Healing What Ails us
Msgr. Stephen Worsley, MD
Vice President, Mission & Ethics
St. Joseph Hospital
The illness of someone we love can lead to desperation when what we need is faith.
Some years ago a young teenager named Tom was admitted to the children's hospital at a major medical center. Tom had cystic fibrosis. In fact he was dying of it. Over the years he had received the very best care physicians could provide. Yet each year he lived, Tom moved closer to an inevitable and painful end.
Tom's parents loved him a lot. They were not willing let Tom die without a fight. So they fought.
Actually they fought a lot. They fought with the staff at the hospital. In fact, Tom's parents fought so much that none of the nurses wanted him on their floor anymore. Not that they didn't still care about Tom. They had nursed him through his many crises. But they were worn out by his parents' constant demands and complaints. They were accustomed to dealing with families in pain. But the scenes that accompanied Tom's admissions were increasingly disruptive when they had so many other sick children to care for.
Tom's last admission to the hospital occurred shortly after the new interns arrived in July. Tom got a new doctor, one who didn't know him or his parents, but who learned quickly. Between threats that they would call the president of the hospital if Tom's meals weren't delivered precisely on time, Tom's parents peppered the new intern with questions about where they should go next: to the Mayo Clinic or to Johns Hopkins. Obviously Children's Hospital wasn't the right place. It was failing their son. If only they could find the right doctor . . . .
Sensing the new intern's bewilderment, a wise senior physician suggested the intern listen to what wasn't being said.
Gradually it occurred to the intern that no one was speaking with Tom about his approaching death. His parents were talking to Tom about where he would attend college and graduate school, while most of the clinical staff was keeping a safe distance trying to avoid the wrath of Tom's parents.
All the while, Tom was miserable. His illness was awful. It left him chronically short of breath. Above all, he was lonely. No one would talk to him about what he knew in his heart was happening to him. He was afraid and very much alone.
One day the intern found a chance to speak with each of Tom's parents, separately. When asked what was going to happen to Tom, each acknowledged their son was dying. In fact, neither expected him to live to Thanksgiving. But neither parent had spoken to the other about what they knew would happen. In their desperation and anguish each had focused solely on finding a cure for Tom's physical illness. If only they could get to Mayo . . . or Hopkins.
In today's Gospel, we hear of four men who carry a paralyzed man to be healed by Jesus.
Even with four men, carrying a stretcher for any distance is difficult. I imagine carrying a stretcher up onto a roof would be even more tricky. When I envision four men lowering a man on a stretcher through a roof, I can only envision disaster. What if they drop the stretcher? What if the stretcher isn't perfectly level? Since the man is paralyzed, he can't cling to the sides if he starts to slide. What if the weakened roof begins to cave in and one of the stretcher bearers slips through the hole? What if the paralytic falls and the personal injury attorneys rush in?
It is easy to see desperation in this story.
Jesus sees faith.
The paralytic's friends seek a physical cure. Jesus knows we need more.
The simple fact is that everyone alive today will die . . . you, me, the president, everyone. We will spend $2 trillion dollars on health care in our country this year and still two and a half million people will die. There is much we can do to improve our health care system. But once we have done it, we will still die. And many of us will suffer unnecessarily.
When faced with illness or death, most people I know are tempted to focus exclusively on their need for a physical cure. But what of our spirits? What of our need to be healed mind, body and soul? Our creator made us much more than physical beings. Consequently when we suffer, we suffer more than physical pain, but emotionally and spiritual as well. We suffer when we are separated from those we love and from those who love us — our friends, our families and God.
Jesus clearly understood that in the Gospel we just heard. And he understands it in our lives today. Jesus was and is willing to heal. But healing, especially the healing of hurts and loss, is not merely a passive experience. Time alone will not do it. Denial is more an obstacle than a help.
Just as lying in bed alone is not helpful when we are bleeding profusely, so too ignoring the need for healing of relationships with family, friends and with God will not bring us peace.
Tom, the young man with cystic fibrosis, didn't end up going to Mayo or Johns Hopkins. He was already receiving superb medical care at Children's Hospital. More importantly to him, he received what he craved when his parents found the courage to listen to his fears and to ask what he wanted. Together they made the decision to go home. There supported by his family's love and a nurse from his pediatrician's office, Tom died in his own bed, healed of the desperate loneliness he had known when he was only allowed to speak of physical cures.
We don't need to wait for Congress to reform health care before we seek healing for the rest of what ails us. God is ready. We need only be willing to accept God's grace and cooperate with it.
We can start by asking, which relationships in my life need healing? To whom do I yearn to be closer? My parents? Or my children? Do I experience God's presence every day?
What help do I need to experience that love? What am I going to do this week to get that help? Today is the best time to start. While we still can!