Feeling the Passion

By Patrick M. Johannes, M.D., F.A.C.E.P.

Today's Christian Doctor, Spring 2003, Volume XXXIV, Number 1.

I reported early for my shift in the emergency department as a nurse was fin­inshing her coffee at the front desk. Thumbing throught the morning newspaper she stopped and said, "Hey Pat, I didn't know you were getting sued!" "Really?" I replied, playing along, "Neither did I!"

"Right to here, Section B, front page," she said, folding the paper to frame the section to which she was referring before handing it to me. As I read the article, my disbelief was eclipsed only by my sense of contempt. "Thirty-five thousand subscribers know I'm getting sued before I'm made aware of it!"

By God's grace alone did I manage to lumber through the rest of that shift without injuring any patients. I clocked out and paid a visit to the hospital medical records department to retrieve the chart of the patient-tunred-plantiff. I was dismayed. This guy should be thankful he's alive, I thought. He had contracted a rare, life-threatening, infectious disease that took several days to manifest itself, and was accusing me of not recognizing the illness after he had been sick for only a few hours.

Ten days passed before I received an official summons, a commentary on the disparate efficiencies of the local newspaper and the judicial system. After a deep sigh and a quick gut check, I opened the summons. Being my first lawsuit, I was not prepared for what I read. Both the patient and his wife were listed as plantiffs, and they were accusing me of "deliberate, willful, wanton and gross negligence."

The dreaded demon that all medical students are told they will one day have to confront finally paid me a visit: I was being sued for malpractice. But I couldn't comprehend any patient actually believing that I woke up one morning and asked,

Who can I willfully, deliberately, and wontonly hurt today?

Over the next several days, I was immersed in self-pity. I worried that I would no longer be able to effectively care for my patients, since it was impossible to not see each new patient as another potential plantiff, someone who possessed the power to hurt me. My entire focus was in the pain the lawsuit was causing me.

But then I recalled a promise: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened... Take My yolk upon you and learn from me... and you will find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:28-29). God had something for meto learn through this ordeal, although I was clueless as to what it could be. As I sought guidance in Scripture, I knew that I had to redirect the spotlight off of me and onto God. Christ had made a promise to us who would seek His will: "If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you." (John 15:7). It was time to have faith, and to pray within His will.

There were things that my wife, Kristen, and I asked of God. Prayer #1 was that He would not let the trial appear on the docket until all the anger we had toward the plantiffs was gone. With the amount of bitterness we harbored, we were certain this prayer would not be answered overnight. Prayer #2 was that God would be glorified through this struggle. The Genesis 50:20 Principle became a source of security for me whenever waves of fear would flood my heart: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good." We were confident that the best way to glorify Him was by holding fast to our faith, "...that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him." (Romans 8:28). Lastly, Prayer #3 was that God's grace would somehow be evident to others in the course of this suit. Specifically, we prayed that God would somehow use us to show His grace toward the plantiffs before the whole affair concluded.

Now I must admit, since I chose to put this affair in the Lord's hands, I was also secretly hoping that there might be some added benefits I could claim as a result. For example, since it would be at least a year before the case would go to trial, I thought that God might clear my mind of the lawsuit while I was caring for thousands of patients during that period. That never happened. Even today, I am still acutely aware another plaintiff could be lurk­ing in the next exam room. I had also anticipated a better appreciation for our medico-legal system, maybe even having a heightened respect for it. Well, the exact opposite occurred. From the plaintiffs' attorney who concocted a theory that I had con­spired with several doctors and nurs­es in order to "get all their stories straight," to the "expert" witness who made $100,000 per year testify­ing exclusively against emergency physicians (even though he never completed a residency in any special­ty), I learned that winning was what both sides' attorneys were after. Even if it meant truth would be a casualty. Finally, I had hoped that God would lift all my fears by trial day. As it turned out, this most certainly did not occur.

In hindsight, how silly I was to feel that I might be enti­tled to such benefits! I was confident that my three original prayer requests would be answered because they were centered on God. But I let a little pride sneak into my heart and wished for some collateral gains in return for my "self­less" prayers. The way God inevitably answered my peti­tions, and what He was determined to teach me through them, was more impressive than anything I could devise. To think that I had hoped for something else - actually, something less - than what He had
planned was a lesson in humility.

Well, the answer to the first prayer took a little over a year. Once God allowed my heart to know what my brain understood all along - that He loved the plaintiffs just as much as He loved me - I was compelled to reflect on that which was undesirable within me. And the reality of my faults made the fact that God still loved me all the more perplexing. Convicted by this truth, it became impossible for me to feel hatred toward my accusers. God answered the second and third prayers during the three-day trial. The original trial date was exactly two years from the day I received my summons. Unfortunately, each legal team found reasons why the case hould be postponed. Ratcheting my emotional stability, the trial date was changed three times. I was assured of the last docket. "Etched in stone," my lawyer said. The games would begin the first week in February.

Several months were to pass, which gave me plenty more time to pray. By the third week of January, I was ready. Physically, mentally and most importantly, spiritually, I felt pre­pared for the unpleasantness of the trial. As if I had been standing in the on-deck circle for over two years, it was finally time to step to the plate and take whatever was thrown at me. Needless to say, I did not expect the first pitch to hit me on the head! With just days to go, the court date was postponed for a fourth time! I wrestled with God on this one. Why would He allow me to reach a point of peace and readiness, only to pull the rug yet again? Like a child dur­ing a tantrum, my griping did not alter the situation. I had no choice but to wait an additional eight weeks. 

Finally, trial day did arrive. On the first day, the initial task was to select the jurors. I had received a jury pool list a few weeks prior, and was instructed to review it to assure that I did not have any "historical issues" that would pre­vent a candidate from being an objective juror. To my hor­ror, over half of the people on that list had been in my ER during the previous year. Of that number, 80 percent owed my prac­tice money, including two-thirds who had been turned over to a col­lection agency! There was a candi­date I once had to involuntarily commit to a mental hospital for a suicide attempt, and I had two more candidates hauled off to jail after I had repaired the wounds they incurred during drunken brawls. The list even contained the name of a woman who had threatened my family with physical harm because I would not prescribe narcotics on any of her numerous ER visits. As I scanned the faces of these former patients in the courtroom, I felt doomed. "Dear God," I demurred, "I'm supposed to have a jury of my peers!" So much for all my fears being lifted by trial day. 

After the jury was selected, the trial began. The remainder of that first day was consumed by efforts to portray me as a careless physician, with the plaintiffs being victims of my negli­gence. The most difficult thing for me was remaining silent while various untruths were being told to the jury. This circus of embarrassment went on for six hours, during which my rest­ing pulse never dropped below 120. My disgust for the day was complete when I was told that two issues that could place the plain­tiffs' integrity in question - a false statement found in a deposition, and a history of two previous lawsuits against entities that could be perceived as "deep pockets" - were not admissible for my defense. Fairness, it seemed to me, was checked at the courthouse door. 

I sauntered home that first evening demoralized, suffo­cated by humiliation. Portions of the trial were being broadcast via the local radio station and newspaper. Restless in bed that night, I awoke from a distressingly real dream. In the nightmare I was standing on a hill, barely clothed, with my arms stretched out high above my head. I was being ordered to slowly turn, revealing all of me to those below. At the foot of the hill were hundreds of laugh­ing people, ridiculing and mocking me. I had done nothing to justify their scorn, but was powerless to alter their will. In dream as in reality, my shame was total.

The next morning I returned to the courthouse so exhausted that I almost felt at peace. I didn't have the ener­gy to be anxious. I also knew that this was going to be the day that I had to take the witness stand and defend myself. That morning I prayed for courage to be a witness - for Christ - and that my actions would glorify Him (Prayer #2).

My attorney began the questioning. One of his queries opened the way for me to tell the jury about my faith, how I answeredGod's call to go into medicine, and how He led me to settle in a rural town because there was a need for a physi­cian there. As I spoke, I could see each jury member's face. Their expressions seemed to say, "We believe you."

Next came the verbal duel with the plaintiff's attorney. But at the precise time I was parrying my opponent's trenchant questions, my four-year-old daughter Sarah was being transported to the hospital. Since my wife wanted to be in the courtroom for the entire trial, she had asked one of our friends to watch our children. While playing with our friends' kids, Sarah fell off of a hill and tore open the right side of her chest on a sharp piece of rock.

After I finished giving my testimony, the judge called for a recess. "Dr. Johannes," called the clerk, "there's a call from the hospital for you." Feeling a little irritated that someone at work would try to contact me in the middle of the trial, I picked up the phone. The voice of my partner on the other end had a sickening tone to it that I am all too familiar with - the same tone I use when contacting the family of a patient involved in an accident. "Pat, Sarah's been hurt. She's got a two-inch gash to her chest, but I don't think she got the lung. I'm waiting on the x-rays. You'd be so proud of her. She's being so brave."

I hung up the phone and stood motionless for a minute. As if all the stress of the previous two days funneled to my eyes for release, I cried hard. All I could imagine was my little girl lying on a gurney in my emergency room. This was the first time she had ever been seriously hurt, and nei­ther of her parents were there with her. Especially me, to whom she would always come with any little ailment because, "You're my doctor, Daddy." I knew what was going on in her head at that very moment: "Daddy, where are you? I'm hurting and I'm scared!" I was helpless to do anything about it.

With the second day of the trial having ended, I drove home emotionally drained. Kristin had picked up Sarah from the hospital. Although she had not cried at all during her ordeal thus far, as soon as her eyes met mine, Sarah ran into my arms and wept. The comfort of her Daddy's embrace must have assured her that she didn't need to be a "brave little girl" any longer. As I caressed her head, I couldn't help but feel that the injustice I was being con­fronted with had now touched my daughter's life.

The next morning I arrived at the courthouse early. This was the day that my expert witness was to testify on my behalf. Amazingly, I had never met him, although my attorneys insisted that this was standard procedure. As I stood in the lobby waiting for someone to unlock the court­room doors, a well-groomed gentleman approached me. "You wouldn't happen to be Dr. Johannes, would you?" After I affirmed his suspicion, he identified himself as my witness. "Your attorney approached me a year ago to be a witness for you. I was hesitant to say yes, since I never tes­tified as an expert in a malpractice case before. But after reading what you were being sued for, I couldn't believe it. So I felt it was my duty to try to help a fellow physician." He then asked how I was holding up. "The Lord is sus­taining me," I said reflexively. "Are you a Christian?" he asked, breaking into a smile. When I nodded, he reached for my hand and shook it firmly. "Do you know that my wife and I have been praying for you for the past year?"

Incredible! A rookie expert witness decided it was his duty to help a stranger, and then partnered with his wife to lift me up in prayer? A colleague in medicine turned out to be a brother in the Lord! There was no question that God had been at work answering Prayer #2 for months, since Scripture assures us that God is glorified whenever He is approached in prayer (Proverbs 15:8).

After a stellar performance by my expert, the closing arguments were made. The jury was then sent out to delib­erate my fate. The pressure during this period was unbear­able. While I paced and fidgeted to mark time, my wife quietly moved toward the plaintiff and his wife. She had been praying for an opportunity to tear down the invisible wall that lawyers erect between plaintiff and defendant, a barrier that forbids the two parties from ever getting to know each other as human beings. "Excuse me," she inter­rupted. "My husband and I just want to let you know that we have been praying for you both since the beginning." As their brows unfurrowed, she continued. "I know you are real people who have real hurts and fears, just like we have. I just wish we could all leave this courtroom as win­ners." Kristin also let them know that she was sorry for all the physical suffering they had endured, even though she believed that no one was to blame for the disease itself.

It was a toss-up as to who was stunned more at my wife's comments: the plaintiffs or their attorney. "In my 30 years of law," proclaimed their counselor, "that is the nicest thing I have ever seen happen in a courtroom." At the moment of peak tension, awaiting a jury's decision, my wife saw a tiny window to manifest God's grace toward our legal foes. Seizing the opportunity, she had allowed God to use her as an instrument in the answering of Prayer #3!

Minutes later, the jury re-entered the box. "Will the defense please stand." I could feel the eyes of everyone in the room fixed on me as I rose. My legs were so weak from quivering, I thought for a moment I would fall right back into the chair. "The jury has come to a unanimous verdict. The judgment is for the Defense. No negligence found."

Like being told it was okay to exhale after three days of breath holding, I wept uncontrollably. Through the blur of tears, I noticed people whom I did not even know standing in line to hug me. The court recorder shook my hand and said, "I was praying for you, and I just hated that you had to go through this." The alternate juror, who was given per­mission to leave the courthouse when it became obvious that he was not needed to fill in, decided to stay and observe the conclusion of the trial. He told one of my friends that he had been praying for me, too. And the court police officer caught me by the arm as I was exiting the courtroom and whispered, "I'm glad you won, doc. I've been praying for you." Unknown to me, these saints had been lifting me in prayer during the entire trial! God had been glorified again!

Although physically spent, I was at peace spiritually as Kristin drove me home. I had seen God answer the three prayers we had petitioned for over two years. Still, I was at a loss as to what I was supposed to learn personally from this experience. Was it just another reminder that God can answer prayer? Could it have been a remedial les­son in how faith can see a person through trouble? Or was I to use my ordeal as a way to share my faith with someone else experiencing a similar situation? While I knew that all of these were true, I couldn't help believing that God was trying to reveal something more profound ... something that would make my relationship with Him more intimate.

When I stepped into our house, Sarah greeted me with a hug and a request to look at her "boo-boo." As I carefully removed the dressing from her chest, I recalled the pain and fear she endured the previous day. That was when it hit me, the denouement of my two-year tempest. God desired me to understand something that I never would have chosen to learn on my own, something I never could have learned on my own. Through the process of my own trial, I was made to comprehend the Passion of Jesus Christ in a way that went far beyond the two-dimensional text I had read in Scripture a hundred times before.

I recalled the nightmare I had had on the first night of the trial, when I awoke with a sense of blunt embarrassment. But instead of me on that hill, I now saw Christ. He was nearly naked with His arms stretched out and pegged to a cross, the crowd below hurling verbal abuse upon Him. Once frustrated over the fact that I could never really have a jury of my own peers, I now felt ashamed as I thought of Jesus, who had no human peer at all. His jury was the masses who shouted for His crucifixion in return for the release of a murderer, a jury He was commissioned by His Father to save.

I dressed Sarah's wound, and held her close on my lap. At that moment, I felt a love for her more intense than any­thing I had ever before experienced. I imagined her in the emergency room the day before, lacerated and in pain, feel­ing frightened and alone. I could hear her thoughts of, Daddy, I need you. Where are you? How it broke my heart to not be able to rescue her while she was in the hospital! Again, my mind returned to Jesus, in agony from torture, His own thorax pierced by a spear. Oh, how much more must it have pained God to see His precious Son hanging on the cross! How much more His heart must have broken to hear His Son's expression of abandonment: "Father, why have you forsaken me?" I now saw Christ's Passion as never before. As a matter of fact, I really felt His Passion for the first time in my life.

How am I certain that this was the lesson God had in store for me? Remember that the case was scheduled to go to trial in early February, after several previous delays. At the last minute, it had been postponed again, until the last week in March. That week just happened to fall between Palm Sunday and Easter!

Patrick M. Johannes, M.D. is president of Blue Ridge Emergency Physicians. He and his wife, Kristin, have served as short-term mis­sonaries to Banso Baptist Hospital in Cameroon. The Johannes family lives in Seneca, South Carolina. (2003).

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