There is a saying that says: “Minor surgery is what happens to you and yours. Major surgery is what happens to me and mine.”
I see a lot of surgeries that most would consider minor — unless, of course, it happens to us. For instance, no mother will admit her son’s surgery to repair a broken arm was a minor surgery. And certainly no man will admit his vasectomy was a minor surgery.
When it happens to you, it isn’t minor.
They don’t seem minor because all surgeries are risky — even minor ones. If anyone actually read the surgery consent form, very few surgeries would ever take place. Surgical patients run the risk of strokes, blood clots, heart attacks, bleeding, infections and malpractice. All of that is before we discuss general anesthesia.
We can never predict which risk will become the fatal reality. Patients fall victim to what seems like random risks. Infection fells one while stroke falls another.
The 42-year-old man admitted to our Texas ER years ago had signed all the consent forms stating he was aware of all the risks involved in knee surgery. The surgery was performed by our most skilled orthopedic surgeon, and the patient went home the same day.
But, a week later, something about his minor surgery was quickly turning major. He was in our ER with breathing difficulties and radiating pain in his chest and extremities — all symptoms easily mistaken as a heart attack if treated by a less experienced staff.
He was having a PE — a pulmonary embolism. It’s one of the risks to which you consent, but complications in a case like this feel random and arbitrary. A PE is a blood clot that breaks lose from the operative site and targets the lungs like a bomb — a dumb bomb. It was dumb because neither the clot nor the family had any idea what kind of damage might result.
But the staff knew, and they told the family surgery needed to be immediate. The family hurried last-minute goodbyes as the staff exchanged knowing glances that the goodbyes had permanent possibilities.
As the orderlies streaked the patient toward the surgical doors, I witnessed one of the most powerful scenes I’ve yet witnessed in a hospital. The patient’s youngest son, barely able to top the gurney, threw his arms as far across his father’s waist as they would reach and brought the gurney to an abrupt halt. The orderlies had no time for healing hugs. Their order was to “transport, stat!”
Shrugging the boy aside, they slammed their hand on a red button that commanded the automatic doors open. With one last shove, the orderlies propelled dad into the antiseptic smell of his last hope, and the doors closed tight in the face of the surveillant boy. Placing both palms against the door, the boy began caressing it as though he were looking for a hidden key. Not finding a key, he pivoted and leaned his back against the door. But at some point, his disabling sobs began to weaken his Dutch-boy stand against this incredible dike of grief.
Unable to stand any longer, he slid down the door like a cartoon character hitting a brick wall. It was a courageous stand. He had barricaded the room with hope and was forbidding death to pass beyond the walls. Now, he was sliding down the wall that separated the hope of the waiting room from the reality playing out in the surgical suite, I walked over to the boy and let my larger frame slump down next to him.
It was one of those many times when I knew there was not much to say.
Squinting through the tears, gasping for hope, the boy asked me, “He’s going to be OK, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know,” I said. But, unfortunately, I was pretty sure I did know.
Sixty minutes later, when the doctor emerged wearing that stereotypical death look, he stretched out his hand and motioned us into the “family room.” Then we all knew.
In the months that followed, the family must have asked God some pretty Joblike questions. Job was the guy who got fresh with God over the random loss of his family — and lived to tell about it. God answers Job with some of the most poetic language found in the Bible and the ending seems happily-ever-after.
But the book is more about Job than it is about giving definitive meaning to the random acts of pain. The book is about a man who faced tragedy and still chose God. It is about a man who looked tragedy in the face and said, “To heck with it! I’m going to live.”
Our country grieves again this week as we try to grapple with the enigma of random pain. Like the boy who slid down the surgical doors, it frustrates us to be reminded that we can neither contain life nor forbid death. The sniper has made us choose again. Live today or die one piece at a time.
While I choose to live today, I must confess I also need courage to choose this path and others to walk with me. I find that courage in those I love, those who love me, and a God who sustains me in his heart.