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Trust Conquers Tragedy

I had to trust that no matter what happened God would not leave us abandoned.

"Dad's had an accident," my sister Joyce's voice was flat and controlled over the phone. "He tripped and hit his head … " Silence. "The helicopter brought him to the Royal Alex … " Her voice began to break. "They don't give us much hope."

"Charles," God's voice spoke within, "Do you trust me?"

My father Richard had been working on a twelve foot scaffolding, painting the high, arched ceiling of the farm shop. They had not put up the safety railing. Though nobody knows for sure what happened, we assume the heel of his boot caught on one of the boards and he fell backwards hitting his head but leaving no other bones broken. When the ambulance arrived, they immediately called for the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society helicopter which rushed him to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton. From there he was admitted to surgery under the care of head neurologist Dr. Steinke who put a shunt in the back of his head to drain the fluids and reduce the damage from pressure on his brain.

For me, back in New Zealand, that evening and the next morning seemed like a storm sea which held me not only far away from safe ground, but also forced me to have an utter dependence on forces outside myself. I suppose before that time I didn't want to admit that something terrible could happen to us.

When I talked with Mom the next day, the situation seemed to be getting worse as the movement of Dad's outer limbs was decreasing and he was giving no response to light, sound or touch. He was less responsive than when he first came in.

"What would you like me to do, Mom?"

"Come home," was her almost whispered response. "The family needs to be together."

… who has the right to decide, for another or oneself, when it's time to end it?

I had travelled to New Zealand after seminary to pray and read Scripture in preparation for the future God held for my ministry. Now I was learning the value of prayer in the cauldron of crisis. As I flew back I found myself constantly drawn into the presence of my heavenly Father. What should I pray? What do I ask for? I tried several times to ask for healing but I felt this was not the prayer in which the Holy Spirit was leading me. I felt confused.

"Charles," God's voice spoke within, "Do you trust me?"

"Yes, Lord."

"Can I look after your father?"

"Yes, Lord, you have the power to heal him and he will be home before I get there."

God's voice went deeper into my soul. "Yes, I can. But will you release your father to me, and trust that what I do is good?"

"Yes," came my fearful response. It felt like someone stepping out of a plane and trusting that the parachute was properly set up. The words from Daniel came to my mind: "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if He does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."

Yes, God could heal. But if He doesn't, He is still God, and in Christ we know that He still loves us. I had to trust that my father was in God's hands—that no matter what happened God would not leave us abandoned.

It was day four when I arrived. Days one to six are the most critical time for head-injury patients. During this time we waited and prayed. We read Scripture, played praise songs and surrounded him with love. Since Dad had been involved in several prayer groups throughout the city, we had many people come and pray or send us cards telling us of their prayer vigils. Still, by day seven there was no improvement. The doctors shared their concern: if a person does not begin to improve within six to eight days after the trauma, the hope for recovery decreases considerably.

By day eight Dad was scheduled for surgery to remove some of the brain clot in order to relieve pressure. But at the last minute the doctors decided against it. "We are grasping at straws, and I don't think it will make any difference for the outcome of the patient," said the surgeon.

Now we were totally waiting in the gracious hands of our God.

Since the situation was considered relatively hopeless the Head of the Intensive Care Unit asked us the question we all dreaded to hear: "How aggressive do you want us to be in keeping your father alive? We need to make a decision on having a tracheotomy and putting in a feeding tube, or we can simply let him go by natural causes."

We asked about his chance of recovery. Doctors hesitate to give predictions; they simply evaluate according to the outcome of past patients. "His best chances are approximately sixty percent that he will be in a vegetative state for the rest of his natural life. And a five percent chance that he will be able to go home in an extremely disabled state. This is taking into account the extent of his injuries, his age, and the amount of time that he has been in a coma."

But then the doctor added: "I see that faith in God is very important to your family. Your prayers and the encouragement to the staff have been heartening. This faith means a paradox for you. On the one hand you know that if Richard dies he goes to a better place where he will be happy and whole. On the other hand, life is a precious gift from God, to be fought for with every ounce of strength that God gives us. Somewhere within these two truths lies your decision."

Amidst tears, exhaustion and struggling spirits, we gathered together as a family. The questions hung in the air, unanswered, painful. Will we know the man who comes back from the hospital? Will he know us? What is life? And who has the right to decide, for another or oneself, when it's time to end it? Who truly can be God, save God alone?

We ended that evening, not with a decision, but with a covenant to support and pray for one another that God would reveal His will. Either way, if God was going to save, He could do it with or without the hospital.

Word had gone out in many directions, and many prayers were being offered. A prayer group at Dominion Chalmers United Church in Ottawa had been praying for Richard regularly since the day after his accident. The next day there were two significant events which we believe were signs in answer to our prayers. They confirmed the need for us to do everything to keep Dad alive.

First Jim, my sister Joyce's oldest boy, went for his first visit to see his grandpa in the hospital. As a young man of 11, he went into the intensive care unit with more assurance than most adults and then began to chatter to his grandpa as if he heard every word. When Mom arrived at the entrance to Dad's room, Jim was talking. "It's okay, Grandpa, you're goin' to come home soon. Everything's goin' to be fine."

As he spoke, Mom recalled that God had given her and Dad a promise when Jim was born, that Jim would be used for a special purpose. Mom felt the weight of the decision being taken from her and the promise of God's peace settle on her.

The second sign was just as dramatic. Later that evening when we were gathered praying at home we received a phone call. "He blinked!" the voice came from Tom my oldest brother. While Tom's wife had been speaking to Dad during their visit, he had blinked in response. Though the doctors had insisted it was an involuntary muscle spasm, he did it again as she spoke. Then later as I told Dad that more than 1,000 people around the world were praying for him, a single tear rolled down his face.

In the same period, Richard's friend and former minister Dr. Roy Nicholl visited him, and felt sure that Richard had squeezed his hand at the end of a prayer. In the days that followed, the medical professionals were constantly amazed at what was happening. When Dad had another MRI done on day 15, the technician wrote in his report: "The second surgery to remove the massive blood clot was very successful." The neurosurgeon had to re-write the report saying the second surgery had never been done. The blood clot had dissipated naturally. That day they moved Dad to a regular ward.

When Dad left the hospital six weeks after being admitted, Dr. Steinke shook his hand and said: "I don't usually like being wrong about a diagnosis, but in your case, Richard, I'm glad I was. This is definitely a miracle!"

Dad could remember hardly any of the conversations or events in the hospital. Though he was speaking for the last three weeks of his stay and could hold a coherent conversation, in the next hour he would remember none of it.

Today, Dad is doing well. He even passed his driver's test so he can once again work on the family farm. He does have some trouble with projects that require several steps of logic to complete. He also needs extra sleep, which is very common with brain injuries. As a family we are blessed that he knows the family and loves us. If I could pinpoint any change in his personality, I'd say he has become more gentle and thoughtful.

The whole family has learned a great deal through this crisis but Dad says it all in his own words: "I have to trust the Holy Spirit to guide me every day. Some days are more difficult than others; but God guides me in what I do and what I say."

This is a true story about Richard T. Jackson, told by his son Charles. Richard and his wife Reta are building a retirement home close to their Albertan farm.

Originally published in the Fellowship Magazine, September 1997.




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