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WIMD Pulse - December 2013

Seeing God in the Midst of Stress
by Ruth A. Bolton, MD

Why has God designed things so we learn most of life’s biggest lessons under stress? I’ve had this assignment to do a devotional for a long time and I have written it twice, but here’s my third attempt because my family is under stress and I am seeing God in the midst of it.

My younger sister has had breast cancer since 2001. In fact, she was supposed to be in the pentagon (she is a colonel in the U.S. Army) on September 11, 2001, but she was recovering from her bilateral mastectomies. She’s had some boney metastases since that time, but has done “well” on chemotherapy until about three months ago. Then she crashed, but it’s not her cancer; it may be the side effects of all the chemotherapy, but who knows? Her vocal cords became paralyzed and most of the muscles in her body are not working right to the point where she has needed a tracheostomy and a wheelchair. She is presently on a ventilator and we don’t know the outcome....

The reason I chose to write about this is that I am observing myself and my family deal with this near death experience and I am surprised to find God in our midst. My family is a prn church-going family and I have been the “Jesus freak” since I found a personal relationship with our Lord when I was in college. I’ve tried to talk with my sister so I can be sure she is headed to heaven. The last time she and I talked about it, her response was, “God and I are fine, I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” I do know that, as believers, we are rarely acknowledged in our hometowns any more than Jesus was in His. I learned a long time ago that I will not be the one to evangelize my family, but also that God doesn’t make mistakes and so my family is the perfect family for me.

I have certainly been in hospital and ICU settings where things are not going well and the doctors have run out of answers, but not with my own family – and not from more than 1,000 miles away. I have been assigned to be the “spokesperson” since I understand this “stuff,” but what I am finding fascinating is watching everyone’s reaction to it. After more than a week and no progress and recommendations to start thinking about “turning things off,” my niece suggested that the family have a family prayer time on Skype. Wow, they would never have done that if I asked for it! Not everyone participated, in fact, the only male there was my oldest brother. My sister’s husband did not surface. We prayed for almost an hour with my stepmother leading it and several little children leading the way (7-12 year olds). Why do people get embarrassed to pray – or is it that they don’t do it regularly and so really don’t have a comfort in discussing “life” with the God who made it? We have the power of the universe at our disposal and we blow it off or are embarrassed to call on Him in public! After the prayer time, we all had a very good conversation – some of us who haven’t talked to each other in many years. I warned them that my sister is REALLY in trouble and we needed to make sure we are ready if something bad occurs.

Then the next day, my brother-in-law emailed that my sister is “100% better” and he gave me all the credit for leaning on the intensivist to clean up all the iatrogenic issues that had occurred. I quickly reminded him of the family prayer session the night before and he wasn’t so sure that was where the healing came from. We are still dealing with things on a day to day basis, but I am seeing glimmers of faith in a family that I have given up on. I saw them as they really are, under the years of stress and life’s issues that wear on all of us. We all care – a lot more than we let on.

This week I had the opportunity (I had taken the week off as I had vacation to burn – an unusual happenstance and God-ordained timing) to fly to Virginia with two of my sisters to meet my brother-in-law and see firsthand why we couldn’t get my sister off the ventilator. She was on it for three weeks and getting all the side effects: a VRE infection that gave her a pneumonia and bilateral pleural effusions needing chest tubes, fluid overload and a couple of GI bleeds as a “chaser.” My sisters were still talking about how much we need to pray and it was obvious they understood prayer’s power to change this almost hopeless situation. We couldn’t find a pastor for my sister’s denomination on the hospital staff and my stepmother – from afar - was calling churches all over Virginia to get one to her. She found one and I was all alone with my sister when he came to pray and anoint her with oil. I was brought to my knees at the impact of having a strange pastor using Scripture and quoting James at the bedside of a critically ill family member. I surprised myself at the power of Scripture and oil – and obedience to our Lord. She was almost totally paralyzed – from her disease and the meds – but even she comprehended the power of that prayer between the three of us and God.

I’m home now, and within the past two days, my sister is off the ventilator and in the step-down ICU. I think God showed up this Christmas. It wasn’t my medical wisdom, maybe a little medical knowledge and hope to say we weren’t giving up, but mostly a God who heard a family who believes. My family doesn’t speak the Christian-ese that I do, but I saw a faith that I didn’t think existed. I’m not sure why I am sharing this intimate information, except that I feel many of you may be in settings like mine. People encounter God mostly under duress. So let’s thank God for those times in our lives and the ability to be in medicine and share those times with others in a way that honors our Lord this Christmas and throughout our careers in the wonderful profession of healthcare.