‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed…for the battle is not yours but God’s.’ (2 Chronicles 20:15)
Gil held my hand as we walked across the skywalk toward Memorial Hospital at the UNC Medical Center on Tuesday morning, December 6, 2011. It was about 7:30 a.m. and the nurses, attendants and others who had worked all night at the hospitals were streaming toward the parking deck as we were leaving it, while morning shift workers joined us as we walked high across Manning Drive and then down the stairs toward the waiting hospital doors.
I was still shaking slightly, but not nearly as much as I had been the night before. We stopped first at the information desk just inside the lobby of Memorial – the oldest of the hospitals in the Medical Center. A man at the information counter directed us to the registration area for patients arriving for surgery. I pulled a ticket with a number on it from the dispenser and Gil and I sat down to wait. Soon my number was called and I walked to the check-in counter. I handed over my insurance card, answered a few questions and then the clerk strapped a hospital bracelet around my wrist with my pertinent information on it. These routine procedures had a calming effect on me and I was grateful for them.
Next, we took an elevator up to the pre-surgical waiting room on the second floor, where I registered again. Remembering what the Lord had taught me about praying for others in a waiting room, I looked discretely at the people around me and asked the Lord to fill the room with his presence. Soon after my name was called and we were escorted into the surgical preparation room. There, my vital signs were taken and I changed into a surgical gown. A representative from the surgical team arrived and reviewed the steps that would be taken in surgery to remove the tumor. I was asked to sign waivers, giving my surgeon permission to do a skin graft and to transplant bone and pectoral muscle to the surgical area, if these procedures would be needed in order to close the wound. It was estimated that the surgery would take 8 ½ hours. I wrote my initials next to each item, signed the form and handed it back to the representative. I inhaled deeply and smiled feebly at Gil.
Dr. Weissler arrived next. He asked how I was doing and I told him about my appointment the day before with the oncology radiologist and how deeply his assessment of my condition had shaken me. Dr. Weissler looked at me with a kind expression and said, “Well, today is the day that tumor comes out.” He said it with such confidence that I was reassured immediately. “This is the man I want operating on me, I thought.” Dr. Weissler left to prepare for the surgery and the attendants arrived shortly after that to wheel the gurney on which I lay down the hall and into the elevator. Gil kissed my cheek and then I was off.
Meanwhile, friends back in Raleigh and across the country were praying for me. My friend Ellyn later told me that as she prayed she saw countless angels dressed for battle peeling off to the left and to the right from the throne of God. There was no question that they had been given their marching orders and were on their way in obedience to do battle on my behalf. In her mind’s eye she saw the unwelcome cancerous tumor inexplicably being lifted right out with a minimal amount of invasion to me.
A number of good friends from St. David’s, the school where Gil teaches and where Caleb is a student, and friends from several churches in Raleigh showed up throughout the day to keep Gil company, to laugh and tell stories, and to pray. This Christian fellowship sustained him through what he expected would be a very long and stressful wait. Dr. Weissler told Gil that there would be no mid-operation reports or updates and that no news is good news, so when he got a page to meet with him five hours into the 8 ½ hour surgery Gil was expecting only news of the worst sort. But when Dr. Weissler entered the consultation in street clothes and his white coat Gil knew that the operation was over and he had already changed clothes. He was smiling and generous in demeanor. He sat down and said, “It went better than we had any right to expect.” Gil sat listening as Dr. Weissler noted, one by one, that the worst things we thought would be our burden failed to materialize. The facial nerve was spared and Dr. Weissler was surprised and puzzled. “I wish I had an explanation to give you, but I can’t explain it,” he said. “The nerve was just there, untouched by the carcinoma.” Dr. Weissler was stunned. “I took frozen sections of the nerve and sent them to pathology and they came back negative. Every one of them.” Gil said that pastors have a way of explaining this kind of thing. “What is it?” Dr. Weissler asked. “We say, ‘the tomb is empty and Christ has risen.” “Indeed,” he said.
Meanwhile, I had been taken to the recovery room. I remember a nurse trying to wake me up, but I was in the middle of a dream and I didn’t want it to end. In it I was listening to a talk given by a clergy friend, Becki Neumann, about the apostle Paul’s use of the term, “bear,” in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Galatians. I had heard her give this talk at a recent retreat for clergywomen in my denomination, so I must have been recalling it in my dream. Paul uses the term, “bear” three times in that chapter, so she had called her presentation, “Paul and the three bears.” At the point when the nurse was trying to get me to open my eyes, I had only heard about the first two “bears” and I didn’t want to wake up until I had heard about the last one. Reluctantly, I open my eyes – and I was completely calm. I had no idea whether I still had my facial nerve, but I wasn’t concerned. God’s peace filled me so completely. This was another answer to prayer because I had been anxious about this moment and what I might discover about my face. I learned later that a friend had been praying that I would be in God’s presence while under the anesthesia, with visions of grace and peace, and that I would emerge as refreshed as if I had been to a spa. Her prayer was certainly answered.
The next thing I recall is being wheeled out of an elevator, on a hospital gurney. By God’s grace, Emily and Gil were standing by those same elevator doors. I was delighted to see them and Gil told me quickly as I was being rolled down the hallway about the extraordinary news concerning my face. I had been filled with such a sense of elation that I hadn’t even noticed. At around 6 pm, Gil headed back to Raleigh and Emily to her apartment in Chapel Hill. We thought it best that Caleb remain in school during my hospital stay, since he was preparing for finals, so he was staying the night at the home of his friend, Johnny, as he had the night before.
Once home Gil quickly posted the joyous news about my surgery on my CaringBridge site. The responses were immediate. That night there was much rejoicing in Raleigh and beyond about the miraculous work the Lord had done that day.