When I began private practice in general surgery in my hometown a large part of the decision to return home was based on the fact my older brother Berry Lee (Bubba) was in a family medicine practice there. I was excited to have his fourteen year practice experience to lean on. I also loved just being around him because of my love and respect of his wonderful character. One aspect of Bubba’s personality which made both Cathy and me very uneasy was his spiritual life. According to him he had a spiritual conversion four years earlier, and we couldn’t relate to the changes which occurred in him. Although we were moral in our character and religious in nature neither of us had experienced life changes like the ones he described. Whenever the topic of faith arose in our conversation we changed the subject as quickly as possible. His zealous attitude towards everything related to faith did not affect our professional relationship, and he referred every one of his surgical patients to me.
Barbara H. was a woman well-known in our community because of her father’s excellent reputation as a businessman, and she was married to a prominent businessman. Although she was several years older I had known her and her siblings since childhood. She suffered with childhood diabetes and even at her young age was beginning to have major complications, because she was not managing the disease well. She had been admitted by Bubba to the hospital with severe abdominal pains and fever and was getting worse despite large doses of intravenous antibiotics. Her tests showed gall stones and her symptoms indicated an acute infection. We were hoping the infection would subside so the gall bladder could be removed at a later time instead of as an emergency. She grew worse on good treatment, and immediate operation was necessary. Both she and her husband were made aware of the dangers and complications of an operation under these dire conditions.
The operation was more difficult than anticipated because she also had pancreatic infection in addition to the abscessed gall bladder with gall stones. The combination of these two problems in a diabetic patient made her condition critical so she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. Unfortunately she did not awaken from the general anesthetic, but was breathing on her own so she didn’t require the use of a ventilator.
Bubba consulted an internist and a pulmonary specialist to get their best thoughts and recommendations regarding her management. Despite our best efforts she steadily worsened over the next three days and didn’t awaken from the coma. Her temperature reached a level I had never seen. It was so high our thermometer then couldn’t accurately measure it, but we extrapolated it was 108 degrees F. We placed her on an ice blanket to try to bring it down.
On the evening of the third post-operative day her vital signs were beginning to worsen while her temperature remained off the chart. Bubba and I went to the waiting room to give her husband Bill this new and dreaded report. Bubba said, “Bill, it looks like Barbara won’t make it through the night unless a miracle occurs.” He began to cry and said, “She has been a wonderful wife and mother to our children, and I don’t know how I will get along without her. I am going to miss her so much.” We assured him we were doing everything possible, and he said he was confident she was getting the best care possible.
Bubba went back to her bedside while I went to the nurse’s desk to write my progress note for the evening. I heard Bubba say, “We have done everything for her except pray, so I want all of us to gather around her bed and pray.” I had never done anything like that in my professional or personal life, and was not interested in any public display of religion. Bubba was insistent I join them, and to keep from making a further scene in the ICU I reluctantly went to her bedside. There were two nurses and a nurse’s aid, and he had us hold hands while he prayed. I was so embarrassed with all of this, so I don’t remember exactly what he prayed. It was something like, “Lord, we’ve done all we know to do, and it hasn’t worked, so would You take over and heal Barbara.” I was glad when he finished, and went back to the desk to finish my charting. Before I got to the desk I heard a stirring from the direction of her bedside and turned in time to hear her voice as she said weakly, “I am so cold. Could I have another blanket?”
I was shaken to the core, because not only had I never been part of a bed-side prayer by a physician, but I had never witnessed such a dramatic physical change in a patient so near death. Although we were all very excited for Barbara and for her family, Bubba acted like he had expected this result from his prayer. His confidence only added to my amazement.
When I arrived home Cathy was standing at our kitchen sink, and told me she had been praying for Barbara since I left for the hospital earlier in the evening. When I told her what had happened we rejoiced and were beginning to re-consider our belief in the power of prayer.
Barbara fully recovered from this problem and lived another fifteen years. As a result of this experience and a number of other things both Cathy and I had a spiritual conversion two years later. Everything changed for us and among other things, I began praying with and witnessing to my patients.
Subsequently when I saw Barbara as a patient or in a social setting we discussed how God used her illness and near-death experience to teach me the power of believing prayer. I was also taught as a physician prayer should be primary in my care of every patient not waiting until all medical efforts fail before praying. Christ alone has the power to heal all our illnesses. Ps. 103:3