Seven days ago, I received a 60-year old man on my service. His past history is still a bit fuzzy, but it seems that he had a hemiplegic stroke two years ago, probably secondary to his chronically high blood pressure. On the day of his arrival at the hospital, he had been riding in a car and fallen rapidly into a coma. Now he isn't waking up.
He has had a lot of fevers. And his blood pressure has been very high. It could be caused by any number of infections, and it could be something non-infectious (like another massive stroke). In many ways, he's like a very complicated American medical patient (but with the possibilities of malaria and tuberculosis), but without any of the American diagnostic tools. I have no idea what his electrolytes are, and I would really love a CT scan of his brain.
After seven days, he hasn't woken up at all. His fevers are still coming. There are a few more things we can try, but they are more and more in the "last ditch effort" category. I wasn't even sure that his family would even want us to continue trying, so after rounds today, I went back with my student to talk with his wife.
I hadn't talked much with her before, but her constant presence had been noticed, as well as her poise. She quickly dismissed my student's translation work, saying that she could understand my French fine.
I started from the beginning, explaining the problems that had brought them to us, and the difficulties that we have had in treating him. I pointed out all the problems that had not improved, despite all the attempts we have made. I tried to lay out the options before us, stumbling somewhat for the appropriate cross-cultural and cross-linguistic way to express that I wasn't sure if it was worth continuing to treat new possibilities or not. I wanted to know what she thought.
She listened calmly as I alternately explained and bumbled along. She was attentive but never interrupted. When I finally stopped, she said "But you must remember that there is a good God. And he can do anything. You must remember that. He can do anything."
"Amen," I say, "and God loves your husband."
"Yes, he loves him!" she continues. "He has protected him for sixty years. We will see what happens, but you go ahead and do what you think is good. God will do it."
So we prayed there together. We asked God to heal this man whose healing seems impossible to me, but does not seem impossible to God. We asked him to give him and his family comfort and peace, and a continued ability to trust in him during these difficult times.
My student and I walked out, as I said, "Well, she is a strong woman. Much stronger than me."
My student laughed.
I have seen similar responses from Christians in America. In the face of overwhelmingly probable terminal disease, some people will persist not only in saying that God can heal them, but that he will. Personally, I don't work that way. I honestly don't know what God will do, and I've seen a whole lot of cases where the disease takes its terminal course. And I don't say otherwise.
These words can look like denial. But I don't think they are. At least, not always. I remember years ago, when I was in medical school, and my friend was dying from cancer. She said over and over again that God was going to heal her. She never talked about an alternative. Her cancer advanced more and more. She was bedridden and intermittently confused. During a lucid period, someone spoke to her about God healing her, and she said "He has already done it." She was right. And she died in peace.
She wasn't in denial. She was defying death. It took her life, but there was resurrection waiting, and I don't think that, anywhere along that road, death's sting took hold of her. And maybe that's the difference between denial and defiance. The difference between the response of fear and the response of faith. The litmus test is, when it doesn't go how we hoped, when the disease starts spiraling in every direction, the response of faith can embrace it. It doesn't recoil in fear and say "but I knew you were going to heal me! Why did you let me down?" It recognizes that its trust in God was well-placed from the start, and that it is still well-placed.
I don't know what's going to happen to my patient. And I don't know for sure whether his wife's words are a response of faith or of fear. But there is a strength and a peace about her that makes me bet on the former.