A man named James, a recently retired professor of economics, broke his neck. The circumstances seemed like the usual sort of thing: One Tuesday morning he noted a light out in his kitchen ceiling so he got his step ladder, climbed up, changed the bulb, and fell. Could happen to anyone.
Except for one thing. His blood alcohol level on admission was well over the level associated with intoxication. The other lab tests did not show the signs of damage from chronic alcohol, things like liver abnormalities or bone marrow suppression, but the fact that he appeared quite sober with that alcohol level paradoxically demonstrated that his system was quite used to functioning under the influence.
The good news was that his spinal cord had not been injured. Although he was in great pain, he should survive and walk normally as long as he didn’t suffer another compounding injury before the bones of the spine healed solidly.
His neck was braced and a CT scan and MRI defined the specifics of his C2 fracture, one that carries the ominous appellation of Hangman’s Fracture. Because of the alcohol level, he also received some sedative medications designed to prevent delirium tremens. By the next day I had determined that his fracture would likely heal with a brace and he would not need an operation. By the third day, his pain was under good control and he could walk independently and safely. He could go home.
And that’s what usually happens. I go in, tell the patient to wear the brace, not drive or climb on ladders, make an appointment to see me in two weeks, and call if…blah, blah, blah. Sometimes I even add a cautionary note about alcohol, stuff like, “Drink only in moderation,” or, “Just say no.”
This morning, however, before I got to his room, I had a little more imagination–or maybe a vision from God–about what it might be like for a guy who had all the respect in the world at the university to be now sitting home on a Tuesday morning with nothing else to do but change the lightbulb and nothing else to make him feel good other than spiking his orange juice with a tumbler of vodka.
I know what it’s like to be addicted to a substance. My particular addiction is to tobacco, actually much worse for health than alcohol, but fortunately not as destructive to performance or relationships. Although I haven’t had a cigarette for years I remember clearly about a hundred times I “just said no” in the morning and smoked a pack before lights out that night.
“Just say no” was not going to work with Professor Jim. And if he fell again, even with his brace, he could very well be dead long before the ambulance ever arrived. There was a reason they called it Hangman’s Fracture.
After I arrived at his room I got him up and walked him around a little, just to see for myself if he was steady on his feet and not grimacing in pain. Then he sat on his bedside and I sat in a chair facing him. I gave him the good news about going home and the likelihood of healing and the usual instructions. Then I hesitated.
He was my senior by twenty years and a full professor–in more archaic terms, my elder. I had authority by my degrees and training to give him advice about spine fractures. But about lifestyle choices? About addictions? Maybe not. The easy thing to do, the thing I had done a hundred times before, was to tell myself it wasn’t my specialty, it wasn’t my problem, and let him go on and deal with his life as best he could. His problems, his choices.
Another story: About two thousand years ago a guy named Cleopas woke up after a holiday weekend with all hope drained. The person he had believed would usher in a new era of justice and peace and joy had been brutally and publicly executed, and furthermore, under cover of darkness, somebody had stolen the body. Cleopas could have stayed in bed. He could have drained a wineskin on his own. His problems, his choices.
Instead, he got up, took his first step, then another, then found a friend. They decided to go for a walk together, a day trip to a town called Emmaus.
“I know why you fell down,” I said to the professor.
He nodded, a bit bemused as I seemed to state the obvious.
“You fell off the ladder because you couldn’t help it.”
His eyes blink in agreement. He would have nodded except for the brace.
“You couldn’t help it because you’d been drinking.”
He didn’t try to nod this time. His expression stiffened, and his eyes fixed on mine.
“And you’d been drinking because you couldn’t help it.”
His expression softened, saddened. His gaze dropped to the floor.
“You couldn’t help it because you can’t fix it alone,” I said. I told him about avenues of help, about Alcoholics Anonymous. I wish I could tell you I prayed with him, but I wasn’t that wise.
Professor Jim thanked me for the advice and shook my hand meeting my eyes again. I left to sign him out uncertain if I would ever see him again.
About Cleopas: Along the way, he and his friend encountered a stranger, told him of their hopelessness, then listened to what he had to teach them. Then they sat down to share a meal and discovered themselves to be in the presence of the Risen Christ. No longer hopeless and unable to contain themselves, they ran back through the night to tell their friends.
Professor Jim came back to office two weeks later with his wife. He had gotten up from his bed, taken a step, then another, then called a friend. They had started a journey together to to a place called Alcoholics Anonymous. There he discovered himself to be in the presence of the Risen Christ, the One who runs to you when you walk toward Him.
Jim thanked me again, and again when he kept office appointments six weeks and twelve weeks later. His fracture healed. I didn’t see him again, but he had coincidentally joined the church and Sunday School class my parents attended, a fact that allowed me to follow the subsequent ten years of his life, a life lived lived out in peace and joy.
When I find myself slipping toward despair, those times the wrong seems oh-so-strong, and I don’t feel like getting out of bed, certainly not to face reality, then I try to remember Professor Jim, and Cleopas, and I resolve to take a step, then another, and find a friend to go on a journey. I try to listen and learn, even from a complete stranger, and so far I have always encountered the Risen Christ. Then I want to run through the night to tell my friends.