From Physical Pain to Spiritual Healing
Finding a new purpose after a tragic accident
by John Van der Werff, DDS
Today's Christian Doctor – Spring 2014
Dentistry has been my passion since 8th grade. I became a Christian in high school and, like many, I grew in faith through the mentoring and prayers of friends and pastors. I have always believed God smiled on my life, and He has led me in some incredible ways.
I began my career as a dentist in 1982. At the same time, I married a Christian woman, and God later blessed us with two sons. I practiced as an associate dentist until 1985 when I purchased a practice in Redding, California. My wife and I led Bible studies, went on a short-term mission trip and helped start two churches. Even when we struggled financially, by trusting and believing Him, God provided for our needs. As Psalm 91 describes, God takes care of those He loves.
My practice grew and life was good. I was living a life that did not have an exciting story, but in an instant, my story changed in a profound way. I would have a story to tell, and it involved trusting God in a way I could never have dreamed.
"‘Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name’" (Psalm 91:14, NIV 2011).
There are some days in our lives—not many, but some days—which, when they have come to an end, will have changed us forever. This was one of those days.
As I skied down that Northern California slope on that clear, cold morning, without warning, I caught an edge with my ski. Instantly, I found myself sliding backward down the mountainside. I tried to stop myself by kicking my boots into the snow. Nothing happened. Finally, after what seemed like minutes of sliding out of control, I stopped.
But I was unable to move.
A retired ski patrolman came up to me and asked if I was all right. I told him I felt fine, but I could not move. He called the ski patrol and, as we were waiting, he told me he would give me CPR if I needed it. I wondered to myself, why does he think I need CPR? In my mind, I assumed I would be taken to the ski lodge and simply drive home after a brief rest.
But I assumed wrong.
Soon after getting off the ski slope, I was on my way to a hospital by ambulance, then airlifted to a hospital in Redding. After x-rays and an MRI, it was determined that I had damaged my spinal cord. A halo was placed to stabilize my neck and surgery was planned to permanently stabilize the area. The next day, vertebrae C4-C6 were surgically fused together and a metal splint was placed to further support the fracture.
I spent the next few days in ICU, drifting in and out of consciousness. I do not remember much other than knowing I could not move. After the physicians felt I was stable, I was transferred to a long- term care facility. It was there that I began to fully realize the extent of my injuries.
I had become…a quadriplegic.
"He will call on me, and I will answer him… (Psalm 91:15a, NIV 2011).
As I lay in the hospital, I realized I had lost my physical abilities, including the use of my hands. At first, it seemed like a bad dream. How could God allow such a tragedy to happen to me? He promised to take care of me. I asked God why He was not healing me. God’s only response was an unmistakable silence. I wondered, deep in my heart, if God was even there. I no longer felt His presence. I no longer sensed His favor. I no longer even sensed there was a God who cared.
It reminded me of Job. God blessed him, then took away his wealth, his family and his health for no apparent reason. God did not talk to Job while he was suffering. Job would ask God "Why?" and there was silence. God has His reasons for doing things that we may not be able to understand.
Within a couple weeks, I was in physical and occupational therapy five times a day. This kept me busy. But I wasn’t so busy that I stopped asking God, "Why?" From time to time, I would have my pity parties, leading to a season of deep depression. In the midst of my dark night, God said nothing at all.
I met with a psychologist, asking him what I could do to deal with the depression, while avoiding taking medication. He told me, "Instead of asking ‘Why,’ perhaps you should consider asking ‘What can I do now?’ Consider what you have and take things one day at a time," said the kind psychologist.
So I started taking it one day at a time. And in the midst of what I considered to be His silence and inattentiveness and despite my doubts, God seamlessly took care of things at home. Friends brought dinner every night for my family. My wife, who was working part-time at a local Christian university, was offered a full-time position so that we would have health insurance and income. That same Christian university sent a ground crew over once a week to take care of our yard. Friends built a wheelchair ramp to our house without charging us, making our house more accessible for me.
Although my family’s life was altered forever, it was apparent that we were surrounded by the support of so many in our Christian community. Even in the midst of going through the "valley of death," God provided.
"I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him" (Psalm 91:15b, NIV 2011).
After two months in the hospital, I came home in a wheelchair. Although the accident took away many of my physical abilities, I remember thinking that I’m not as bad off as Job, for he lost his family and friends and I still have mine. So what next? How does one move on, when a lifelong dream and plan to practice dentistry was now impossible? I was too young to retire and I certainly did not want to sit around feeling sorry for myself. Deep inside, I felt I still had much to live for. I started to consider my options.
If this was God’s purpose, what doors would He open?
As I talked to friends and considered my gifts and experience, I determined to help people with jaw pain and temporomandibular disorders. Through another of God’s provisions, the California Department of Rehabilitation agreed to pay for part of my re-education and I was on my way. In January 2004, I started a new practice limited to orofacial pain.
As time went on, I seemed to regain some sense of purpose for my life and achieve some form of "normalcy." I still struggled to forgive God for what had happened on that distant ski slope. One day, I watched a video on the internet of Nick Vujicic. He was born without any arms or legs. And yet, I listened as he shared his personal story, telling others what God was doing in his life. I began to see more clearly how God could use my story as a way of encouraging others. There is more to my suffering than me…God had more in mind.
Through tears, I was able to forgive God and thank Him for what He had allowed to happen. God was patient through my period of doubting, and He wept with me as I worked through my suffering.
When you go through the "valley of death" in your own personal life, God will be patient with you. And He will weep with you as you work through your own suffering. The lies we tell ourselves—"There is no God" and "God doesn’t love me"—need to be substituted with His truth. Let God’s truth define your suffering. For God is present, loves us, takes care of us and has a purpose for what is happening—in every circumstance, in every trial, in every tribulation. As we forgive, we begin to heal and maybe even start to see what God has done for His purpose and glory.
"I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10, NIV 2011).
And the silence of God? If you have experienced that silence, perhaps you have also come to a new appreciation for the silence Jesus felt when He was on the cross, asking why God had forsaken Him.
"With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation" (Psalm 91:16, NIV 2011).
I continue to suffer with chronic pain and work just under 20 hours a week. I share my story with others so that they may be encouraged. I have come to embrace the truth that God may not completely heal me physically. (He didn’t heal Paul either.) But He has provided emotional and spiritual healing.
If we allow Him, He does that for all of us, no matter what we have been through. Romans 8:18 reminds us that our current suffering represents a temporary circumstance when seen in the light of eternity. I have determined that my happiness is not dependent upon my physical wholeness. I find my greatest source of happiness in knowing where I am going and understanding God’s purpose for my life. If we trust and believe Him, we are loved by God, and He takes care of those He loves. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 12, God is all we need.
God prepares all of us for our journeys through life. And we all have tests and challenges in our lives. So God puts people in our lives to teach and prepare us. By reading Scripture over and over, He also implants His Word for us to draw upon in times of difficulty and silence.
We may not control what happens to us, but we do have control over how we react. Even in the midst of His apparent quietness, God loves and takes care of us. Asking "why" questions and thinking about what you have lost will lead to despair. God can help us trade despair for peace. Although it is not always easy, focusing on today and the future, looking for a purpose, looking for God’s lessons, being thankful and anticipating His coming can help restore and maintain that sense of peace.
As happened to me on that day in 2003, circumstances can happen that can change our lives in a dramatic way. Choosing to respond by trusting God allows Him to use us for His purpose and His glory. As Psalm 91 promises, God takes care of those He loves.
"Because he loves me," says the Lord, "I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation."