CMDA's The Point

When God Says “No” to a Miracle

January 6, 2022
05192020WEEKLYDEVOTIONS

by Danielle Ellis, MD, MTS

Evans had contracted COVID-19 in early February 2021. He was 53 years old and, generally speaking, pretty healthy save for being somewhat overweight. He’d gotten progressively worse, then been placed on a ventilator, then developed numerous particularly devastating complications. I met him about a month after he first came to the hospital after getting a “STAT” page from the ICU doctors that Evans was suddenly doing even worse. When I walked into his room, it was clear his life hung in the balance, thinly suspended by mechanized life support and the bit of will he had left.

We had to go the operating room immediately. As I called Evans’ wife to get consent for the operation, I imagined what it must be like to get a call from a surgeon in the middle of the night, trying my hardest to project peace and certainty as I updated her on his status and our plan. “God give us a miracle,” Lois muttered, before entrusting the care and life of her husband to someone she’d only spoken with on the phone for 30 seconds.

The operation went as well as it could have, but I wasn’t confident he’d be alive by the time I came back to work the next shift. That evening, when I saw his name on our list of patients, I realized I’d been holding my breath. I exhaled, relieved that Lois’ prayer had been answered. Indeed, God had given us a miracle.

Around midnight a few weeks after our first encounter, I got a text from one of the ICU physicians. She told me she had called Lois and told her to come in. Even with the maximum support, Evans’ oxygen levels were dropping below a level compatible with life. She wanted to be able to make Evans comfortable in the last moments of his life, but she was worried because his highly religious family had expressed that stopping the measures sustaining his life, futile as they may seem, would mean they didn’t trust God to deliver on the miracle. “Could you talk to them?” she asked me.

I walked into Evans’ room to find a family eerily like mine. Evans, a man my dad’s age. Lois, a faithful wife and follower of Jesus, just like my mom. A row of anxious daughters my and my siblings’ ages. I sensed a hope not only for Evans’ life but for God to be who He was supposed to be and do what He was supposed to do. We began talking with them about Evans’ decline and the reality that he would probably not live until the morning. His daughters cried and seemed interested in transitioning to comfort care. Lois, standing at his bedside, never even looked at us.

“Lois, what do you think about all of this?”

She turned, almost as if she had been unaware we were there at all. She stated plainly, “We are waiting for a miracle.”

It was nearly Easter, and I could not help but feel a sense of Good Friday in that night. I imagined what it must be like: to get a call like this in the middle of the night, to experience not only primary grief over the loss of your husband or father, but also secondary grief, walking away feeling like the God who had sustained you through all the nights before was absent. I imagined what it would be like to lose Evans and lose God at the same time.

I searched my mind, hoping the Holy Spirit would show up with a set of words to address the kind of stress and emotion my surgical training had no toolkit for. He brought to mind the words one of my professors in seminary used in spaces like these. I responded: “Lois, can you think of a time in Scripture that God said no to a miracle?”

There is an interesting intersection between being a follower of Jesus and the vocation of surgery in the so-called “surgical covenant,” described decades ago by an anthropologist named Joan Cassell who studied this group of physicians closely. She defined this covenant as binding, one that brings the surgeon into relationship with the patient and their family and commits the surgeon not only to curing the disease, but also to shared risk and shared hope. Closely tied to the surgical covenant is the idea of surgical miracles. According to her research, even surgeons who are reportedly non-spiritual adhere to this story of miracles. Successful operations, Dr. Cassell says, share some core characteristics with “religious” miracles—they occur in a moment in time, rather than over time; they are performed by someone with extraordinary power; they are spectacular and transformative, propelling a person from “a disvalued to a valued state: sickness to health, death to life, water to wine;” and lastly, they are unpredictable and mysterious, transcending what can be explained by natural forces or empiric reason.

As I posed that question to Lois, I considered the extent to which, both when I had spoken to her on the phone nearly a month earlier and as I spoke to her now, our hope for a miracle had been a shared one. I longed for a story wherein God could say “no” to her prayer for a miracle and still be God as much as He was.

We went on to talk about Jesus, on the eve of His death, praying earnestly and anxiously to his dad: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me…” (Matthew 26:39b, NASB). I offered, unsure if in that moment it was true even to me, that none of us could have imagined what God had planned in His “no” to that miracle; none of us could have imagined that in His “no” on Friday was resurrection, restoration and a Risen King on Sunday. I asked Lois to feel the weight of God’s “no” to this ask for a miracle. It was so heavy that she literally collapsed into my arms, sobbing that she was not ready to lose Evans. For all my training and my toolkits, I could scarcely eek out intelligible words between my tears. He died about 10 minutes later.

As we enter yet another surge, the sickness, suffering and death that have filled our minds, hearts and lives over the last two years are, for many, a heaviness in the very air we breathe. Based on the numbers from just the last week, two people will have died from COVID-19 while you’ve read this. This season has made our families seem more like one another’s than they did before. It has felt at times like an unending Friday. It has made many of us wonder who God is and what He is really like. It has, I imagine, led many of us to hope for a miracle. And irrespective of whether God has said yes or no to you and your family, I want to encourage you not with a trite promise of a life in eternity whose glory cannot be compared to the present sufferings, but with a truth for now. Sometimes God says no, but He was, is and will always be a God of Sundays.

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About Danielle Ellis, MD, MTS

Danielle Ellis, MD, MTS, is a general surgery resident at the Massachusetts General Hospital and an alumna of the Theology, Medicine and Culture fellowship at Duke Divinity School. She is deeply committed to cultivating kingdom principles for both patients and healthcare professionals, a commitment which was nurtured by her CMDA chapter in medical school and formation in seminary. She plans to pursue pediatric surgery and palliative care, with interests in health parity and practical theology.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar Mike Chupp on January 7, 2022 at 10:07 pm

    Powerful and transparent truths, Dr. Ellis. Just finished reading your article in the winter CMDA Today magazine on Practicing Christ-like Presence in an Age of Burnout.. Seems like the Duke Theology and Medicine program was a great investment for you. Thanks for using your gift of communicating truth through your writing. Not too many surgeons in training or practice I know have the ability and/or time to write as you do.

  2. Avatar Alvin on January 13, 2022 at 4:58 am

    Dr. Ellis, I cried when I read this article. My heart goes out to Lois and her family…and to you as well. For you see, you are like a shepherd in your own way, called to a vocation with many possible disappointments and heartaches. You’ve studied and practiced your craft thousands of hours, with much sweat and tears, only to fully accept that though you may patch up their bodies, it is God’s power and sovereignty alone that can heal one back to full health. (Ezekiel 37:1-14 comes to mind) God bless you for your tender heart and determination to help others.

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