Healing Line

Healing Line

Moving Beyond Physical Healing

by David Levy, MD and MaryAnn Nguyen–Kwok
Fall 2013

An air of tension greeted me when I entered the exam room. As a neurosurgeon who specializes in aneurysms, I am often met with distressed patients who convey their worry through coldness, impatience, or anger. Today was no different.

Talia was a thin, attractive woman wearing an exasperated, unhappy expression. Sitting next to her was her anxious husband, an equally handsome and trim man. Together they were an attractive pair — the picture of upper middle class fitness. Talia's mother was in the room as well and was sitting in the third chair looking apprehensive.

Two years of progressively worsening headaches brought her to me. Her primary care doctor had ordered an MRI, and the radiologist had reported an aneurysm. Sitting across from them, I turned the computer screen around so they could see the small bump on the vessel that had been labeled an aneurysm. The bump did not qualify as an aneurysm in danger of rupture, so I ordered another scan in the future. I informed her that the bulge on her vessel was neither dangerous nor was it causing her headaches. She was obviously expecting bad news and this was a surprise to her.

We discussed her headaches and symptoms. Talia said that her two years of headaches had begun to get more serious in the last six months, so I asked if she had experienced any emotional trauma. She paused and sat back in her chair. She had come in with an idea that she would need surgery of some kind. Now the danger of dying from a bleeding aneurysm seemed remote, and the visit was taking an unexpected turn. After a few moments, she said, "My son Robbie died two years ago…and I don't think I'm over it yet. The loss is so big that I doubt that I will ever feel the same again."

I probed further about the death of her son, and she told me that he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Everything was done to control the disease, but the cancer continued to spread, and he died at the tender age of eighteen. As she chronicled her story, her pain was visible.

"Do you have a faith or religion?" I asked.

She shrugged, "Christian, I guess, but I don't go to church."

"Did you stop going to church when your son died?" I asked.

"Yeah," she replied flatly, staring at the wall behind me.

I was hesitant to proceed because of her coldness. The fact that her husband and mother were present also affected the atmosphere. I feared she might be less likely to open up in the presence of those closest to her.

In addition, she appeared to be an educated woman with upper class mentality — meaning that she might be less inclined toward spiritual matters. Often, I have found that those in this upper socioeconomic group do not feel like they need God because of the resources they have at their fingertips.

I didn't want to offend her, knowing that she was no longer attending church. Her struggle with her faith indicated that she might have been hurt by the religious establishment. Despite this risk, however, I couldn't ignore this shell of a woman in front of me. For in a place where there was beauty and should have been joy, there was none. While her appearance was striking, her eyes were vacant, without warmth. I couldn't leave her like that without trying to rescue her from that place.

"Whenever a child dies before a parent, it is a tremendous blow. There is often a great sense of injustice," I said. "I can't explain why Robbie died, but I can attest that God gave him grace to go through his trial two years ago." She nodded. I paused, and then continued slowly. "Watching Robbie suffer, you may have taken offense at God. It is very common to become angry and take up a grudge against God when those we love go through difficult times, but when we do, we are in a dangerous and lonely place."

"You're right," she said, frowning. "Robbie seemed to have a peace about it, but I've had a problem with it for the last two years. I don't understand why God thought I could do this…that I could actually live without Robbie." Some fire came into her eyes.

But Talia was stuck. Many of us remain stuck when we do not agree with God's decisions. Talia was stuck because she refused to move close to a God who would allow Robbie to suffer and die. She had prayed repeatedly, and her prayers were answered…"No."

Although Robbie was not angry with God over his suffering, Talia was. I have seen such anger, if unresolved, turn into resentment and bitterness. Bitterness against anyone, including God, can cause illness. We must release our resentment toward God through recognizing that He loves us and always has the best intentions for us — even if it doesn't appear true because of the pain we experience.

"I wonder if there are some things for which you are thankful, that happened before and after Robbie died," I suggested, seeing if she was ready to move toward God.

She sat back in her chair again, thinking. After a few moments, expressionless, she began naming a few things. She was thankful for her job, her daughter, and her husband. I reminded her of her resources and education, and she lifted her eyebrows in recognition of blessings that she had taken for granted. Talia smiled slightly, and she said that she was thankful for those things. As she continued to give thanks, her countenance began to change. I hoped that she was softening.

At this point, I sensed that she needed affirmation. I looked into her eyes and spoke truth to her. "God is not angry with you," I said. "He is not punishing you. He is not disappointed with you." I paused, and then said quietly, "I know that He misses you." Talia gave no sign that she had received my words. She was staring straight ahead, over my shoulder. However, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her husband nod, indicating that I was on the right track. I could tell that he hoped that his wife could be freed from her prison of despair.

"You have a sensitive heart and a sensitive spirit. You are still grieving the loss of your son," I continued. "And that's OK."

She nodded her head slowly in agreement.

I was then prompted to tell her what God thought of her. "Do you realize who you are? You are a daughter of the King of the universe. That's who you are. It's your identity. Nothing can change your identity. No matter what happens to you or to others around you, you are a daughter of the King. You are on this earth to do something special. Children are a gift from God and you are a loving mother, but you have a calling separate from your children. You have a destiny to overcome this and then to turn around and help others who are going through similar trials."

Her eyes glazed over. I thought that I had lost her.

"God's relationship with Robbie is between God and Robbie — just as God's relationship with you is just between the two of you. It may be hard for you to imagine, but God loves Robbie even more than you do."

She blinked and moved her head backward, indicating that she had never considered God's love for Robbie as being greater than her own.

"Unfortunately, the 'Why?' questions rarely get answered in this life. 'Why?' or 'Why me?' questions assume a victim mentality. You are not a victim, you are an overcomer. I encourage you to ask 'What' or 'How' questions. 'What do you want me to know about You that will help me through this?' 'How do You want me to move forward?' 'What shall I do with my feelings of despair?' Don't just ask these as rhetorical questions but take time to listen for the answers. God wants to speak to you."

She nodded but did not smile. I wanted to connect her with her God — the only One who could breathe life into the joyless shell.

I asked if I could pray for her, and she said, "Yes." I stood to the side of her with my hand on her left shoulder. I asked her husband to put his hand on her right shoulder. I asked God to bless her life with knowing how much He loved her, giving her clarity and purpose. I asked God to bless her with healing from her debilitating headaches. I blessed her marriage, sensing that it was at a breaking point because of her depression, and then I blessed her with good life choices and decisions.

Talia nodded slightly after the prayer but gave no indication that anything had changed. Her eyes appeared brighter than when she had come in. When she came out of the exam room, she seemed tranquil, but I couldn't tell if my words of encouragement had pierced her cocoon of grief, anger, and depression. Her husband and mother shook my hand warmly and thanked me for taking the extra time to talk with her. It was evident that they had felt as though they had lost her.

Days later, Sylvia, the physician who had treated Talia's son, came to my office looking bewildered. "What did you say to her?" she asked. "I was the one who took care of her son. He was a handsome boy and that was one of my most painful cases. It was a very depressing situation. What did you say?"

"I told her that God gave grace to her son to go through his trial, but her relationship to God is separate from her son's. God loves her son more than she does, and He always has her best interest in mind."

"Her son was an amazing boy with lots of friends," said Sylvia. "There were always kids in his hospital room."

"I think that she has been angry with God — very common when a child dies," I said.

"Do you know what she told me after her visit with you?" Sylvia asked.

"What did she say?"

"'He healed me,' she said. 'He healed me.'"

A few months later, I received a letter from Talia, indicating that the healing she had experienced was more than just physical.

"Thank you for choosing to listen to your heart, looking beyond the surface and really seeing 'me.' Since Robbie died, I had convinced myself to never relinquish my grip on my grief. I had confined him to a timeless loop of goneness, a place where it is cold — like the emptiness between planets. This space was safe because it helped me avoid terror and truth. I had locked up my heart and lost myself and Robbie in the process. That is where you came in. You recognized the death in me — but also, life — and that is what you focused on. Thank you for speaking life into the vortex of darkness, because as you did, I was able to breathe my first breath since Robbie died. Since that hour in your office, I've had many conversations with God — of sadness, anger, love, hope, and joy — and have come to the conclusion that He is still with me. I am experiencing transformation, healing…and a new beginning."

Experiences like these remind me why I take the time to ask my patients spiritual questions, and see them as individuals with unique life stories. This is particularly true when I have no physical explanation for their symptoms. It can be an "open door" for God to heal a broken heart and set a captive free.

*The article Moving Beyond Physical Healing originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Today's Christian Doctor, a publication of Christian Medical & Dental Associations. Used by permission of Christian Medical & Dental Associations.

David I. Levy, MD, practices neurosurgery in San Diego, California. He specializes in brain aneurysms and diseases of the blood vessels of the brain. He attended Emory Medical School in Atlanta, Georgia, and did his neurosurgical training at The Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. He did a Fellowship in Endovascular Neurosurgery at The University of Vienna, Austria. He is the author of the book Gray Matter: A Neurosurgeon Discovers the Power of Prayer...One Patient at a Time. The book was written with Joel Kilpatrick and is available through Tyndale House.

MaryAnn Nguyen–Kwok is a freelance writer who is currently in the Masters of Divinity program at Bethel University and whose passions include understanding and revealing God through studying and teaching the Scriptures.

Fall 2013