I worked as a hospice chaplain for five years. Most people think of hospice as a service for the dying but they are wrong; it’s actually just a different way of practicing medicine. While current mainstream medicine concentrates its formidable arsenal of skills and technology on the goal of preventing death, hospice uses many of those same tools plus a wide range of its own to enhance the quality of life. The biggest difference is that while the mainstream model always fails in the end because death is intrinsic to physical life, the hospice model with its focus on improving quality of life need never fail since it is always possible to do something that will give joy and blessing to someone else.
I often wonder how the world would be different if medical practitioners gave up their futile wrestling match with the grim reaper and embraced the goal of palliative care for everyone, that is, care that aims to improve quality of life. This wouldn’t mean that current technologies would need to be abandoned (procedures like chemotherapy and surgery have always been part of hospice treatment) but the attitude would be different for doctor and patient. Treatment that is often perceived as a desperate act would instead be seen as a life-enriching gift and approaches to medical care could be expanded. Hospice care can, for example, include taking an avid outdoorsman on a fishing trip or helping a lifelong artist start painting again.
The greatest beneficiary of this new objective and attitude might be our culture as a whole. Today professional medicine is rightly seen by many as a place to run in the face of trouble. In this new model, it would become one of many disciplines and practices that taken together holistically ensure a high quality of life. This could, in turn, lead to a new style of day to day living that seeks more than mere survival but strives instead to maximize physical, spiritual and mental wellness in individuals and among an entire community.
The amputation of my left foot guaranteed that I would spend time and maybe lots of time in a wheelchair. For weeks I did everything I could to stay away from that chair preferring the comfort of my bed. I did this, in part, because I felt “normal” in bed while sitting in the chair reminded me that I really wasn’t.
Today I see things differently. I see myself as healthy, active and strong and my chair as playing a big part in making me that way and for me that counts it as a gift. Admittedly wheelchair travel has it’s challenges but it seems to me that facing and overcoming challenges is the very thing that makes us wise and strong and gives life a spice of adventure not just for wheelchair jockeys like me but for everyone.
As I look back on my earlier attitude toward the chair I realize that my problem was actually fear. My amputation had opened for me a world of joy-filled opportunities (including this blog) but I was only feeling loss because I was clinging to what used to be while failing (or was it refusing) to see the radically new life spread before me. Today I still don’t love my chair but I am grateful for it. I’ve even learned to enjoy parts of wheelchair life like that handy placard that guarantees the car I’m riding in a first class parking place, the advantage of an excellent seat wherever I go because I always bring it with me and the awesomeness of being able to turn 360 degrees on a dime anywhere anytime. In the end the device is just a tool and when it comes to tools their value depends on what we do with them.
I was sitting in my surgeon’s office waiting for a monthly appointment when another patient who like me was an amputee asked me how I was doing. I said what I usually say, “Terrific!” and returned the question. I guess he hadn’t heard me because he responded, “So so” and added “That’s the best we can hope for” (referring to his surgery I guess.)
I suppose I should have let his comment go but the way he’d put it had included me in his dour outlook so I said, “I see it differently. I never look at what I’ve lost, I look at what I have left and concentrate on making it great.”
Every difficulty that we face comes attached to a world of opportunities. God gave each of us life for a reason and our financial, relational and medical losses don’t hinder that purpose. In fact the Bible tells us that for those who live by the Creator’s grace (which would seem to include all of us) everything works together for good. That doesn’t mean that only good things happen and there are no defeats or even disasters but it does mean that even the heaviest losses are not endings. They are enclosed within a purpose that surges steadily toward something better. What we call losses do not mean God has abandoned us, they only mark a step toward fulfillment of God’s plan.
The only people who can thwart God’s plan is us if we abandon faith and throw in the towel. Our job is to identify opportunities that were not possible before the loss but are possible now and grasping them continue to live a joyful life that contributes great things to the world.
Perhaps the strangest event that happened on my long journey to recovery (so far) came at the moment of greatest stress. I had been wheeled out of my hospital room and was on my way to surgery where my left foot would be amputated. My mind was whirling; one minute soaring into heights of faith then plunging into terror the next. Suddenly I entered a hall that had one exit, a metal garage-type door. As I lifted my head from the bed on which I was being transported I gasped with surprise. In the center of that door stood the figure of a tall man standing legs apart and arms akimbo. I peeled my eyes trying to see what it was but the figure was was backlit by ambient lighting.
As my bed rolled closer my confusion became shock. The figure standing like an ancient hero in front of that steel door was a former member of my church who (I thought) had moved to a different state. I knew him as a quiet dignified retired guy. But now he stood face to face in front of me assuming an unlikely pose in this most unlikely place.
The steel door opened and my shock became bewilderment as he turned and walked alongside my bed into the pre-op room. As a former hospice chaplain I knew this was sacred territory barred even to families but there he was sitting quietly beside me as I awaited surgery.
Then I remembered the Bible verse that warns us that sometimes we entertain angels unaware and wondered if that’s what this was. I still wonder but more often when I look back now I tend to think about the church and what a blessing it is to be part of a community that loves and cares about each member. In this case it meant that at my darkest moment I was not alone.
For a week my prayers had focused on this one afternoon. My physical therapists were coming to my house and this was the day was supposed to stand up from my bedside on my own power. The journey to this moment had begun three months ago with the amputation of my left leg below the knee to save me from a raging infection in my foot. Most of my life since then was centered on rehabilitation to which I devoted my whole heart’ I was determined to walk again with a hanger and proving the ability stand up on my own was a critical measuring point on the journey to that goal.
My journey to this point had been filled with miracles. Throughout my prayers were answered by a distinct voice saying “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” And the promise proved true again and again. For example I’ve never endured a moment of pain through this entire process including the days after amputation. I was offered pain meds every day but I never needed even an aspirin!
Could one more miracle bless my effort to prove I could stand up on one leg? Prior efforts had all failed as I either pitched forward or fell back and had to be caught by my therapists. If I couldn’i demonstrate progress soon insurance would cancel my therapy.
This special afternoon I perched on the edge of my bed anxious and afraid. As my therapists engaged in casual conversation one of them suggested that I try the more advanced technique of pushing up off the bed with my right hand as I lifted my bottom. He then returned to conversation.
I put my hand down and felt a burst of energy. I wasn’t supposed to stand until everyone was ready but I was suddenly completely ready. I pushed with my hand and in a single motion I was standing straight and tall on my one leg. The therapists gasped jumping to my aid but no help was needed. For the first time since the amputation I was standing on my own one foot.
The bedroom was filled with cheers and laughter. Bui later, after therapy I remembered that jolt of energy and bowing my head offered a prayer of thanksgiving for one more miracle given.