From the Grips of Death
My first thought when paramedics wheeled him into the trauma bay was that he was just a kid. My second was that he looked like he was dying.
His skin was clammy and his pulse faint. I called his name, but he only moaned. Removal of his shirt revealed a single wound beneath his left nipple, a stream of blood threading down his torso. My resident performed a quick ultrasound, and the dancing images confirmed that a clot compressed the chambers of his heart. Their thin walls collapsed with each beat like two palms clapping. If we didn’t act quickly, cardiac arrest would follow.
I called the operating room to alert them that we were coming. A nurse secured one last IV. We unlocked the stretcher to wheel him out of the trauma bay.
Then he lost his pulse. Some snapshots in life are Romans 1 moments. In verses 19–20, Paul writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Any scenario that includes the cry “I don’t feel a pulse” is a Romans 1 moment. The words pitch dread into the stomach like a leaden weight. You clamber frantically at the neck, then at the thigh, in search of the familiar thud of a pulse. When you feel none, your mind goes into overdrive. Regardless of the truth claims you espouse, instinct returns you to your origins, and you pray: Oh please, no God. No, no, no. Please. Not this.
The emergency medicine team leapt forward and started CPR, while my resident and I splashed antiseptic and opened the boy’s chest. Unlike scheduled, routine surgeries in the operating room, this procedure was a frenzied, last-ditch effort to save a life. After a few swipes of the scalpel and the crank of a retractor, we were peering into a space never intended for worldly exposure. The sac surrounding his heart was tense as a balloon, taut with blood. We incised it and scooped out the clot, then delivered his heart into the open air. With the pressure of the clot on his heart relieved, his pulse returned, and oxygen-rich blood again surged throughout his body. A jet of blood spurted from a wound in his right ventricle, where the assailant’s knife had penetrated.
With one hand cupping his heart and the other following the curve of a suture needle through the pulsing muscle, I closed the wound, and we finally rushed him to the operating room. There, under conditions more controlled but still urgent, we repaired a rent in his lung and stopped bleeding from his chest wall.
After the surgery, we delivered him into the hands of the ICU team, and I called an aunt who agreed to talk with us. His mother, I learned, wanted nothing to do with him.
“What’d he do now?” his aunt blurted when I called. “You say you’re calling from the hospital? Did he get in another fight?”
“Ma’am, he was stabbed in the heart.”
She caught her breath. “Is he okay? I mean, is he—”
“Yes, he’s alive, and I think he’ll be okay. We have to watch him very carefully over the next twenty-four hours, in case he starts to bleed again. But we were able to repair the hole in his heart.”
“Oh, thank you!” She started to cry. “He’s not a bad kid, he’s just made such a mess of his life. Stealing, doing drugs, doing everything he should’ve known not to do. A few months ago my sister finally had enough, and kicked him out.”
“As he recovers, would she be willing to talk to us, and maybe to a social worker about how to help him?”
She paused for a moment. “Let me talk to her first,” she said warily. “The boy needs help, that’s for certain. But she’s been hurt too many times. If it’s not done right, she won’t listen.”
“Thank you so much. I’ll be here all night, and I’ll call you if anything changes.”
“Doctor, you really—you really think he’ll be all right?”
My mind returned to the trauma bay, to the pale grip of death upon him. Had the paramedics delayed even a minute or two, he would have died in the ambulance. Had the assault occurred in proximity to a hospital without trauma services, he would have died in the ER. That he survived the emergency procedure was also remarkable, as it saves life in only 30 percent of such cases.1 He left the operating room with his heart pounding steadily and his blood pressure stable, while others would have succumbed to cold and diffuse bleeding. These were too many gifts to be coincidences. “Yes,” I said. “I think he’s going to be fine.” Weeks later, the young man returned to the clinic for follow-up. He sat in clean clothes, his hands folded in his lap, his demeanor shy. His incisions had healed, and he could again walk without pain or shortness of breath. Best of all, he had reconciled with his mother, and was living at home. “I just want to thank you,” he said. “Not just for saving my life. This whole thing has changed me. I want to help people the way you guys do. I’ve gone back to school, and I want to be a nurse.” All the moments of grace—in the trauma bay, in the operating room, and finally in that clinic—converged like notes in a symphony. In the midst of all the violence and the fear, God was present. In the wake of a life gone astray, he was composing a masterpiece to draw a lost son out of the dark. All seemed lost, but the Lord provided.
The Lord Provided
The almighty God who provided for the young man that day in the trauma bay has provided for his people since the dawn of time. In Genesis 22:2, God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Can you imagine Abraham’s agony as he climbed Mount Moriah? Isaac was his beloved son, the gift whom God had promised despite Abraham’s advanced years. God had vowed to bless all the families of the earth through Isaac (Gen. 12:2–3). As a seal of his faithfulness, the Lord commanded Abram to change his name to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude” (Gen. 17:4–5).
Envision Abraham’s confusion and turmoil, then, when God commanded him to give up his greatest treasure in sacrifice. What a terrible burden he must have carried in his heart, as he and his son hauled wood up the slope! What anguish gripped him as Isaac dutifully lay down on the pyre, his trust in his father unyielding.
Yet in Abraham’s darkest hour, the Lord provided. On the same place where centuries later temples would rise to bring people together with God, the Lord provided a sacrifice in Isaac’s place:
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. (Gen. 22:11–13)
Any cure reflects not the power of our own hands, but rather his provision for us.
God’s mercy in this moment foreshadows his ultimate provision for humankind. Millennia later, through the promised line of Isaac, the Father would give up his firstborn Son, whom he has loved since before the birth of the world. In adoration of and obedience to his Father, Christ would willingly lay down his life for us (John 10:18). And all this would provide for us miserable sinners an inheritance, an adoption as God’s children, so that we too might draw near to God and call him, “Abba, Father” (Eph. 1:11–12; 1 John 3:1; Rom. 8:15). Jehovah jirah. The Lord provided.
The Lord Will Provide
Provision for his people is in God’s character. It’s who he is. In the garden, when sin sullied his creation, God banished Adam and Eve, but not before he lovingly clothed them (Gen. 3:21). When all the world writhed in wickedness, he protected Noah and provided a means for life to flourish after the flood (Gen. 8:1–2). He supplied manna from heaven for his people in the wilderness (Ex. 16:11–12). He closed the mouths of lions for Daniel (Dan. 6:22), appointed a fish to rescue Jonah (Jonah 1:17), and commanded ravens to feed Elijah (1 Kings 17:4).
When we consider such examples in the Bible, we find assurance that whatever calamities strike us, God will provide. In the trauma bay, as my patient’s blood flow slowed to a stop, God provided the means to revive him. After he recovered, God worked through his crisis to guide him toward a home and a future. So too when cancers melt away, pain resolves, and infections clear, we witness God’s provision for us. Medical science equips us to combat disease, but God provides that technology, guides our hands, and intervenes to usher us back to life. Any good news in the hospital is a glimmer of God’s grace. Any cure reflects not the power of our own hands, but rather his provision for us, as he wields medicine as an instrument of mercy.
God’s provision is most apparent when we recover, but continues even when the cures fail, because God has provided for us through Christ. When we were dead in our sins and trespasses, he redeemed us to himself, not through any merit of our own but through grace (Eph. 2:4–7). Death is the enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), the wages of our sin (Rom. 6:23), but it is not the end, because God has triumphed over death and saved us through Christ.
Jesus has pried the menacing grasp of sin from us, and released us from bondage.
Even when tragedy strikes, when sin maims all that we cherish like a blade through flesh, we have a promise no weapon can touch: the Lord will provide. He will, because it’s who he is. He will, because in Christ he’s done so already.
- Mark J. Seamon et al., “An Evidence-Based Approach to Patient Selection for Emergency Department Thoracotomy: A Practice Management Guideline from the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma,” Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 79 no. 1 (2015): 159–73; Clay Cothren Burlew et al., “Western Trauma Association Critical Decisions in Trauma: Resuscitative Thoracotomy,” Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 73 no. 6 (2012): 1359–63.
This article is adapted from Glimmers of Grace: A Doctor's Reflections on Faith, Suffering, and the Goodness of God.
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