Eight years ago my wife Ann was hospitalized for a life-threatening bleed in her brain. I sat in vigil at her bedside for many hours through the days and nights as she lay there in pain, unable to move, barely able to whisper. I was afraid that I would lose my wife – and my young boys their mother. But early one morning Ann spoke one sentence to me, and the heavy feeling of worry that had filled my chest suddenly evaporated. In its place was a wonderful certainty my wife would be okay.
A shunt had been placed by the neurosurgeon to alleviate the pressure on Ann’s brain. The shunt slowly dripped out blood-tinged cerebral spinal fluid the entire week. I watched from my chair next to Ann’s bed as, drop by drop, the fluid fell into the collecting system. The fluid had a reddish color at first. As the days passed, the fluid gradually clarified to a pinkish tinge. Finally one morning the fluid had the healthy hue of fine champagne.
Ann was still in such pain she could hardly open her eyes. She squeezed my hand as she woke up and whispered good morning. I tried to cheer her up.
“Your cerebral spinal fluid looks so good this morning, I’m tempted to take a sip,” I said wryly.
A few moments later Ann responded. “If you swallow….a mouthful,” she croaked, “it will raise your IQ…fifty points.”
I was stunned. Immobilized in Intensive care for over a week, my wife had just made a joke. A funny one to boot!
I knew then that Ann was going to be alright.
Our son Tyler inherited his mother’s courage and sense of humor. Several years ago he was injured in a skiing accident. It was a two-hour ambulance ride to the nearest city hospital. With a fractured bone almost sticking through the skin, Tyler suffered the bumpy ride along the mountain road in agony. Just before Tyler’s surgery, his doctor told him he would need a strong narcotic for the pain. He recommended Vicodin.
“Oh, that’s my favorite one,” my twelve-year-old offspring quipped.
The surgeon looked shocked.
“That’s the one that Dr. House takes.” Tyler grinned as he referenced a family TV favorite about an E.R. doc, “House.”
Last week Tyler required another major reconstructive operation, casting a shadow of fear and worry over our household. As a surgeon, I find it far easier to be the one providing care than the one worrying about my loved one. Both roles come with moments of fear. But no matter on which side of the medical relationship I find myself, I know this to be true:
The hospital is a holy place. Here in this holy place, we seek help when we or our loved ones are injured or ill. Here in this holy place, gathered together, are people who have dedicated their lives to helping strangers in need. Here in this holy place, Love manifests itself through us in the most concrete of ways – all of us helping one another when we are in desperate need. And here in this holy place, God grants healing and relief.
Nevertheless, as a Dad sitting next to my son’s bed before major surgery, I was a bit anxious. Tyler grabbed my hand moments before he was to be wheeled back to the operating room.
“Dad, I need you to remember something for me,” Tyler said in a low, intense voice.
Unsettled, I leaned forward to listen.
“971-32-2745-1994. Write it down.”
I fumbled for a pen and wrote the number down, repeating it back to Tyler at his request. Confused, I waited.
“If I die, you will be contacted. Give them that code number,” Tyler said. “Within a week, you will receive ten million dollars cash – in untraceable bills.”
His face still wore the trace of a smirk as the nurses wheeled him back to surgery.
Later, as I sat for hours in the waiting room during the operation, I found myself again worrying. Life can be frightening and painful. We suffer so much, and over the course of a long life, lose what matters to us most – our bodies, and our loved ones. It’s so easy to forget the truth: despite our being biologically mortal, we are spiritually eternal.
I remembered Tyler’s last minute joke. It was going to be okay.
And so it was.
-Dr. Mike Litrel