer patients, I thought I had learned that tragedy comes to all someday. But I never really brought the lesson home until it was my turn to take the call. In a span of mere seconds, while I was driving my son to football practice, the urgent priorities of my day evaporated.
"Catherine's been hurt, Al. Her back is injured, and she can't get up."
"I'll drop off Bowen and meet you at the emergency room."
While my car raced to the emergency room, my mind raced back to the flame tree that had stretched its lime green arms over most of our backyard in Africa, separating us from the dense jungle beyond it. Soon after our arrival there, I had fashioned a swing with a single rope hung from a great limb of that tree supporting a wooden board for a seat. When Catherine was about one year old, I would gently swing her in that seat beneath the bright red flame tree flowers. She was agile enough to hold the rope, and I was foolishly proud of her agility.
One day I was a bit too aggressive with my push, and I frightened Catherine. She looked back at me as the swing was moving forward and let go of the rope to reach for me with both hands. Immediately, she tipped over backward and went headfirst for the ground. Instead of falling, however, she hooked her ankles around the rope and swung upside down, as safe as a monkey hanging by its tail, until I wrapped my arms around her.
That incredible agility remained with her for the next fourteen years. When we returned to the States, Catherine became a gymnast. Year after year, for hours every day, she progressed through the ranks to reach level ten in competition by the time she was thirteen. When Catherine was fifteen years old, prior to the accident, the biggest decision in her life was whether to home school so she could advance to elite status in gymnastics.
As I raced toward the emergency room, reality gripped my heart. Our lives had just changed. When I arrived, Catherine was lying on her side in great pain.
She told me, "I lost where I was and I bailed out. I knew I was in trouble. When I landed on my shoulders, my legs flexed over my head, and I felt my back snap. I thought, 'Oh my God! I'm going to be paralyzed!'"
The first thing I did was to check her legs. She could move them both. I then ran my hand over her back and found a firm knot over her mid-spine. Walking beside her, I kept my hand on her shoulder as they wheeled her on a stretcher to radiology. The X-ray pictures frightened this doctor daddy, and all I could say was, "Oh my God, please." I contacted the best pediatric spine doctors in Memphis, who happened to be the best pediatric spine doctors in the country. We looked at the MRI together and saw the bone pressing against Catherine's spinal cord at T-11. One more millimeter and my fifteen-year-old daughter would be paralyzed for life.
This was my daughter. Just this morning Catherine had been a great gymnast, looking toward a college scholarship and perhaps the Olympics. Now she might be paralyzed for life.
* * *
Each of us at some time in our lives will face a doctor or pick up the phone and receive bad news. What do you do when you receive bad news that changes your life by destroying your dreams? Your own news may be a broken back like Catherine's or the heart attack that forces you off the corporate ladder. It may be the final word that pronounces you infertile and unable to have children to carry your genes. It may be diabetes, with its diet restrictions, possible insulin injections, and the threat of a shortened life span. It may be the word leukemia used to describe your twelve-year-old son. It may be the dreaded word cancer (that I so often have to pronounce), with all the thoughts of hair loss, nausea, uncontrolled pain, and a shortened life. It may be a hundred other words that forever change the dreams you had for life and open up a world of problems.
What do you do when bad news comes? You have to do something. You have to act to minimize the damage. You have to go on with life. You have to realign your dreams with new boundaries. You have to live in the world as a different person-and live with a God who has acted differently toward you than you expected.
Perhaps you are one who never gave God much thought. If so, you might choose to take such bad news and simply slug it out and fight the battles as a wounded soldier, hoping that the joy in life ahead will be worth the struggle. With family, friends, doctors, and a social system supporting you, you may seek to make life worth living in spite of bad health and broken dreams.
Where does a person's faith fit in? Has the question of God's place in your tragedy come to your thoughts yet? Can anyone really trust in God when they receive bad news from a doctor?
Perhaps you are a person of faith who suddenly is wondering what difference God is going to make in this crisis. Can those who trust in God make more of life when dreams are shattered than those who live without him? People who trust in God are supposed to be different than those who don't. God's presence is supposed to make that difference-emotionally, spiritually, and physically-when medical tragedy lands in your lap. But can you let your faith enter the complicated arena of medical treatment? Will you let God do his work when your doctor hands you bad news? Or will you isolate God's relevance to Sunday mornings and the funeral home?
No matter where we stand in our personal faith, when the doctor brings bad news, most of us want God to help fix things. Suddenly our lives have been hit with an earthquake. The world as we know it is trembling, and we are grasping for solid ground. But if we wish to find that stability, our understanding of this world may need to change radically. As the ground continues to shift beneath our feet, perhaps we need to view life differently than before. Perhaps we must grasp a different concept of time, a different notion of reality, a different understanding of value, a different relationship with the Father. Perhaps we must walk in a different Way.
In the Bible, God tells us that death is not the end of life, that life is more than what we touch, that value doesn't have to vanish with tragedy, and that he can provide his presence, peace, purpose, and power in any situation. We've all heard people of faith say that they could walk through any tragedy with God. How then do we do it? Can we grasp this truth that God offers and let it overcome the tragedy we face, or will we bend and break like the world when a doctor tells us that our health will no longer support our dreams? We have choices to make.
When I graduated from high school in 1968, my parents had the foolish courage to allow me and two of my friends to drive to Alaska as a graduation trip. The trip was awesome. Driving that long gravel highway through Canada into the mountains and glaciers of Alaska, we saw the beauty and felt the wonder of life. A fourth friend joined us in Anchorage, and we spent a week touring the state, flying to Nome and Kotzebue, sleeping on stacks of plywood north of the Arctic Circle, swatting mosquitoes bigger than most New York City dogs-a perfect trip for four teenage boys.
My father had loaned us the family station wagon, a black Ford that performed beautifully on that very long and rocky Alcan Highway. One day we were driving in Denali Park, with that great mountain looming before us, and we hit a bump that loosened our teeth. Pretty soon the oil light began to flash, and we discovered a crack in our engine. Prepared for every disaster, we had with us a case of oil in the back of the wagon. Every mile we stopped and poured in another quart. We made it back to Fairbanks but could go no farther; the car was finished. We sold it for fifty dollars and faced the question, "Is this the end of our journey?"
Two interesting decisions were made. One of my buddies' parents said, "Your trip is over. Come home now." He flew directly home from Fairbanks. The rest of us chose to travel home by a different route. It was a difficult journey. We slept in open fields, hitchhiked in the cold night with an old miner and listened to his stories, rode the Alaskan ferry through the beautiful coastal islands, and survived on Ritz crackers with peanut butter.
The journey was hard, but it was one of the best parts of our trip. That bump in Denali Park changed our plans, shortened our trip, and brought extraordinary difficulties to our journey. We, like our friend, could have just given up and flown home. But then we would have missed the relationships, the beauty, and the joy of living that came with that last week of our travels.
Life itself is a great trip for most of us, but there will always come the bump in the road that changes our plans. Each of us, someday, will receive the call or face the doctor who tells us that our dreams are shattered. At that point we will have a choice: will we overcome and live life fully, or will we whimper through the rest of our existence until death? I believe that God did not create us to give up life before he rings the bell. God created us to be overcomers.
I have spent more than twenty years of my life caring for suffering people, first as a missionary doctor, then as a medical oncologist. I have often been the doctor handing out the bad news. I have seen many people, both Christians and non-Christians, fall apart and never live again. And I have seen others who, with hope and victory, face the change that bad news brings. I have watched incredible men and women reach down, pick up their broken dreams, and refashion them along God's design into something more beautiful than they had ever been before.
How did they do it so well? Were they unusual people, immune to the trauma of tragedy? Or did they learn something in their walk with God that we too can learn? I believe the latter is true. Every person has access to all that is necessary to face bad news and broken dreams victoriously. God has provided the way. He offers you the freedom to make some powerful choices in the midst of your pain. As you read this book, people who have been there before will point the way, but the choices will be your own.
Choose God's Place
in Your Crisis
Even before Catherine hit the emergency room, people of faith began to pray to a God whom they believed could help her. Two great pediatric spine doctors took Catherine to the operating room on the morning after her admission and used the best science available to relieve the pressure from her spinal cord and put her spine back together again. One day later Catherine was walking.
As a doctor and father I had chosen the best physicians available. They then used their hard-earned skills and remarkable technology to shift the spine, position titanium rods, set bone grafts, and make my daughter whole again. At the same time we, and people all over the country, were praying fervently to the God we know can heal. Catherine was on her way to health again. Thank God! Thank the doctors!
Who healed Catherine, God or the doctors? What part does science play in our healing, and what part does God play? Is God involved in healing, or is it really only science? Can we trust God to take part in modern medicine, or should we leave him on the sidelines as a most passionate cheerleader? Can we run to God while we are holding the doctor's hand?
Evidence for God's Hand in Healing
Scientists, too, have wondered whether there is credible evidence that God is involved in healing. The answer is yes. There now exist a number of scientific studies in which patients have been randomized to receive only scientific care or scientific care plus prayer. In one such study, patients who were in a coronary-care unit after having a heart attack were randomly assigned to good medical care alone or good medical care plus intercessory prayer by people who believed in God's healing power. Neither the patients nor their doctors knew to which group each was assigned. The results demonstrated a clear improvement in the outcomes of the group covered with prayer. Hundreds of such studies have been gathered and published with more being generated all the time. Science itself now suggests that God plays a role in healing.
Along with the scientific evidence, many of us have personally observed God working to heal. In 1983 God called my family to work as missionaries in Eku, Nigeria. Tim and Janice McCall were close friends and fellow missionaries who lived two houses down in our compound. One night Janice woke us to ask us to come to their house to pray. A poisonous snake had slipped into their house that evening and had bitten their seven-year-old son, David. When we arrived with other missionaries from the compound, David was very ill. He was delirious, and his leg was turning black. There was no antivenom available anywhere in the area. Feeling helplessly dependent on a power greater than our own, we all gathered around David and poured our hearts out before the God who heals. The next morning when we returned to David, his leg was healing, and he was soon completely well.
Both science and personal observation point us to the fact that God heals. For some of us, our own health experience affirms this as well. On about my first birthday my parents noticed that I had become less active and was stagnant in my development. A neurosurgical evaluation revealed that my brain was degenerating and fluid was building up inside my head. My kids still touch the holes in my skull where the doctors attempted to relieve the pressure. Science failed, and my parents were told that I was destined to die or to live my life as a "vegetable." They were told to put me into an institution to decrease the hardship on the rest of my family. My parents refused to give up and instead allowed my Aunt Eunice to take me to her church where faithful Christians laid hands on me and prayed, asking God to heal me. I began to get well and eventually became a doctor who uses science and believes in a God who heals.
Both scientific studies and personal experience provide evidence that points to God's hand in healing, and, though no evidence provides absolute proof, enough exists to make it reasonable to believe that God is involved in the healing process. For many of us who work with science every day, it is very helpful to know that it is reasonable to trust in God for healing.
Excerpted from When Your Doctor Has Bad News by Al B. Weir Copyright © 2003 by Zondervan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.