Bad News: Broken Dreams
"MEET ME AT THE EMERGENCY ROOM. HURRY, IT'S CATHERINE."
Life changes in a heartbeat. As a doctor treating cancer patients,
I thought I had learned that tragedy comes to all someday. But I never
really brought the lesson home until it was my turn to take the call.
In a span of mere seconds, while I was driving my son to football practice,
the urgent priorities of my day evaporated.
"Catherine's been hurt, Al. Her back is injured, and she can't
"I'll drop off Bowen and meet you at the emergency room."
While my car raced to the emergency room, my mind raced back
to the flame tree that had stretched its lime green arms over most of
our backyard in Africa, separating us from the dense jungle beyond it.
Soon after our arrival there, I had fashioned a swing with a single rope
hung from a great limb of that tree supporting a wooden board for a
seat. When Catherine was about one year old, I would gently swing
her in that seat beneath the bright red flame tree flowers. She was
agile enough to hold the rope, and I was foolishly proud of her agility.
One day I was a bit too aggressive with my push, and I frightened
Catherine. She looked back at me as the swing was moving forward
and let go of the rope to reach for me with both hands. Immediately,
she tipped over backward and went headfirst for the ground. Instead
of falling, however, she hooked her ankles around the rope and swung
upside down, as safe as a monkey hanging by its tail, until I wrapped
my arms around her.
That incredible agility remained with her for the next fourteen
years. When we returned to the States, Catherine became a gymnast.
Year after year, for hours every day, she progressed through the ranks
to reach level ten in competition by the time she was thirteen. When
Catherine was fifteen years old, prior to the accident, the biggest decision
in her life was whether to home school so she could advance to
elite status in gymnastics.
As I raced toward the emergency room, reality gripped my heart.
Our lives had just changed. When I arrived, Catherine was lying on
her side in great pain.
She told me, "I lost where I was and I bailed out. I knew I was
in trouble. When I landed on my shoulders, my legs flexed over my
head, and I felt my back snap. I thought, 'Oh my God! I'm going
to be paralyzed!'"
The first thing I did was to check her legs. She could move them
both. I then ran my hand over her back and found a firm knot over
her mid-spine. Walking beside her, I kept my hand on her shoulder as
they wheeled her on a stretcher to radiology. The X-ray pictures
frightened this doctor daddy, and all I could say was, "Oh my God,
please." I contacted the best pediatric spine doctors in Memphis, who
happened to be the best pediatric spine doctors in the country. We
looked at the MRI together and saw the bone pressing against
Catherine's spinal cord at T-11. One more millimeter and my fifteen-year-old
daughter would be paralyzed for life.
This was my daughter. Just this morning Catherine had been a
great gymnast, looking toward a college scholarship and perhaps the
Olympics. Now she might be paralyzed for life.
* * *
Each of us at some time in our lives will face a doctor or pick up the
phone and receive bad news. What do you do when you receive bad
news that changes your life by destroying your dreams? Your own news
may be a broken back like Catherine's or the heart attack that forces
you off the corporate ladder. It may be the final word that pronounces
you infertile and unable to have children to carry your genes. It may
be diabetes, with its diet restrictions, possible insulin injections, and
the threat of a shortened life span. It may be the word leukemia used
to describe your twelve-year-old son. It may be the dreaded wordcancer (that I so often have to pronounce), with all the thoughts of
hair loss, nausea, uncontrolled pain, and a shortened life. It may be a
hundred other words that forever change the dreams you had for life
and open up a world of problems.
What do you do when bad news comes? You have to do something.
You have to act to minimize the damage. You have to go on
with life. You have to realign your dreams with new boundaries. You
have to live in the world as a different person-and live with a God
who has acted differently toward you than you expected.
Perhaps you are one who never gave God much thought. If so,
you might choose to take such bad news and simply slug it out and
fight the battles as a wounded soldier, hoping that the joy in life ahead
will be worth the struggle. With family, friends, doctors, and a social
system supporting you, you may seek to make life worth living in spite
of bad health and broken dreams.
Where does a person's faith fit in? Has the question of God's place
in your tragedy come to your thoughts yet? Can anyone really trust
in God when they receive bad news from a doctor?
Perhaps you are a person of faith who suddenly is wondering what
difference God is going to make in this crisis. Can those who trust in
God make more of life when dreams are shattered than those who live
without him? People who trust in God are supposed to be different
than those who don't. God's presence is supposed to make that
difference-emotionally, spiritually, and physically-when medical
tragedy lands in your lap. But can you let your faith enter the complicated
arena of medical treatment? Will you let God do his work
when your doctor hands you bad news? Or will you isolate God's
relevance to Sunday mornings and the funeral home?
No matter where we stand in our personal faith, when the doctor
brings bad news, most of us want God to help fix things. Suddenly our
lives have been hit with an earthquake. The world as we know it is
trembling, and we are grasping for solid ground. But if we wish to
find that stability, our understanding of this world may need to change
radically. As the ground continues to shift beneath our feet, perhaps
we need to view life differently than before. Perhaps we must grasp a
different concept of time, a different notion of reality, a different
understanding of value, a different relationship with the Father.
Perhaps we must walk in a different Way.
In the Bible, God tells us that death is not the end of life, that life
is more than what we touch, that value doesn't have to vanish with
tragedy, and that he can provide his presence, peace, purpose, and
power in any situation. We've all heard people of faith say that they
could walk through any tragedy with God. How then do we do it?
Can we grasp this truth that God offers and let it overcome the
tragedy we face, or will we bend and break like the world when a
doctor tells us that our health will no longer support our dreams? We
have choices to make.
When I graduated from high school in 1968, my parents had the
foolish courage to allow me and two of my friends to drive to Alaska
as a graduation trip. The trip was awesome. Driving that long gravel
highway through Canada into the mountains and glaciers of Alaska,
we saw the beauty and felt the wonder of life. A fourth friend joined
us in Anchorage, and we spent a week touring the state, flying to
Nome and Kotzebue, sleeping on stacks of plywood north of the
Arctic Circle, swatting mosquitoes bigger than most New York City
dogs-a perfect trip for four teenage boys.
My father had loaned us the family station wagon, a black Ford
that performed beautifully on that very long and rocky Alcan
Highway. One day we were driving in Denali Park, with that great
mountain looming before us, and we hit a bump that loosened our
teeth. Pretty soon the oil light began to flash, and we discovered a
crack in our engine. Prepared for every disaster, we had with us a case
of oil in the back of the wagon. Every mile we stopped and poured in
another quart. We made it back to Fairbanks but could go no farther;
the car was finished. We sold it for fifty dollars and faced the question,
"Is this the end of our journey?"
Two interesting decisions were made. One of my buddies' parents
said, "Your trip is over. Come home now." He flew directly home
from Fairbanks. The rest of us chose to travel home by a different
route. It was a difficult journey. We slept in open fields, hitchhiked in
the cold night with an old miner and listened to his stories, rode the
Alaskan ferry through the beautiful coastal islands, and survived on
Ritz crackers with peanut butter.
The journey was hard, but it was one of the best parts of our trip.
That bump in Denali Park changed our plans, shortened our trip, and
brought extraordinary difficulties to our journey. We, like our friend,
could have just given up and flown home. But then we would have
missed the relationships, the beauty, and the joy of living that came
with that last week of our travels.
Life itself is a great trip for most of us, but there will always come
the bump in the road that changes our plans. Each of us, someday,
will receive the call or face the doctor who
tells us that our dreams are shattered. At that
point we will have a choice: will we overcome
and live life fully, or will we whimper through
the rest of our existence until death? I believe
that God did not create us to give up life
before he rings the bell. God created us to be
I have spent more than twenty years of my
life caring for suffering people, first as a missionary
doctor, then as a medical oncologist.
I have often been the doctor handing out the bad news. I have seen
many people, both Christians and non-Christians, fall apart and never
live again. And I have seen others who, with hope and victory, face the
change that bad news brings. I have watched incredible men and
women reach down, pick up their broken dreams, and refashion them
along God's design into something more beautiful than they had ever
How did they do it so well? Were they unusual people, immune
to the trauma of tragedy? Or did they learn something in their walk
with God that we too can learn? I believe the latter is true. Every
person has access to all that is necessary to face bad news and broken
dreams victoriously. God has provided the way. He offers you the
freedom to make some powerful choices in the midst of your pain. As
you read this book, people who have been there before will point the
way, but the choices will be your own.
Chapter TwoChoose God's Place
in Your Crisis
Even before Catherine hit the emergency room, people of faith
began to pray to a God whom they believed could help her. Two great
pediatric spine doctors took Catherine to the operating room on the
morning after her admission and used the best science available to
relieve the pressure from her spinal cord and put her spine back
together again. One day later Catherine was walking.
As a doctor and father I had chosen the best physicians available.
They then used their hard-earned skills and remarkable technology
to shift the spine, position titanium rods, set bone grafts, and make
my daughter whole again. At the same time we, and people all over
the country, were praying fervently to the God we know can heal.
Catherine was on her way to health again. Thank God! Thank the
Who healed Catherine, God or the doctors? What part does
science play in our healing, and what part does God play? Is God
involved in healing, or is it really only science? Can we trust God to
take part in modern medicine, or should we leave him on the sidelines
as a most passionate cheerleader? Can we run to God while we are
holding the doctor's hand?
Evidence for God's Hand in Healing
Scientists, too, have wondered whether there is credible evidence that
God is involved in healing. The answer is yes. There now exist a
number of scientific studies in which patients have been randomized
to receive only scientific care or scientific care plus prayer. In one such
study, patients who were in a coronary-care unit after having a heart
attack were randomly assigned to good medical care alone or good
medical care plus intercessory prayer by people who believed in God's
healing power. Neither the patients nor their doctors knew to which
group each was assigned. The results demonstrated a clear improvement
in the outcomes of the group covered with prayer. Hundreds
of such studies have been gathered and published with more being
generated all the time. Science itself now suggests that God plays a
role in healing.
Along with the scientific evidence, many of us have personally
observed God working to heal. In 1983 God called my family to work
as missionaries in Eku, Nigeria. Tim and Janice McCall were close
friends and fellow missionaries who lived two houses down in our compound.
One night Janice woke us to ask us to come to their house to
pray. A poisonous snake had slipped into their house that evening and
had bitten their seven-year-old son, David. When we arrived with other
missionaries from the compound, David was very ill. He was delirious,
and his leg was turning black. There was no antivenom available anywhere
in the area. Feeling helplessly dependent on a power greater
than our own, we all gathered around David and poured our hearts
out before the God who heals. The next morning when we returned
to David, his leg was healing, and he was soon completely well.
Both science and personal observation point us to the fact that
God heals. For some of us, our own health experience affirms this as
well. On about my first birthday my parents noticed that I had
become less active and was stagnant in my development. A neurosurgical
evaluation revealed that my brain was degenerating and fluid was
building up inside my head. My kids still touch the holes in my skull
where the doctors attempted to relieve the pressure. Science failed,
and my parents were told that I was destined to die or to live my life
as a "vegetable." They were told to put me into an institution to
decrease the hardship on the rest of my family. My parents refused to
give up and instead allowed my Aunt Eunice to take me to her church
where faithful Christians laid hands on me and prayed, asking God to
heal me. I began to get well and eventually became a doctor who uses
science and believes in a God who heals.
Both scientific studies and personal experience provide evidence
that points to God's hand in healing, and, though no evidence provides
absolute proof, enough exists to make it reasonable to believe that God
is involved in the healing process. For many of us who work with
science every day, it is very helpful to know that it is reasonable to trust
in God for healing.