Big Enough

I had my pediatric rotation during the third year of medical school. My first assignment was in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit of St. Paul-Ramsey County Hospital.  The NICU in those days was a new idea, and our unit was modest–a mere eight incubators with monitors and respirators.  My first patient: a premature baby boy weighing 500 grams (about 17 ounces).

The NICU director taught me how to intubate a premie struggling to breath, how to take advantage of the umbilical artery and veins during the first day of life, how to start an IV in a scalp vein. I learned to calculate fluids and nutrition within very narrow margins of error by the barest of guidance from limited labs, weight and physical examination. I learned about respirator settings for tiny human beings, the perils of too little and too much oxygen. I worked hard and learned a lot. The NICU director gave me great autonomy and an experienced nurse gave me lots of help. And I believed my little patient would live.

Then, forty-eight hours later, the baby died.

I was shocked. I had done everything right, done everything I could, and he died anyway. My knowledge and skill and willingness to work were not enough. The baby was too fragile.

The NICU staff was not surprised. Because the one thing I didn’t know, and everybody else did, was that a 500 gram baby had never survived. They had worked with me treating the baby because they hoped he would survive. I didn’t know any better; I believed he would.

Though we failed with that child, there now are a few babies who have survived, even thrived, from sub-500 gram birth weights because another generation of doctors not only hoped, but believed, the most fragile could survive.

I learned three things: babies are fragile, hope is good, belief is better.

This Christmas season I’ve found myself wondering about the baby Jesus and remembering that baby in the NICU.

History tell us that about two thousand years ago, the creator of the universe gave up being God and chose to become the frailest of human creatures, a baby. A very fragile baby. We know what happened next: The baby survived, grew in wisdom and strength, sacrificed himself thirty years later for the salvation of mankind.

But babies are frail. Did God risk the salvation of mankind by coming as a baby? Did He have an alternative plan if the baby Jesus had not survived? I don’t know. I feel that with the alignment of the stars, the signs in the heavens, the specific prophecies about Jesus going back several centuries, Jesus’ birth and life were planned since the beginning of time.

Maybe part of God’s message is about fragility. The nation of Israel had been hoping for a Messiah for hundreds of years, expecting some kind of celestial Superman who could save them from their enemies and restore their political and religious dominance.

Then Jesus arrived as a fragile baby, someone who needed constant care simply to survive, and a message from angels to keep him from being slaughtered with the other infants in Bethlehem by the evil King Herod. I mean, really, if you were there–say, a shepherd who had heard about this miracle from angels in the field–and you had to change a diaper, would you really believe this little guy was the Son of God?

I don’t know why God does things the way He does. The story we have about Jesus is so much more beautiful than the stories we have about the great political and military saviors in the Bible–Moses, Joshua, David, for example. But though the Jesus story is beautiful, it remains puzzling.

This Christmas season, I am thinking of Jesus as a metaphor. A baby Jesus is born into my heart. He represents all those beliefs that are beautiful and true: that I am a beloved child God, that my current experience only touches a true and deeper reality, that my life is not limited by time and space, that order reigns over chaos, that good triumphs over evil, that mercy is better than justice, that true wealth is in the heart, and love is real and stronger than fear and hate.

But He is small and frail.

I have moments, maybe many moments, when I can believe that reality is limited to the cold facts demonstrable by science, that life is limited to a short time on this small planet, that human law is the best we can expect out of justice, that mercy is weakness, fear is self-preservation, forgiveness is foolish, success is getting more, and that love is an illusion based on hormones and reproductive drive.

These are easy beliefs in our secular age. As a flinty-eyed realist, I should be able accept them and dismiss my hope for Jesus as sentimental foolishness.

But I can’t.

When Jesus was born in the stable at Bethlehem, He was small, fragile. Maybe He only weighed 500 grams. But by the grace and love of His Father, our Father, He survived.

He was big enough.

My baby Jesus, born in my heart, has been small sometimes, maybe only 500 grams. Who can measure these things? Sometimes He seems frail. But, by the grace and love of our Father, He survives.

He is big enough.

Good Bye Mom

Mom celebrating her 99th birthday

Although we had plans for a big 100th birthday party on Thanksgiving Day, Mom is celebrating early in the arms of the angels.  She died peacefully with family at her bedside at 7 PM on Thursday evening, August 30, 2018.

Eunice, along with her four older siblings, was raised by a single mother in the tiny hamlet of Plaza, North Dakota early in the last century.  After high school she attended a business school in Fargo then went on to Minneapolis working as a secretary at Jean Lang Dresses.  There she made lifelong friends with her co-workers, and, up until they were all well into their eighties, the six “Jean Lang Girls” got together for their annual Christmas party.  Eunice is the last survivor of that group.  She never let a friend go. 

During the war she met a handsome young Army officer, the brother of her fellow worker, Florence, and fell in love.  She married Larry Lohse in 1947 and gave up work to raise her two sons, Bruce and Dean, and her daughter Jean Marie.  The other mothers in the neighborhood became lifelong friends.  At the age of 90, Eunice traveled with her old neighbor, Lois, by train across Canada.  She never let a friend go.

When she felt the children were old enough, she returned to work to be certain they could all afford a college education, a special priority for her and Larry.  She worked as a secretary for a regional airline, and this afforded her the opportunity to travel throughout the country and the world, which she did, dragging her much more reluctant husband along for the adventure.  She still exchanges Christmas cards with her old boss.  She never let a friend go.

She retired to Florida in 1986, less for the weather than to be close to her youngest grandchildren, whom she spoiled outrageously at every opportunity.  Here she became active in Southside United Methodist Church where she volunteered in the kitchen helping with Wednesday night dinners up until she had to give up driving at the age of 94.  Last Christmas, her kitchen co-workers, also now retired and living out of town, got together again for lunch.  She never let a friend go.

In 1999, her beloved Larry became severely disabled as a result of Parkinson’s Disease and a stroke.  She shouldered the responsibility of primary care giver for the difficult years until his death in 2005.  Because she never let a loved one go, either.

She is survived by her three children, her son-in-law, Claude Garvin, her daughter-in-law and best friend, Mary, her grandchildren and their spouses, her great-grandchildren, a cadre of nephews and nieces, and various honorary step-children, all of whom are grateful for her love and wisdom.  She never let any of us go.

A memorial service will be held at Southside United Methodist Church, 3120 Hendricks Ave., Jacksonville, Florida, on Sunday, September 9 at 4PM.  Internment and a second memorial service will be at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis on October 15.

A New Heart–Jim Young’s Story About Ann

In June 2000, my wife, Ann, suffered a massive heart attack. Two respected cardiologists and our family doctor all confirmed that the human heart does not regenerate its tissue once it dies due to a heart attack.  In Ann’s case, 50% of her heart muscle died and she was told that if she lived, she would be an invalid the rest of her life.

Additionally, the attending cardiologist said she was so weak that she could not survive an open heart surgery, so he placed 3 stents her arteries and told me she had a 25% chance to live.

A good personal friend, Rev. Len Showalter, came to her ICU room where she lay with tubes in her body. Many folks, myself included, prepared for the worst. Then Len prayed this prayer:

“Jesus, if you raised Lazarus from the dead after 4 days, You can regenerate Ann Young’s heart muscle!”

This prayer by Len was so outrageous that I remember that my legs became weak and I could hardly stand, so utterly amazed was I that Len had that much faith, and my faith was so weak.

Fast forward 3 years.  After 13 visits to the hospital, with 12 heart cath procedures and open heart surgery, her cardiologist gave this amazing report to us:

“Mrs. Young, your heart has regenerated its muscle from 50% to 75%.  This is the first known case in medical history as we know it. I have written a full report and sent it to various medical journals as an “unexplainable phenomenon.”

Ann is now 73 years old and doing very well. She is not an invalid and does most things she wants to.

With Jesus, all things are possible.