Miracles Deferred

Snow quiets a city like New Haven, especially at night.  Traffic slows, tire sounds and footsteps muffle.  Even the sirens seem softer.  Silent night, I thought.

It had already been a long day when I lay down in the call-room and closed my eyes, grateful for the quiet.  The time was just after midnight and it looked like I could get in six hours of sleep before the alarm and the chaos started again.

I heard a pop.  My eyes opened, and I thought gunshot.  The noise had come from somewhere out in those downtown streets where all the other sounds had been muffled.  I re-calculated my expected rest time to how long it would take for police to clear the scene, the ambulance to arrive, and the victim be transported to the ER.  Forty-five minutes maybe.

Then I closed my eyes again and tried to convince myself it was nothing.  A car could have backfired, I told myself, but I knew it wasn’t true.  I had heard handguns and I had heard cars.  This was a gunshot.

Then I reassured myself it was someone else’s problem.  I had heard only one shot, and whoever they were 1) could have missed, or 2) could have hit something other than the head or spine.

I dozed off.

Forty-five minutes later the phone rang.  The intern in the ER had a young man with a gunshot wound to his shoulder who wasn’t moving his legs.  X-rays were still pending, but maybe I could come and take a look?

By the time I arrived the x-rays had been done.  The bullet had entered the shoulder but skimmed along the top of the scapula and lodged in the middle of the thoracic spinal canal, a place normally reserved for the spinal cord.

I talked to the victim.  Apparently the issue had been a card game; he still swore he hadn’t been cheating.  His spinal cord injury was complete: no sign of any function in either lower extremity–no movement, no sensation, no reflexes.

I called our director for spinal cord injury, and he agreed with me that the prognosis for recovery was nil, but scheduled the patient for emergency surgery to remove the bullet and seal the wound to prevent infection.  I assisted in the surgery.  We opened the spinal canal and retrieved the bullet.  The cord was completely destroyed.  I remember the clank as the bullet dropped into the metal basin.

I didn’t see the patient again for five years, and would never have seem him again except for a quirk in the department schedule.  I had finished my residency, but was still on the payroll for another month.  The department chairman figured I could do some work in our research lab and specifically get some of the difficult data into our database for long-term outcomes of spinal cord injury.

The secretary gave me a file for a patient in Bridgeport, a bad neighborhood in a bad city.  The patient hadn’t been seen by our department since discharge to rehab five years before.  Although nobody thought his outcome would be anything except complete paralysis, an exam had to be done for the data to be entered.  I headed to Bridgeport.

The man who answered the door was the same man who hadn’t cheated at cards.  It had been five years, but it was clearly the same guy.  I remembered him specifically not only because I had reviewed the record but because I remembered hearing the gunshot that had paralyzed him.

The surprise was that he wasn’t in a wheelchair.  Yes, he had a wheelchair in the back corner of the living room and used it when he went out, but he got around the house on his own two legs using a cane or balancing himself on the furniture.  Though his gait was nowhere near normal, he walked sufficiently for self-care at home.

What I witnessed was a bonafide medical miracle.  Gunshot wounds to the thoracic spinal cord always, always, always result in complete paralysis.  Victims never walk.

But since that exam in Bridgeport, I never say always and I never say never.  I was humbled into allowing room for hope in every hopeless case.

I would like to claim that this miracle occurred because of radically new medical or surgical care, and I know he received good care–but only the same care that everyone else who never did walk received.  I would like to claim he was healed by the intervention of prayer and faith, but the card-player never mentioned it, and back then it never crossed my mind to ask.  So I have no explanation, or even a testimony, but that’s what miracles are always: unexpected hope without explanation.

But without hearing the gunshot on a quiet winter night five years before, I wouldn’t have remembered the circumstances and understood that what I saw later was a miracle.  I would have just filled out a form for the research project and been oblivious.

So here’s the curious thing about some miracles: you might not know you are witnessing the beginning of a miracle.  You might not get to see the end of the story.  Or, conversely, you might be witnessing a miracle, but because you don’t know the backstory, you don’t know it’s a miracle.

Sometimes God gives us signs, though.  To me he gave the sound of a gunshot on a silent night.  To shepherds outside of Bethlehem, He sent an angel.  To men who searched for the truth, he gave a star.  He sends us signs to remember so that when we are privileged to witness another sign five years later, or thirty years later, we will know it for the miracle it is.

Probably Nothing

When Nothing Was Something

Adam, Jay and I played ping-pong on the upper deck of an ocean liner cruising on the Alaskan Inside.  The night was spectacular.  Though it was ten PM, the multi-colored twilit sky gave adequate illumination for our game, the sea reflected the sky, and distant hills of pine forest slid by.

Family vacations then were a novelty, a rare period of recovery.  This one was especially precious because our family was recovering from Mary’s diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer just a few months before.

Adam was losing at ping-pong.  “I’m see two balls,” he said.  “I don’t know which one to hit.”

Brain tumor jumped to my consciousness.  I had seen dozens of patients with brain tumors whose initial symptom was double vision.  But then I quieted my alarm.  People get double vision for other reasons, I told myself.  And I’m not his doctor; I’m his father.  Let his pediatrician take care of it.

It’s probably nothing, I thought to myself.

A week later his pediatrician examined him.  He said, “It’s probably nothing, but I’d like him to see an ophthalmologist.”

A few days later the ophthalmologist said, “It’s probably nothing, but I’d like him to see a neuro-ophthalmologist.”

At this point, I no longer thought it was nothing.  I scheduled an MRI scan on my own son.  The neuro-ophthalmologist found that Adam had an eye condition that always points to a tumor in the pineal region of the brain.  A few hours later the MRI confirmed his suspicion.

I suppose it’s possible to have a child with cancer and not pray.  Perhaps there are those so convinced of their atheism, or so lost along their way, or so unattached from their child that the impulse doesn’t come.  But I suspect those are the rare exceptions.  Even those with the thinnest belief in an almighty benevolent power are driven to their knees when their child’s life is at risk.

So I prayed.  And Mary prayed, Adam prayed, and the whole family prayed together.  Then I sought out the best medical care possible.

If you’ve followed this website, particularly Adam’s posts, you will know that the subsequent road was hard.  Many things were lost never to be re-gained.  Some dreams folded up and died along the way.

But Adam survived and is cancer free twenty-six years later.  This week Adam and I are hiking together in the Smoky Mountains, one way we have of celebrating life and health.

So here is a question I have kept to myself for a quarter century.  Did Adam survive as an answer to prayer?  Or did Adam survive because of good medical care?  The person of faith in me says that my prayer was answered; the doctor in me says that surgery, radiation, and drug treatment cured him.

Both, I want to answer.  I have faith that God is real and He heard and answered our prayers.  And I have faith that medicine and surgery prolonged Adam’s life.

But is it true?  Before neurosurgery and radiation therapy, parents prayed for their children with brain tumors, and they died.  I have personally treated a teen-ager with a similar tumor who had no family, nor apparent faith, and he lived.  The medical care seems to be the most critical element, at least to my worldly eyes.

Then again, I prayed to the Almighty, the creator of the universe, and He granted my request.  Should I say now that the prayer had nothing to do with the outcome?  That the radiation would have cured him anyway?

When Nothing Was Nothing

A few months ago, my daughter, Brieanna, called.  She had developed a lump in her armpit.

It’s probably nothing, I said.  She was nursing her second baby; maybe the lump had something to do with that.  Small cuts or infections in the arm could cause a swollen lymph node.  Or a viral infection could do the same.

Two weeks went by and the lump increased in size.  She had no symptoms or evidence of breast feeding problems, injuries or infections.  It’s probably nothing, I told myself.  But I wasn’t so sure.  This is how lymphomas start.  A nightmare scenario played itself out in my mind: my grown daughter with cancer, her two little boys needing her, her devastated husband.  Such scenarios are easy to imagine after your wife and another of your children have been diagnosed with cancer.

So Mary and I prayed for healing.  Brieanna scheduled a doctor visit and an ultrasound of the swollen node.  On the morning of the the ultrasound the lump unexpectedly disappeared.

“What do you think?” Mary asked me.  I still have a small amount of credibility when it comes to family medical matters.

The residual doctor part of my brain thought, unrecognized breast infection or cuticle infection or a virus.  Probably nothing.

Then I caught myself.  When I pray for something and get it, I am sometimes quick to forget the prayer and ascribe the good fortune to natural or manmade causes.  Something wonderful had just happened.  I should not be so quick with an explanation; I should be quick with grateful praise.  The appropriate response is Thank you, Jesus.

“It was probably nothing,” I told Mary. “Or a miracle.”