Against All Odds
The invitation came from my father, a physician with privileges at Cedars Sinai. I was eager to attend the lecture because the speaker, Dr. Michael Fowler, was from Stanford University Hospital. His topic was Transplantation in 1987,” a topic of utmost interest to me. I sat in the back with my father and watched the room fill with doctors and nurses who also had an interest in this high-tech, life-saving medicine. The first case history presented was referred to as, “Patient Number One.” To me, he was John.
Back in 1985 I arrived at the coronary care unit at Stanford the day before John did. I got the room with an outside door—though I was hooked up to far too many tubes with IV drips to get anywhere close to the exit. When one suitable heart for transplant became available, it was either John or me (they haven’t figured out a way to clone donor hearts just yet). I got the call. John made it to the next available heart, and we recovered together.
Along with Jim, a 50ish cardiologist who received a transplant a week or so before we did, we formed an odd sort of tontine. A year later, the three of us gathered for a reunion in Los Angeles. We had a great meal, a trip to Olivera Street and a glass of wine overlooking the Pacific Ocean from John’s Palos Verdes home. Two months later he awoke in the middle of the night, stirred his wife awake with the question, “Can you feel my heartbeat?” The next thing she knew, he was gone.
As I sat listening to John’s medical history, it sounded distant and cold. I wanted to interject, to tell them something about John the person: John the inventor, John the father, John the husband. But this was a hospital and the lecture was purely scientific. Then came “Patient Number Two.”
He was a 28-year-old male admitted in June of 1985 with tachycardia. The biopsy revealed necrosis, Shwann Gans catheterization, and lots of numbers that meant nothing to me. Then a readmit. Then another. Then more numbers. Those last numbers must have been bad because I heard some gasps in the room.
A distinguished looking gentleman approached me and introduced himself. He said that it was not often that the subject of the case study is present and wondered if I might be willing to answer questions from the medical staff. Might as well, so I (aka Patient Number Two) responded, “I’d be happy to.”
Some of the questions were trivial, such as what did I think of the difference between the hospitals? They were merely “warm ups” for the not-so-trivial. What was life like living as a transplant patient? What did I think of all this? What helped me get through? For many of these personal questions, I found myself strangely unprepared.
I had gotten through the waiting and the surgery with a great deal of confidence. In fact, I think my confidence was somewhat unnerving to my parents. I am from a close knit Jewish family, but unlike my parents, I had come to believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. I had tremendous confidence in him and in the prayers that friends across the country were offering on my behalf. I just knew that I would survive.
Life takes on a different perspective after surgery. I had tried to be there for John, but he was a rock and seemed not to need the extra encouragement. Jim was another story. I spent a lot of time talking to Jim about God, about life, about making the most of the time we had been given. But I hadn’t sorted out some of the tough questions for myself. I knew that I was thankful to be alive, to have time with my wife, and especially to have additional time with my twin sons, but I still had a lot to process. How was I ever going to process this?
As I spoke to Jim I made some comments about coming to terms with what a friend euphemistically called, “an abbreviated life,” one which Allstate simply referred to as, “uninsurable.” I mentioned that I was in seminary and was still seeking answers to some of the tougher questions that are unique to heart transplant patients. It seemed that my faith would provide some help, at least that’s what I was counting on when I rejected offers of psychiatric care and anti-anxiety drugs that many people in my position lean on. When those semi-sleepless nights hit, I sometimes questioned if I had made the right choice. But I knew that even if some mind-numbing drugs could help me through the night, there would be too many nights and I didn’t want to start down that road. I needed answers, and I wanted a clear head when I got them.
Jim was a bit more angry than I. He was upset and he was scared. He knew all the risks to all the procedures we had yet to undergo. He would come over to my house with his medical papers showing me how brief our lives would be. He was filled with fear. I would pull down the Bible and show him that with faith in Jesus the Messiah, we would live for eternity. I was filled with confidence. When he left, he would go with Scriptures and peace. I would be left with his medical papers and fear. Where could I find answers for myself?
Then I took a class in Systematic Theology. This course was taught by a world renowned scholar. I was going to get answers to some big questions. The first day of class began with 100 or so eager students crammed into the “classroom”—a church basement. The professor walked slowly to the front of the room and gave an overview of the class. Then he began lecturing in earnest.
How could Christ be both God and man? He summarized how this question has been answered through the ages, and explained why each answer was inadequate. After hours of questions and answers and analyzing in great detail, he was ready to tell us his answer. He certainly had my attention. And then this world-class scholar with impeccable credentials had the audacity to say “I don’t know.” He did not know. Furthermore, he added, that didn’t bother him. Didn’t bother him? Isn’t this what it’s all about? And he didn’t know? And it didn’t bother him that he didn’t know?
Then he explained why it didn’t bother him. He was only human. There were some things that humans haven’t been made privy to by God. He knew he didn’t have all the answers, and he had learned to live with uncertainty.
There was my answer. Actually it was a non-answer, but more powerful and more truthful than all the trite attempts to sweep my questions away. I am not God. I do not have all the answers. God does not want me to have all the answers. I could live with a certain amount of uncertainty. In fact, I needed to live with certain amounts of uncertainty. Furthermore, we all—transplant patients, nurses, doctors, indeed everyone—need to live with uncertainty. From then on life took on a certain amount of urgency. I wanted to make the most of the time God had granted me.
There were talks to be had with my wife. There were relationships that needed mending. There were people to whom I should reach out. There were two children who bore my name, and I needed to instill them with values and help build their characters.
There were many things I could not do. There were games I could not play with my boys. There were jobs that I could not perform because of the disabling affects of the medicines. But rather than lament the losses, I could rejoice in the gains. Each time I watched the news or read the paper, I was reminded of tragedies that I had escaped, the life that I had, the grace of God which sustained me and permitted me to reach this day.
There would be calls to visit others who were deathly ill. The medicine men and women could only do so much. Would I be so kind as to bring a word or two of comfort or encouragement? There was another Jewish believer in Jesus who had a heart transplant and then developed pneumonia. The treatment for the pneumonia severely damaged her liver, so she was being evaluated for a liver transplant. When I met her, she was yellowed with jaundice. She asked not to be touched because she itched from the inside out, but she wanted my prayers. The liver transplant was not to be.
There was the call from the midwest, from a pastor asking me to stop in on one of his congregants who had received an emergency re-transplant, but did not want to live. The father of the young girl was grateful, the mother’s anger was hidden behind a gritted smile, and the daughter herself was silent. The wall was too great. The determination too strong. She had simply had enough. Nothing could or would change her attitude, and she would soon have her wish.
But then there were others. There was the middle-aged man who wondered, would he get a heart? How long could he live without one? How long could he live with one? What kind of life could he and his wife expect? To them, and to others, I could repeat the words of my professor. Some say this and some say that. But they don’t know, and neither do I, for I am not God. God has seen fit to withhold certain information, but I believe he does so in his mercy and grace. And while he does not give us all the answers, he has given us ways of living with uncertainty so that we can make the most of our lives. Somehow God, who is in the business of redeeming us from ourselves, allows us to find redemption in the short time we have here.
That is where God’s questions to us rest. When the gifts of healing (which come from God) have been exhausted, or even when those gifts have worked miracles, God still questions us. Healing is not an end in itself. God wants to know: What will we do with the time he has given us? How will we treat others whom he also created? How will we relate to the one who gave himself for us? Will we accept the gift of life by faith in the one who was the universal donor?