When the Doctor Becomes the Patient

Recently Alan and I had the privilege of listening to the reflections of the surgeon who had operated on Alan 11 years ago. When Brian cared for Alan’s medical needs, he was young— a freshly minted surgeon who had settled in Grand Rapids after graduating from Yale, graduate school and a medical degree from the University of Michigan, and residency at Cleveland Clinic. With both PhD and M.D. degrees, Brian was on the cutting edge of research and technological training. We have been grateful for Brian’s continuing, compassionate care at his office, and we also see him often in passing at our church, where we all attend.

Brian is about the age of our oldest son (45), so we were shocked when we heard that he himself had been diagnosed with cancer, but it wasn’t until a few days ago that we heard more of his story at the January meeting of our local CMDA (Christian Medical and Dental Association). As it turns out, eighteen months ago, Brian was diagnosed with two primary cancers: sarcoma and renal.

The details of his journey are his to tell, but I have asked permission to share some of his reflections on dealing with the cancer in his life and how it has impacted his practice. He was very open about the terror he felt in waiting for further testing to actually understand the extent of his disease and get a feeling for his prognosis. Even as a believer, it’s excruciating to be in the emotional limbo that is inevitable as you wait to hear if you’re going to live or die.

He mentioned crying out to God in deep anguish, not asking to be miraculously healed, but just asking for his testing date to be moved up so he didn’t have to wait so long to know how serious his illness was. During that prayer, his phone rang, and a secretary told him there had been a cancellation so that he could be seen earlier! This answer to his specific prayer gave him a deep sense of peace that God did see and hear him, and that God had everything under control, even though Brian did not! This settled peace allowed Brian to feel secure in God’s love and trust Him, no matter what comes.

It also reminded Brian of the importance of committing our ways to God not just once, but at all times, to daily work at becoming all that God has created us to be, and to be good stewards of the time, talent, and treasure God has given us.

Brian also reflected on the benefits of being a patient. It has made him more compassionate and concerned with the quality of life, not just how long a person has to live. He now understands first-hand the terror of not knowing and how painful it is to wait for testing and results. One of the take-homes for me (as a non-medical person), is simply to be more empathetic with people who are having to deal with all the unknowns of their disease—ultimately, what are the chances for life and risk of death?

During the Q&A afterward, I asked Brian to elaborate more on decision-making styles. He said people fall into three main groups: those who want to make their own decisions based on information the medical system provides; those who want to work closely with the physician to form a treatment plan that seems good to both; and those who ask the physician to make the decision based on the doctor’s best judgment. (“What would YOU do if it were you?”) Brian says the hardest patients are those who make their own decisions, sometimes based on opinions very contrary to the best that medical wisdom can offer. He has never “fired” a patient (refused to care for them), but he says some surgeons will send patients elsewhere if they believe the treatment plan the patient demands will be deleterious to the patient’s health.

This makes me think of the way people respond to the Great Physician, the Lord God Almighty. Some people come to God, crying out for mercy and do find “grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16) as Brian has done. They are willing to trust God and surrender to His superior wisdom, recognizing his love and knowing that His plans are best, even though they are not what he (we) might have chosen. Some people bargain with God, trying to work out a plan based on God’s input but making their own final decisions. Some people listen to God’s Word but then disregard His teachings and choose their own way. These people are headed for disaster. I don’t think God “fires” anybody either, but He will let us go astray if we want to. Why? Because ultimately, freedom to choose is a litmus test of love and respect. God gives us the gift of freedom because He loves us. Yes, He will intervene if we cry out to him, but He won’t force us to do things HIS way.

Are you struggling to make a good decision about some problem in your life? It might be a medical issue, or it might be one of a thousand other issues, but know that God Almighty is there, and He really does care! If you cry out to him in repentance and faith, He will listen, and He will help. Trust Him! He knows what’s best for each of us, and He is not silent if you seek Him with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11-13, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.”)

I just finished memorizing Psalm 34, and it is so full of wisdom that I’m going to include the entire psalm. Please read it! You can read it all in under two minutes. Think of it as rubbing healing balm onto your sore soul!

I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked unto him, and were lightened: and their faces were not ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them. O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him. O fear the Lord, ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him. 10 The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing. 11 Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord. 12 What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good? 13 Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. 14 Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. 15 The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. 16 The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. 17 The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. 18 The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. 19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all. 20 He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken. 21 Evil shall slay the wicked: and they that hate the righteous shall be desolate. 22 The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.”