An all-expenses-paid vacation to Switzerland ought to be the trip of a lifetime. But as my husband Dan and I boarded the plane bound for the Alps, we had no idea we were also starting a journey that would lead us closer to God. The weather, the landscape, the food and fellowship were fantastic, but during a four-hour hike in the mountains Dan just couldn’t seem to shake a bad heartburn.
We’re in our mid-seventies, but haven’t lost our wanderlust. Who thinks about age when everything is going well, and travel opportunities arise? Soon we were heading from our home in England to visit old friends in Canada. Many of our destinations were places Dan knew from his youth, and his excitement was contagious. But again there was that pain in his chest, though he rarely mentioned it.
On the way home we scheduled in a few weeks to visit our sons in America and catch up with their growing families. There, in western Pennsylvania, Dan’s chest pain intensified to the point where we had to check in to a hospital. The diagnosis: a badly damaged heart valve, requiring an immediate aortic valve replacement. In a moment, our traveling days were over. We thanked the staff for their diagnosis, but we needed time to absorb the news, and asked the surgical staff to let us consider the next step in prayer.
My background as a nurse left me with no illusions about the risks we were facing, and the possibilities swirled in my mind. What if Dan was incapacitated by a stroke? What were the odds of a kidney shutdown, followed by lifetime dialysis? Or was it God’s plan that I become a widow? In a flash I realized the protection we had been under during these months of travel. Sudden death in a remote place had not been a distant possibility.
When something life-threatening looms, part of you wants to rush in and fix it. But your soul also requires time and quiet to consider the implications, more spiritual than practical, of a life and marriage whose days might be numbered.
Dan and I took some days of consideration and quiet, giving us the chance to share our burdens and unanswerable questions with family and members of our church. We read together the words of Jesus and his followers. In James 5:14, the apostle asked – almost commanded, it seemed – “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.”
Dan’s heart needed healing, but didn’t both of our hearts need healing from everything that caused restlessness or prevented us from being close to Jesus? This church prayer was a simple yet powerful step we needed to take. It didn’t matter that the physical healing might come through a surgeon’s hand. We saw no contradiction. We rose up from that prayer for healing and forgiveness, full of peace and renewed courage. Our commitment to God and to each other had been reconfirmed.
Dan decided to proceed with the surgery. As he headed into the operating room, we knew that we were surrounded by the prayers of hundreds of fellow believers and friends. These prayers were so tangible it seemed I could feel them with both of my hands. Our grandchildren and their classmates lit candles for hope.
Up to that point, I had wondered how it would feel to see my husband of forty-seven years being pushed away on a stretcher. Would I hide in a waiting room corner with a Bible, desperately seeking words of comfort? Would I be able to pray, or only pace the halls? But as I entered the waiting area, I saw my worry and hope reflected in the faces of others.
In moments, I found myself deep in conversation and intimately involved in the stories of people I had never seen before. Waiting rooms have a way of dismantling the polite distances that strangers are so good at maintaining. Here we were at 5:00 a.m., sharing surprisingly personal details, laughter, and prayers. We began to feel as if we’d known each other for years.
I handed over my well-thumbed copy of Rich in Years to a middle-aged woman in the next chair. She scanned the chapter titles and turned to me. “I need all of these now, and I was meant to get this today,” she said, explaining that both she and her husband had cancer, but that her greatest immediate fear was driving him home in the dark that night, a task she usually left to his expertise. An elderly man came in weeping after seeing his wife in the recovery area. I don’t even remember what we talked about, but looking back, I realize that the tears stopped because he could speak with someone for a moment, someone who could listen and relate.
Another woman told me that her husband was slow to recover after surgery with a possible stroke. In the depths of her emotion, she was questioning the meaning of her marriage of forty years and the birth of a son with sickle cell anemia. In the face of such pain, we could only offer our prayers and words of encouragement that felt inadequate. But the connections formed during these waiting hours echoed throughout the next days as we met each other in the halls and shared quick updates or asked each other for more prayers.
Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital seemed a fitting environment for the faith that upheld us. It was named for the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order founded in Ireland in 1831 with a calling to serve the poor and sick, especially women and children. Now only five elderly sisters remain at the hospital, but they humbly told us that even this is in God’s plan. “He is showing his Spirit in other places,” they explain. Their calling remains; they walk the halls each day, simply being a prayerful presence.
Finally the surgeon called us in with good news. It was hard to see my husband still unconscious, connected to machines and monitors, but he responded when we assured him that all was well.
Then the surgeon started to worry about possible bleeding, and almost immediately whisked Dan back for a second operation. It felt like an attack on our faith, and took all our courage to re-group and place our trust in God again.
A few hours later we had cause for thanks and praise when he returned a second time. One of the operating room nurses confirmed what we had been thinking: God’s hand is always over us, but he needs our prayers in his work of healing.
Now we’re back at home, with strength increasing each day. We thank God for the new life we have together and look forward to the opportunities to serve him in return.