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Of Scars and Blankets

I followed the trail of blood from our library across our living room floor. Drops of it had congealed on the carpet in our bedroom leading like bread crumbs to the bathroom. My wife, Sherry, was hunched over her bathroom sink running cold water over her hand. She had cut herself. Again.

Let me pause here and assure you that this was not a deliberate act. Sherry likes sharp scissors. Very sharp. She sharpens them regularly. Why does she like sharp scissors? The better to cut her blankets with. A few years ago, Sherry learned how to make blankets from simple material. Not the intricate quilting most people know about. These blankets were made from two pieces of material with ties around the edge. What made these blankets different from any other involved the process of constructing the blanket. Each tie around the edge is made while saying a prayer for the person for whom the blanket is given.

In time, our library, once the province of my books, was transformed into Sherry’s blanket production center. Over the past few years she has produced dozens and dozens of intricately designed, colorful blankets. Each blanket has a singular colored back piece and a very colorful front piece. And the designs on the front she has chosen to match the intended person’s personality.

When she found there were lots of scrap pieces left over, she developed a way to make smaller blankets as baby burp pads or tiny blankets of dolls. Nothing was wasted.

But, the heart of her endeavors are the prayers and the Bible verses. Sherry developed a laminated card containing the favorite prayers of those who knew the person for whom the blanket was intended. Sherry would ask various friends and relatives for their favorite Bible verses and then place them on a large laminated card attached to the blanket. You see, the blanket was more than just a piece of material. It was a creative act of worship, prayer, Bible reading, and very intentional in every part of its creation.

Today, I am sitting on the balcony of our condominium on the beach at Perdido Key, Florida. Sherry and I are talking about the Bible verses we have just read in our morning Bible readings. What you must understand is how creative is our daughter, Casey. She draws. She paints. She creates constantly. It is her way of working through her epilepsy and its emotional toll on her life.

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Hanging on the Wall

“Welcome to my humble spaceship.”

My friend, Phillip looked at me and his mouth fell open. “Your what?”

I had built the spaceship myself. The viewscreen was composed of two old glass windows with the panes still intact. The console was a mixture of broken radios, the insides of a huge stereo, and the guts of an old washing machine. I had placed some twinkling Christmas lights behind the console to make it look like it actually worked. The “captain’s chair” was a bucket seat from an old car and the sides and roof of the control room were made of old doors and rusted tin shingles. To my friend, it was a barely organized pile of junk. To me, it was my spaceship and I was the captain!

We never played in the spaceship. Instead, we went back to my bedroom and talked about girls and baseball and girls and pizza and girls. We were in the seventh grade and Star Trek was in its second year on television. Phillip and I were best friends for the next few years. We went to junior high school, high school, college, and medical school together. When it came time to decide what type of doctor to be, Phillip just assumed I would follow in his shadow. He just knew I would become a cardiologist and move to a far away state to do my internship and fellowship. But, something had happened along the way. I had fallen in love and my girlfriend, now my wife, would be 1000 miles away if I went with my friend. So, I made a decision. Phillip didn’t understand. He said something that clearly separated our individual concepts of how each of us would “change” the world.

“You owe society a debt. You need to pay back to society for your education.” He would say.

Funny, but I seemed to recall I owed the bank a ton of money in educational loans. “Society” hadn’t paid my way through college and medical school. I grew up on the farm and only now do I realize we were poor. I stayed behind and became a radiologist. Phillip went on to become a cardiologist. We were at opposite ends of the medical “social” station. Radiologists are at the bottom of the food chain. Cardiologists rule the world.

This all came to mind today as my wife and I went to one of our local malls so I could find some dress pants on sale. You see, I’ve lost almost thirty pounds since January and I have two book signings next weekend so I need to look my best. As we walked down this long hallway filled with those fancy, air brushed photographs of all the local politicians and business leaders and social movers and shakers that this mall was known for, I stopped when I realized the latest picture, the photograph of “The Outstanding Business Leader” of 2011 was none other than my friend Phillip. My wife went on shopping and I just stood there looking up at my friend.

Curiously, I wasn’t jealous. I didn’t feel like a failure. Phillip deserved this recognition and I know him well enough to realize he probably received the honors reluctantly. He is, and always has been, a humble man. And, his work with local schools and statewide educational reform had been effective. He had fulfilled his dream of changing the world by paying back his “debt” to society.

So, what had I done? Had I performed anything quite so impressive as my friend? Would I one day get the call that I had been chosen to grace this hallowed hall with my portrait? I doubt it.

As I stood there, I realized that God had taught me powerful and painful lessons over the years. Time and time again, I found myself like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” dreaming of going places and doing famous things only to have some little crisis intervene that kept me rooted right where I was.

I thought of the man who got up and ran out of the church after seeing one of my plays because he thought it was about him. I had never met the man, but that night, he met Jesus and it changed his life. I think of my friend R. whose decadent and playboy lifestyle had ended one Sunday night when he reluctantly sat through my play, “Crosstalk” and it changed his life forever. He met Jesus and in the years that followed led literally hundreds to Christ.

I think of the woman who wrote a passionate email to Mark Sutton and to me about our book, “Conquering Depression” and how she had the pills in her purse and was ready to die when she asked God to show her a book that would help. She didn’t take the pills, she met Jesus.

I think of Benny who just passed away yesterday of liver cancer standing behind me as I showed him the CAT scan of the cancer in his liver. I think of how I offered to pray for him and how one of his fellow Xray technicians took him under her wing and made sure he met Jesus before he passed away. Veronica showed me his certificate of baptism just one week before he died.

All of these seemingly small and insignificant events swirled around me as I looked at that portrait. I had not become a cardiologist. I had not followed my friend to the ends of the earth. But, I had followed my Savior. And, He had taken that strange and fertile imagination that could turn a washing machine agitator into a warp engine and He had used it to touch and change lives of people I will never know this side of heaven.

Do I brag? How can I? It is not my work that I now see in my mind. It is the work of God, the great unfolding passion of his Story; the inclusion of man and woman and child in the script He has written that began with the creation of the universe and passed through a fertile garden past a devious serpent and through the wilderness to a ram in the bush and the blood on a doorpost and a prophet surrounded by lions to a manger filled with peaceful animals and a glowing star. The lines of that script lead down the dusty road to a caravan where a twelve year old is missing; to a baptism of water and a dove; to the Adversary craving for worship. Down, down the long hallways of memory past ousted demons and living, breathing corpses renewed with life; past loaves and fishes to a lowly donkey carrying the King of Kings and a hushed, darkened room filled with ominous shadows while the Creator washes a dirty foot. It leads through the other garden filled with sweat and blood to the bloodied fists of the soldiers and the fresh flesh clinging to the cat of nine tails to the drops of blood trailed along the road by the splintered wood of a cross. It leads to a cross standing tall and defiant against the sins of all mankind; the sins of all time and space; an anchor point in eternity where God and Flesh and Life and Death and Redemption and Love all converged in a holy singularity that would rip the very fabric of life asunder as it conquered death.

The script is still unfolding in the light that is cast by the empty tomb. It is still moving all around us. And, although I do not have my portrait on a wall of fame, my name is written in the only Book that counts, the afterword, the director’s notes, the epilogue to the Story of God.

The Night I Killed Santa!

They found him in an abandoned warehouse just two weeks before Christmas. He was alone, dressed in a Santa costume. He was in a coma. He had no identification on him. I first saw “Santa” in the emergency room shortly after he had been admitted to my internal medicine team. His blood glucose was 32. Normal is anything above 90 and less than 120. When you get below 50, you’re approaching a comatose state. We had no idea how long he had been like this. I chose to admit him to the intensive care unit until we could get him stabilized. Shortly after bringing him to the ICU from the ER, he coded — medical jargon for cardiorespiratory arrest. In other words, his heart stopped and he died. We worked on him for a good hour and managed to get his heart beating again but he had trouble keeping his blood oxygen level up so I decided to put him on a ventilator. It was the last free ventilator in the hospital.

That was when the fun began. Let me elaborate.

Bed 1 contained a man weighing 780 pounds. We tied two hospital beds together to hold him. He had been admitted to surgery for removal of a hernia so large, he had carried it in a wheelbarrow. But, the surgeons had no idea how to maintain the fluid balance of a 780 pound man so he developed fluid on his lungs. He coded at this moment and my team of medical students and the other intern starting working on him. I remember one of the medical students literally perched on the huge man’s chest pumping on his heart with her knees!

Bed 2 contained a man with delirium tremens. As soon as Bed 1 turned south, the man decided to pull out his Foley catheter without deflating the balloon. He was whirling the catheter with its balloon the size of a grapefruit around his head like a lasso while chasing one of the nurses. He was spewing bright red blood from his, uh, privates all over the floor.

Bed 3 contained a prisoner from the local jail. He had “overdosed” and was now in a “coma”. He had been in a “coma” most of the day although we suspected he was faking it just to stay out of jail. He had overheard me talking to the psychiatrist earlier saying as soon as he woke up, instead of admitting him to the psychiatric ward for treatment of his “depression” we would send him immediately back to jail. In the developing chaos, he woke up, opened the window and climbed out on the seventh floor ledge to kill himself. He was going to prove he was suicidal.

Bed 4 contained a medical student in her mid twenties. She had “converted” her PPD, meaning that sometime since starting medical school she had been exposed to tuberculosis and her skin test proved it. She had been placed on prophylactic medication which had proceeded to destroy her liver. She was currently in “hepatic encephalopathy” meaning she was delirious from all the ammonia building up in her bloodstream from her failing liver. She started screaming at the top of her lungs and trying to tear out of her restraints.

Bed 5 contained an elderly woman dying from ovarian cancer with fluid buildup in her lungs and her abdomen. Her protein was so low in her blood, we had to keep her in ICU to build her protein back up. She was on a ventilator.

Bed 6 contained a man  recovering from a massive heart attack. As our CCU, or cardiac care unit, was full, he had been moved to the ICU and was also on a ventilator. He was only 38 and currently sedated so he wouldn’t fight the breathing mechanism of the ventilator.

Bed 7 was currently empty.

Bed 8 contained Santa.

The next two hours were the most chaotic I have ever experienced in my many years of medicine. The 780 pound man died. The fellow in DT’s slipped on his own blood, fell and was taken to surgery for a subdural hematoma, a blood clot on the brain. The medical student began vomiting blood and we had to call in the gastroenterologist to try and scope her and find the source of bleeding. The psychiatry resident closed the window on the prisoner after telling him if he was still on the ledge in the morning, we would send him back to prison assuming he didn’t freeze to death. Otherwise, he could climb back inside and get sent back to prison without frostbite.

It was now 3 in the morning and I went to check on Santa. His status had not changed. He had not awakened. We still had no idea as to his identity. It was then the next admit rolled into ICU, a young woman in diabetic ketoacidosis. This is a state where the blood sugar is so high the patient becomes delirious and is in serious danger of dying. To top it off, the young woman had developed a rare complication, ARDS. This affected her lungs which were filling up with a proteinaceous material. If we didn’t get her on a ventilator soon, she would die.

But, there were no ventilators left in the hospital. That meant I had to make a decision.

In that day’s medical environment, most people don’t realize the loneliness of being the doctor on the spot. We are trained to make these kinds of decisions; to weigh life and death scenarios in a split second. Our current medical environment has taken that choice away from doctors and placed it in the hands of administrative individuals whether in the government or with an insurance company. These faceless, sterile, uncaring individuals sit behind a computer screen scrolling through a “cookbook” of these scenarios and deciding whether or not the doctor can make the appropriate decision only the doctor is trained to make. But, back then, the doctor was the final decision maker. The doctor, whether he liked it or not, was God.

I stood there faced with the inevitable prospects of taking a ventilator away from one of my patients. Who would it be? And, I had to make the decision quickly. For the young woman to survive, someone would have to die. Who then?

I stepped into Santa’s cubicle. He was still wearing the red pants and his bare chest rose and fell with the ventilator. I shooed the nurses and medical students out of the room. This would be my decision and mine alone.

“Sir,” I said. “I do not know your name. I know nothing about your past. I have no idea why you were in that empty building dressed as Santa. The only thing I know is that I have to make a decision and, I’m sorry, but it is time for you to die. I know that God knows your mind and your heart and I only hope He ushers you into heaven with open arms. The only thing I can offer to you is that although you may have spent your last waking moments totally alone, you will not die alone. I will be here with you.”

I turned off the heart monitor and slowly removed all the wires and EKG patches. I pulled his red Santa coat up and buttoned it over his chest. I removed the IV lines from his arms and straightened his long, white beard down over his chest. He had been wearing a tiny set of reading glasses in the warehouse, and I put those gold hued glassed back on his nose. For all the world, he looked like a sleeping Santa Claus save for the tube coming out of his mouth. I reached over and turned off the ventilator and slid the tube out of his throat. The respiratory technologist whisked the ventilator away and I reached down and took the man’s hand in mine. I felt for his steady pulse and waited as it slowed until it vanished.

I will never know who this man was this side of heaven. I will never forget the pain of making that decision even now 31 years later. I will never forsake another human being in the moment of death. We come into this world alone and are instantly embraced by family. But, death is a lonely experience. Even surrounded by loved ones, only we can experience the ultimate journey. But, we are not alone. God sends his angels to usher us into heaven. I have heard so many stories of men and women seeing the divine at the moment of death. There is that comfort.

Two people died recently whose deaths are significant to me. One was Christopher Hitchens, a radical, outspoken atheist who wrote the bestseller “God is Not Great”. He now knows the ultimate truth. And the other was Steve Jobs. Steve Job’s sister tells of his final moment of life when he sat up in bed, looked over her shoulder and said, “Wow, wow, wow.” Did Christopher Hitchens say something similar? I do not know.

I only know this. The night I allowed “Santa” to die so that a young woman could live, I learned the most powerful lesson in the world. It is the lesson of Christmas. It is the heart of the Nativity story. It is the fulfillment of man’s journey through darkness and evil. It is this. Someone had to die so that we could live. Jesus was born to die. The babe in the manger was overshadowed by the cross from the moment he drew his first breath.

 

This Christmas season, pause and look around you. Notice the unnoticed. Feed the unfed. Bless the unblessed. Love the unloved. Find the babe in a manger that cries in hunger. And, ultimately, share a love that is so profound, so deep, so unfathomable that because of that love He drew a cold breath in a manger only to breath His last breath on a cross for all of us.

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