Warning: The following story may prompt incredulous laughter and children to ask uncomfortable questions.
Maybe I should have followed in your footsteps and become a better baseball player, you know, to make me a better doctor.
Nevertheless, I am happy to report that the secret playroom kickball matches that Jerod and I played allowed me to develop the skills necessary to become a competent physician. You see, just a few weeks ago, as I started my morning rounds, my very unpracticed sliding-into-homeplate manuever was put to the test:
I heard a yell in the hallway leading to surgery and went to investigate.
Arriving there I saw a pregnant woman, waddling towards me. Her eyes were wide with the shock and terror of a person betrayed by their own body. And as I ran forward to assess the situation I quickly saw the reason; upon seeing my querying expression she hiked up her hospital gown to reveal her baby crowning.
Her family and a few nurses were trying desperately to help her get to our labor and delivery room. But I determined this baby was going to come before we could possibly get her to a bed.
“We’re going to need to deliver the baby here,” I said with authority.
With relief the mom stopped trying to move forward and immediately began to sink to the floor. Fortunately her family members promptly stepped up to support her as she began sitting back. Unfortunately, as soon as her knees bent and she began to squat, her baby took advantage of the more open pelvic outlet as well as the increased abdominal pressure generated by her squat.
Noting this, I dove forward, my arms reaching out to catch the slowly falling baby and mother. The amniotic fluid on the tile floor helped me to slide easily into position at the mom’s feet. With my right hand I worked to catch the baby that was slipping rapidly out for a head first dive. And with my left hand I tried to push up and away on the mom’s buttocks that was coming down to land on top of her baby.
When the proverbial dust settled, we’d managed to all land safely in a somewhat slippery and slightly bloody pile, with a joyfully screaming little baby cradled in my arm connected by his umbilical cord to his mom who was slightly shocked and somewhat on top of me.
All we needed was an umpire to stare down at our strange pile and then after a pregnant pause, dramatically yell, “Safe!”
Love, your son, Dr. Nate
Remember one New Year you asked Dad, Jerod, and I to each tell about a miracle that we’d seen. Ultimately that led to a discussion about miracles, because for you, every day was filled with miracles: from rainbows to children to happenstance meetings- you saw Divine fingerprints everywhere; for Dad, Jerod, and I the world was a significantly less miraculous place. We weren’t sure we’d ever seen God reach down and definitively perform a miracle.
Well, I’ve decided that your view of the world is the better one, and I would like to tell you about a miracle I recently witnessed.
You see, the little baby that I caught in the story above (Yes, the story above is totally true, and yes Jerod and I did secretly play kick ball in our playroom, frequently, and without ever breaking a window), that baby started to turn yellow 12 hours after he was born. Now that’s not too uncommon, he was jaundiced, and we can treat that. We put him under some blue lights that convert the yellow, problematic bilirubin to a form that can be disposed of by most any liver.
I say, “most any,” because on rare occasions the drainage system of a liver is incompletely formed or the infant’s liver cells are genetically incapable of doing some basic function that causes excess production or diminished disposal.
I say all that because, after we put the baby under lights, instead of turning a beautiful Honduran brown and going home, he turned green. He turned green because his liver had one of the two problems detailed above.
When I investigate what could be done to help this little fellow, I found myself running into dead ends (grim pun intended). In Honduras, you do not want to be a green baby. Most likely you are stuck looking for an expensive, risky surgery that only a handful of hard to get to surgeons can do (to repair your drainage system). The other, equally tragic etiology, for our low resource patients, is that this disorder could arise from a super rare genetic problem that will be almost impossible to diagnose and likely will be equally untreatable.
As I often find myself doing, I first explained the poor medical prognosis. In this case I explained to baby’s mom that from strictly a medical perspective her baby had a serious and life-threatening problem. As stated above, the most likely cause was a problem with the liver’s drainage system. Untreated, this often results in death after a few months. So we would do further investigation and begin reaching out to arrange for treatment if necessary and possible. (We would also be reaching out for help from our donors because just the trip to see the surgeon in the big city would have been cost prohibitive)
Then, I concluded with your perspective, mom. I reminded this mother that we believe in a God who is all powerful and can do miracles. So even as we do everything we can medically, we also pray. The mom and I prayed for healing multiple times, specifically for God to allow this little boy’s bilirubin to get out of his system.
I have prayed many such prayers, and most of the time God either answers those prayers through the medical care being provided or the patient dies. But, occasionally, Divine fingerprints are a little more overt. Like this time, where visit by visit the little boy’s color, weight, and labs improved with no treatment beyond earnest prayers of hope and thanksgiving. A few days ago he came in for a check up and was totally normal.
Whether this was God directly altering the baby’s physiology or not, I do not know. But one thing I do know, he was a sickly-appearing, green baby and now he is healthy and brown.
And at that visit I praised God with his mother for the miracle of her son’s life.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
These are some of the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. They capture the not infrequent juxtaposition of very good things and very bad things in our lives, without giving either more weight than the other. It reminds me to hold the two in balance – and allow myself to feel and know the bitter sweet reality of life between the first and second coming of Jesus Christ.
Case in point, we have recently had two babies who required intensive care in our hospital; one has done very well, and one did not do well. The first baby is named Estephanie, and the majority of her medical care was provided at the direction of Drs Anne and Isaac Hotz. This is also the infant that I previously mentioned for whom Bethany has supplied breast milk. She was born premature. And while that may not seem like a big deal – it is.
Imagine being in a rocket ship, and telling ground control that “All systems are not go for launch, repeat, multiple critical life-sustaining systems are not functioning.” Only to hear, “We are go for take off.”
Premature delivery shares a similar level of disaster potential as the above scenario. Our lungs, skin, eyes, brain, gut, and fat reserves, are all essential systems that don’t come fully on board till late in a pregnancy. And being born without anyone of these systems can result in a cascade failure reminiscent of Apollo 13.
With Estephanie, we knew from her mom’s first prenatal visit that she was at risk for early delivery, because Estephanie was sharing the uterus with a birth control device called an IUD.
Anyways, with advance notice that the baby might be born premature we were able to give the mom timed steroids to rush the baby’s lung development. We do this whenever we suspect preterm delivery because once a mom’s body goes into true labor, there is precious little that doctors can due to stop the process (especially in rural Honduras).
Ultimately, Estephanie was born at 29 weeks and 3 days of gestational age. At that stage of developmental, with our resources, it was a Herculean task to keep baby nourished, breathing, and avoid sepsis. Remember the brain and fat reserves that aren’t fully developed yet? That means that most premature babies don’t have the coordination or energy to consistently breath or eat independently. So we place a tube down the mouth to allow us to put food directly into the baby’s stomach, and a CPAP over their noses to augment and remind them to keep breathing
But tasks such as feeding, breathing, and keeping baby warm are easy compared to the biggest hurdle that Estephanie faced. About a week after birth, when the basic problems inherent in preemies began to seem surmountable, Estephanie suddenly started showing signs of sepsis or an abdominal emergency called neonatal necrotizing enterocolitis (nicknamed nec). The only known preventative medicine: breast milk (having had Bethany’s milk may be one the reason this baby went on to survive).
The treatment for Nec: no feeding, support the baby, try antibiotics, and wait. The treatment for sepsis: remove any possible sources of infection, give antibiotics, support the baby, and hope. In the case of Nec, if you have to wait more than a day or two you need to order a custom tailored formula called TPN that can be put directly into the baby’s blood stream (bypassing the gut completely which could rapidly necrose and kill the baby if food is put through it). This must be given through a central line (like an IV, but going through a major vessel dumping directly into the heart).
In the case of sepsis, any central line that you have in place is a potential source of infection. So we pulled the old line, ordered the TPN, and tried to put in a new central line. “Tried” being the operative word. Over two days, we tried every possible access point, multiple times, for hours at a time. We prayed, we dripped sweat, we got frustrated with each other, frustrated with ourselves, frustrated at having ordered and transported the expensive TPN from the across the country only to be unable to deliver it the final few inches.
Ultimately, we were unable to get a central line. Without a central line we had to decide when we would allow the baby to have tube feeds- the sooner we fed her, the higher the risk of complications from nec, the longer we waited, the higher the risk of complications from starvation. In the end because baby made a quick turnaround soon after we stopped feeding her we were able to compromise between the two ideal intervals and resume feeds after 48 hours We started slow and praise be to God, Estephanie was able to tolerate tube feeds.
Today, by the grace of God, Estephanie is doing well. She’s coming up on 36 weeks gestational age, and has been discharged from the hospital after almost 50 days. She is no longer needing help breathing and she is able to take a bottle. She is the youngest preemie to have survived at our hospital. Praise be to God.
Our second baby, would have been named Genesis. She was brought in late one evening when I was on call. I was already in the emergency room, monitoring a young boy I had just medicated for an ongoing seizure. I looked up to see a mother being shown in to our ER with a silent bundle in her arms. Typically I let out nurses locate a patient’s chart, get initial vitals, and ask basic questions, but something in this mother’s defeated demeanor prompted me to make the initial evaluation.
I quickly, explained to the parents of the boy with a recent seizure how to monitor their now sleeping son, and crossed the room. The baby’s mom seemed reticent to put her baby down, and when she did I saw a frail, pale, recently born baby girl who appeared dead. She was floppy and unresponsive as she laid in the bed, and I thought she might be dead. But on further evaluation she was taking shallow breaths had a weak pulse.
I urgently called for 2 other doctors to help, and tried to obtain vital signs and figure out what had happened.
The baby’s diaper was full of black and coagulated blood, and her mom said that her baby was 8 days old and had been doing well until she suddenly began vomiting and stooling blood that morning. Immediately her mother started trying to get her baby daughter to the hospital. (She does not own a vehicle or know how to drive, almost all taxis and public transport are not allowed to operate due to COVID, and road blocks are set up all throughout the country to decrease the spread of COVID)- so it took most of the day to get her baby to us.
When my colleagues arrived, and verified that the baby was still alive despite appearances we had enough information to determine that we had a baby on the brink of bleeding to death- who we might be able to save. We called ‘CQ Belfate – Rapid Response to the ER’ over the radio – signaling all available clinical staff to come in and help.
As help came pouring in, we inserted a needle into the baby’s leg bone to begin giving fluids and as soon as our lab personnel arrived we drew off some of her precious remaining blood to check her blood type. More than anything else, the baby needed blood, we later estimated that she had bled out three quarters of her blood volume, prior to arrival.
As we were waiting on blood typing, we gave the maximum amount of IV fluid, continued to give oxygen, and, as it seemed likely she was still bleeding internally with an undetectably low blood pressure, we decided to try for a central line (medicines that force the heart to increase blood pressure are called pressors and must be given through a central line).
This was only about a week after our failure to get a line on Estephanie. But miraculously, Dr. Isaac managed to get a blind subclavian line in with one of his first tries. The baby and her uncle were a blood type match so we drew a unit of whole blood from him and started giving the baby 4 teaspoon boluses of blood at a time.
Honestly, we were all a little shocked that she survived that first few hours, and not only did she survive, she awoke to start fussing and kicking soon after her transfusion! Nevertheless, that night I explained to her mother that Genesis was not yet out of the woods, and that if she did survive it would be a miracle from God.
On days 1 and 2, we continued to be amazed at Genesis’ resilience, and started to hope that God might heal her. After her first transfusion, we gave her her first vitamin k shot. We became more and more convinced that Genesis had gastrointestinal bleeding due to at least a vitamin k defeciency (pretty much all babies are born with some degree of vitamin k defeciency).
Unfortunately, Genesis had been born on the way to our hospital rather than in our hospital. As she was born precipitously in the vehicle before arrival and their family had no money to spare, they turned around and went home, never recieving the vitamin k shot.
The next morning showed that although Genesis’ brain, heart and lungs had bounced back remarkably well, her liver and kidneys were not so quick to bounce back. Those organs showed signs of severe shock and only time would tell if they would recover quick enough to allow her to live.
On day 3, Genesis had completely stopped bleeding into her belly, and her liver seemed to be making a slow recovery, but her blood pressure and oxygen were wavering and she still had not made any urine. Her mother was exhausted from staying by her baby’s side, and afraid to hold her daughter with all the tubes, lines, and devices we had afixed to monitor and respond as needed. At one point, while my colleagues and I were discussing her poor prognosis and worsening situation, baby Genesis had several very low blood pressure and oxygen saturations, her belly was swelling ominously, and I along with Dr. Isaac and Dr. Anne decided to prioritize allowing mom to comfortably hold and love on her baby who seemed to be dying.
We explained to the mom what we felt was inevitable and she was agreeable to not prolong her baby’s suffering. With heavy hearts we disconnected several lines and took off the blood pressure cuffs and pulse oximeter. We were able to comfortably put Genesis in her mom’s arms. Mom asked that we discontinue the oxygen-CPAP so she could just hold her baby and see her beautiful face. I prayed with mom while holding mom’s arms as she cried and gently rubbed Genesis’ head with my other hand. I prayed for God to be with us and baby Genesis. I prayed and cried, I had several words of comfort and hope I wanted to offer, but those words wouldn’t come out. So I swallowed down a sob and simply concluded, “Help us Lord, Amen.” And then waited in silence for a time with mom and Genesis.
But, about one hour after we moved to what we call comfort care (stopping everything that doesn’t make baby more comfortable including oxygen, fluid, and pressors), Baby Genesis went from gray back to pink, from struggling to breathe back to breathing comfortably, and started becoming more active. Genesis really liked being in her mom’s arms!
With such an improvement we talked with mom about keeping the priority of her holding her baby but at least giving some fluids and oxygen to keep Genesis confortable. Mom agreed and Genesis did much better over that night. But still Genesis did not urinate.
I remember coming home that evening to find Ruthie running around with a diaper so wet that it was sagging under its own weight. As I changed that diaper I thanked God that my babies make lots of wet diapers.
The next day I didn’t know what to do. Should I continue to pursue the goal of comfort care, or should I revert to full active treatment? I prayed for wisdom, but didn’t feel like I received any. Ultimately we felt we owed it to this baby who kept hanging in there to give her every chance to survive. Even though she still hadn’t urinated, we were approaching the limit for how long a newborn can survive without nutrition.
She agreed (with some relief), so we again needed TPN (baby probably had a gastric ulcer and was uninterested in eating). TPN takes time to custom formulate and ship, so we had to order it ASAP that morning. After ordering it we needed to change out our central line to prevent sepsis. Given our recent frustrations, Dr. Isaac and I decided to use a process that uses a guide wire to hold the old line’s position while the old line is removed and a new one is placed. In the midst of this procedure the guide wire slipped out of position because it wasn’t quiet long enough.
But mom was in favor of comfort care, mainly because she was concerned that her family would already be unable to pay for what the hospital had already done. (This is a sensitive cultural intersect- in the developed West we are blind to the cost of our healthcare, and never speak about money as part of developing a care plan, in Honduras people want to know how much a life saving surgery will be before they are rolled back). Trying to compromise between the two worldviews, we asked mom to give us one more day to give Genesis every possible chance and we promised to work with her to bring the cost of the hospitalization down to something she could afford. (Our prices are set to be manageable by most Hondurans, keep our lights on, and pay our Honduran staff – for instance a 24 hour hospital admission costs about 20 dollars.)
We were crushed, literally I felt God-forsaken. Once again we had TPN ordered and we’d lost access. We tried briefly to get another line in but in a baby who could not easily stop bleeding who already had a very low chance of survival, we did not feel it was safe or right to keep sticking her.
When I explained the situation to the mother she was incredibly gracious. Her response more than anything else that day assured that we were not forsaken by God. He was right there. In the mother who bore the roller coaster of her infant’s hospitalization with dignity and grace. Even though this was her second child and her first had died mysteriously a few days after birth; she was kind and appreciative of all our efforts, thanking us and praying with us. Shortly after, she asked us to discharge Genesis so she could take her home to die.
The day after Genesis’ mom returned to our hospital to tell us that Génesis had died and to start making payments, we celebrated the discharge of Estephanie to her home, in good health.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..
The doctors at Hospital Loma de Luz, take 24 hour call 1-2 times a week. That means that from 7am to the next morning’s 7am, any emergency or obstetric problem that comes into the hospital will be primarily the responsibility of the on call doctor. For my first 2 months here, each time I was on call I had someone assigned to back me up and show me the ropes. This is necessary because the norms of treatment, follow-up, and getting things done are so different from how things are done back in the USA that you need someone to walk you through a lot of different scenarios before you can really work independently.
For instance, if you need to give your patient a medicine through an IV at a specific rate in the US, you simply enter the order and wonder why it takes the pharmacy and nurses so long to do it. Here you go to the pharmacy, retrieve the medicine or find an adequate substitute for the medicine you wanted but don’t have, find syringes and fluid bags, then mix the medicine into solution at a concentration that will allow you to run it through a pump (A lot of moderately complicated math). Find a IV pump, place an IV if the patient doesn’t have one, hook it all up and program the pump to run at your desired rate… and then wonder what happened to the last few hours.
After about 2 months of call with back up, I recently started taking call independently. My first two independent call shifts were rough.We have an awesome team that is very supportive of one another, but we also try to take care of each other by handling anything we can independently, and only calling for help when it is absolutely necessary (especially during the night). During my first shift I had about 6 medically complex admissions topped off by a young man who came in with 4 gunshot wounds – 2 to the neck, 1 to the chest, and 1 to the abdomen – whereafter I promptly called and received help. But all of the patients did well, and were pretty clear cut from a diagnostic and treatment perspective.
My second independent call shift was not so clear cut.
Things were generally okay during the daylight hours, but as dusk settled I started getting calls.
Out of the several ER patients that I was called to come in and see, I can now only remember two. At about midnight I saw an older gentleman brought in by his son because he was having trouble breathing. I was able to determine that he was fluid overloaded due to advanced liver failure and a recent medicine change. This was based on the history that I obtained from his son and my physical exam because we do not have lab or X-ray available during the night (except for clear life or death decision points that prompt us to call staff to drive in from the surrounding community during the night). So I talked with his son about our treatment plan, his good short-term but poor long-term prognosis, and then started the treatment which I would modify based on the labs that could be done in the morning.
I went back up my house, but before falling asleep I was called again. It was about 2am…
A 21 year old girl with abdominal pain and nausea was brought into the ER in middle of the night. Her blood pressure was too low but she was conscious and it was not worsening, her abdomen was rigid, her blood sugar was too high for our machine to read and she was becoming deathly pale. She had a strange history of going to a different hospital the previous night, going home, resting, eating, then coming into our hospital for the same unbearable pain that had sent her to the other hospital.
I began to treat her identified problems individually, but was not sure of her unifying diagnosis. As I was trying to decide if I should call for help or lab, one of the nurses asked me to come quickly. I followed and she took me hastily to the room of my patient with liver failure explaining that she had just gone to check on him and found him dead. I entered the room where the patient’s son was by his bed – unaware that anything was out of order. I confirmed the patient was dead and then tried to gently but clearly explain to the son that his father had just died unexpectedly. After taking as much time as I felt I could, I went to check on my 21 year old female patient and found that her oxygen saturation was dropping. With my confidence shaken and my patient doing worse, I promptly called for help from the more experienced physcians.
Ultimately, we determined that she had a very dangerous condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) coupled with the even more deadly condition called sepsis. As we tried to treat her, we came to an impasse. The treatment for DKA is to rapidly but carefully lower the blood sugar while simultaneously addressing the acid-base and electrolyte disturbances created by both the disease and your treatment of the critically elevated sugar. To do this right, one needs to monitor and replete the electrolyte called potassium, while monitoring and correcting the acid-base status, and constantly titrating your insulin to lower the sugar (in the USA most hospitals purchase a proprietary software uses a complex computer model to anticipate the patient’s blood sugar responses and guide insulin titration).
Problem #1: Our acid-base test is so finicky it cannot be trusted.
Problem #2: Our electrolyte machine broke 2 days ago.
Problem #3: The country is shut down for COVID-19 so getting the replacement part will take at least a week.
Problem #4: Septic shock is the body’s final, unregulated and often devastating response to an overwhelming systemic infection. It’s treatment is to give copious fluids, broad-spectrum antibiotics, and start life-support measures like pressors and a ventilator while rapidly determining the source of the infection.
This is the tight rope we were walking:
If she becomes to acidotic she will die – and both DKA and sepsis create acidotic states.
If we leave her sugar that high she will die of sepsis – if we drop her sugar too fast and she goes too low – she will go into a coma and likely die.
If we do not give her adequate potassium near the time when her potassium begins to drop due to our treatment of high sugar – her heart will not be able to keep pumping – if we give her too much potassium, well, potassium is the drug of choice for lethal injection.
With these limitations, we did everything we could to help this young lady. We prayed for wisdom and healing and made our best educated guesses on what to correct – when.
For a while the patient was stable on two forms of life-support: pressors and a ventilator. I had spoken with her mother and our chaplain about the gravity of her situation (she had already required chest compressions and life saving medicines once that morning, which decreases the odds that she would survive to be discharged). I then went and saw my clinic patients. I checked on her several times throughout the day and I started to be hopeful that she might pull through. We arranged to split shifts to run her ventilator between 3 doctors who were not on general call that night (we do not have any respiratory techs or dedicated ICU nurses). I went home, explained to my girls in very basic terms why they hadn’t seen me for so long, and we said a prayer together for my patient.
That night, my patient’s blood pressure started dropping and despite chest compressions and meds, she died.
The next morning my 5 year old asked me how my patient was doing, the one for whom she was praying. I told her that she had died during the night.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I answered. And I don’t know. I don’t know why she died.
Medically, I don’t know if she died from an infection for which I wasn’t covering, an electrolyte imbalance I caused or didn’t correct, or something I had no control over. Spiritually, I don’t know why God didn’t answer our prayers for this 21 year old girl, when other times he so miraculously intervenes (like in my previous shift when the man who was shot 4 times, twice in the neck and head, walked out of our hospital after prayers and surgery).
I understand the philosophical arguments for why bad things happen. Abstract discussions of love, free-will, the effects of sin on creation. But I don’t believe there is a simple or straightforward answer to my daughter’s question. I believe the best answer is either silence or “I don’t know,” followed by an example of continued faith and prayer that mourns and wrestles with what happened while faithfully doing the next right thing. The Bible says we walk by faith and not by sight. Despite what we see or cannot see around us, we keep walking in faith.
I was hurt and saddened by the loss of two patients from the same call shift. But I keep walking by faith. I trust that God is good and faithful.
Nevertheless I went into my third call shift with some trepidation and prayer that God would give me a little more time to recover before my next medical disaster. And I am happy to report that my third call shift was rather uneventful. That morning, as I was nearing the end of my third call shift, I gave thanks to God that instead of severely ill patients I had the opportunity to be on the other side of things. I helped a mother deliver a healthy baby boy into the world in the wee hours of the morning. And as I went home, I stopped at our overlook and took in this view:
Clearly to me, God is at work in our world. I don’t always understand how He chooses to work, nor do I always know how I should pray. But I hold onto the faith of Jesus Christ and trust that He will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear.
Blessings on you all,
Please pray for our family as we continue to settle in, push through culture/COVID shock, and the newborn phase of sleep deprivation.
And please pray for the preemie baby in our hospital. Bethany provided breast milk for her until her mother’s milk came in, and the baby has survived almost a week now, but she has several more weeks before she’ll be out of the woods.
On a crisp August morning in 2017, I stayed with my girls in our van while my wife ran into the Murfreesboro Sam’s for hot dogs. We had only two daughters back then, a 17 month old who could break hearts with the size of her grin or break ears with the decibel level of her dissatisfied scream, and a just-turned-three-year-old whose constant flow of questions and narration could transition from side-splittingly whimsical to deadly serious without so much as a comma. My 17 month old was happily strapped into her rear facing car seat (a rare event when the van was not in motion), and my 3 year old was content to stay in her car seat as long as we kept talking to each other. This segment of our conversation began with a question she had started asking both my wife and I on a semi-regular basis.
With a fact-seeking tone my daughter asked, “Daddy, you going to die?”
“Yes, eventually I’ll die Elizabeth.” I said, resigned to repeat a conversation I felt that I’d had one too many times.
“Why?” she asked (as she tended to do after any declarative statement was made in her general vicinity).
“We all die eventually. Probably not soon, but one day,” I responded evenly.
“I’m going to die?” She asked casually.
“Yes. …Life is like a book,” I said, motioning an opening book with my hands. “We all have a start, like opening the cover, a lot of pages to turn, and then the book comes to an end.” I showed the book closing with my hands and passively hoped we could turn to more interesting topics of conversation, but alas my daughter followed my wonderful analogy by going back to her list of people that she occasional confirmed would eventually die.
“Granddaddy going to die?” she asked, again as if asking about the weather. Now you need to understand that ‘Granddaddy’ is and was my daughter’s only living great-grandparent, all the others had died, Sweetmama within Elizabeth’s memory (which is quite keen). But Granddaddy was a healthy 81 year old man who continues to live and work his farm outside of Memphis.
“Yes,” I answered – not giving an inch.
“Granddaddy going to die on the farm?” My little girl clarified.
I paused to think for a moment, “Probably so. I think he’d be happy to die on his farm,” I said reflecting on how much he dislikes going to the doctor’s office or hospital. Elizabeth paused for a moment and I wondered if she was thinking about which other people she needed to confirm would die someday, but she surprised me with a different line of questioning.
“Where would you be happy to die, daddy?” I thought for a moment about the complexity of the question my three year old had just posed. I wondered if I could express, simply enough for her to understand, my desire to finish life well and die exactly where God wants my family and me to be- wherever that is, pouring our lives into whatever community he puts us, arm-in-arm to the end. As I tried to find words to put into concrete terms the abstract thoughts floating in my head my daughter spoke up.
“I’d be happy to die on a cross.” She said with happy finality.
And then, as suddenly as the conversation had plunged into the depths of theodicy, teleology, and soul-baring-intimacy, my barely-three-year-old girl moved on to ask when mom would be back with hot dogs and where we were going next… unaware of the tears of pride, fear, joy & sorrow that I was left crying.
When does a young child become a follower of Jesus Christ? What marks the first real confession of faith? Perhaps, in a family that saturates their daily conversation with Bible stories, prayers, and talk of God – the exact turning point of becoming a follower of Jesus might be more of gradual process than a single decision point. Was Elizabeth making a first confession of faith? Who but God can know? Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to faithfully present the gospel in our everyday activities, trusting God’s grace, until our children join us in that daily presentation.
“It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” Proverbs 25:2
I think that many children who are raised intentionally in the faith, might find themselves in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ without being able to point to a discrete turning point or prayer (I myself came to such a realization in my childhood). I do not say this to diminish the importance of celebrating and remembering when a child begins to express a desire to follow Christ.
Recently I seemed to caused some confusion when I wrote, “I am thankful for Lydia’s recent confession of faith…” What I meant by this was, inasmuch as Bethany and I can know the heart of our child, it was evident to us by her statement and other choices, that Lydia was beginning to desire to follow Jesus. Let me give you some context:
Each night of lent, as we moved the wooden figure of Jesus bearing a cross closer to the center of our 40 candle spiral, I would ask the girls several questions, one night the questions unfolded like this: “Where’s is Jesus going?” “Jerusalem!”
“Why is he going to Jerusalem?” “To die on the cross.”
“Is this an easy or a difficult thing for him?” “Difficult.”
“That’s right, it was difficult, so much so that Jesus sometimes didn’t want to have to go to the cross. But do you know what? Jesus was God’s son, and he obeyed his heavenly Father completely – no matter what. He never failed to obey God – even if it was hard or he didn’t feel like it.”
The quiet pause of contemplation afterwards told me that both of my older children were giving unusually devoted attention to my words. Then Lydia spoke up, “I want to obey like that.” I glanced at Bethany and we shared a look that agreed this was an important and weighty comment. We were impressed with Lydia’s grasp of the our fundamental problem (disobedience), and it’s solution (the obedience of Jesus Christ). Then, I tried to follow that up by saying, “That’s really good Lydia…” But as with little Elizabeth in the first story, the moment was gone as quickly as it arrived. My child’s attention had moved on to the all important question of who would get to blow the candles out.
To encourage, cement, and remember moments such as the ones above, Bethany and I have made a quilt for our home and children. Around the outside of the quilt are areas with symbols for the rituals and milestones of the Christian faith (Birth/Adoption, Infant Dedication, First Confession, Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Vocation/Ordination, Marriage, Finishing Well, and Death/Glorification). Our quilt is a reminder to orient our lives, remembrances, and individual stories around His story. And as our children live into these milestones we celebrate them and eventually embroider those dates or time periods into our quilt. I think we will be embroidering the year 2020 for Lydia’s first confession of faith rather than a specific date.
“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” Romans 10:9
Please pray for:
-Honduras as a country. COVID19 restrictions are still tightening and a large portion of the people are at risk for hunger and not getting medical care for necessary (non-COVID19) things.
-A 12 year old patient in our hospital with an infected knee (ultimately this would end in a fused joint or amputation if we cannot eradicate the infection). Pray that he would walk again, hopefully even run.
-Wisdom, regarding our decisions for what to do next when COVID19 restrictions lift (returning to language school, staying at the hospital, or some hybridization)
*I used the adjective quantum in the title, because the geeky side of me cannot help but see the similarities between subatomic particles and early childhood salvation. Perhaps a short explanation: the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is an interesting math proof in the field of quantum mechanics, showing that you cannot simultaneously know the position and the momentum of any given particle. The more clearly you define the momentum the less certain you can be of the position, and vice versa. A related idea that is sometimes confused with the uncertainty principle is the observer effect. The observer effect states that the systems and particles at the quantum level are so delicate that any process introduced to directly observe and determine the state of said particles will itself change the system. It is like a blindfolded kid trying to determine the shape of a house of cards by feeling with his hands without toppling the cards. The house of cards would be irrevocably changed by the observation.
A child’s confession of faith is much like a subatomic particle. It’s fleeting, it cannot be pinned down, or fully spelled out, and if you try to grasp it to directly, by asking a kid about it or if they want to say a prayer with you – the child will generally try to figure out what you want to hear and say that. I am convinced that there is a deeper significance and more resolved permanence when a child confesses Jesus as Lord from an intrinsic motivation rather than an extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivations are hard to teach, it’s more about modeling than telling, more about sharing excitement and coming along-side than leading or explaining. Extrinsic motivation is easy – peer pressure, candy, time-out, and stickers, are all external motivators – the child is not doing or avoiding an action for the sake of the external good, for something that is unrelated to the action.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are not the views of Samaritan’s Purse or World Medical Mission.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, could a thousand pictures express my gratitude to God for bringing baby Hannah out of her mother’s womb and safely into the world in the wee hours of this morning? I don’t think so.
Nevertheless, I’ll try to capture these moment and my heart that is heavy with gratitude:
This is our entry in the Family book for Hannah’s birthday.
Elizabeth holding Hannah
Lydia holding Hannah
Leaving the hospital to go up the hill to our home a few hours after Hannah was born
Thank you for your thoughts and prayers.
Keep us in your prayers as we add Hannah to our family life.
Grace and Peace to you all.
I am thankful for your loving faithfulness that gives me grace, peace, mercy and love each day anew.
I am thankful that you delayed our initial flights to Honduras, so that we canceled our visa trip – and are able to be here, in Honduras, at the mission hospital right now where I can ease into working at the hospital while we wait for Hannah to be born.
I am thankful that you expedited our Honduran Residency Status so we can stay here legally until well after Hannah is born when we receive all the documents needed to travel back to the USA with her.
I am thankful for an uneventful pregnancy thus far, that baby Hannah appears healthy, head-down, and ready to be born any day now.
I am thankful that we have plenty of food, clean water, and electricity while we wait out this country-wide quarantine.
I am thankful for a kind generous Christian community, a beautiful yard and jungle to romp about, and spacious home and that we are well.
I am thankful for Lydia’s recent confession of faith, while we were lighting our Lenten candle wreath, when, after discussing Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Father in going to the cross, she said, “I want to obey like that.”
I am thankful for the ocean breeze, for starry nights, beautiful birds, curious insects, and cute lizards.
I am thankful for donors who are supporting us despite the uncertainty they face in their own situations.
I am thankful for good coffee, great books, and hammocks.
Have you ever noticed the unusual relationship that we have with our words? It seems like our relationship with words should be a one way process: our mind forms thoughts that are turned into words then spoken. But like most natural and biologic process – it’s not so simple our straightforward. Instead, it is reciprocal- who we are and how we think shapes the words we speak (as above), but the words that we speak and think also give form and shape to our thoughts and the words that we speak shape who we are and how we think about ourselves. (If you’d like to skip my eloquent philosophizing and just read about how we’re doing – Click here – It won’t hurt my feelings that badly.)
Perhaps your mom told you, “Don’t say that!” After you spoke aloud some bad thing that seemed likely to happen but every one was hoping against (and avoiding speaking). My mother did, often. I remember trying to convince her that saying or not saying something can’t affect the outcome. I even remember trying to convince her that believing otherwise was superstitious and not compatible with Christianity. But despite my logical arguments I could not persuade my mother that our words were just simple powerless declarations. Although she couldn’t articulate why, deep down my mother, and most mothers know that all spoken words have reality bending properties that call for caution.
In my Biblical studies I have come to realize that my childish view and argument were completely wrong. The biblical world view is founded on the truth that we are made in the likeness or image of God. We are called and equipped to bear the image of the God, the same God who spoke this world into existence. Because of this our words, in lesser ways, are empowered to create and change His world. Furthermore, we Christians are called to strive towards Christ-likeness, to be like Jesus. In the gospel according to John we are introduced to Jesus as the Word made flesh. And throughout the New Testament we are called to be like the Jesus, the man who spoke with such faith and authority that the wind and waves obeyed him. And in case we wanted this to be a special divine-only type event, he said these words to his disciples when their words failed to cast our demons: “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20 (ESV)
Clearly our mothers were right. We should take care when we speak. Our words and language are designed to have power. And as we follow Christ, our language becomes even more important. The truth is we do not simply shape our language, it in-turn shapes us and our world.
If you’ve never spent significant time trying to communicate in a language that is not your first tongue, you may not have thought about the way that languages themselves are not neutral or one-way actors. Languages develop out of a reflexive cycle with their culture. If precise time is important in a culture (The United States) than the language lends itself, more and more, to communicating precise times with ease and clarity. If flexible time frames are important (Central America), then finding out the exact time for when something will start may be difficult, the language will have lots of wiggle room in case you need extra time to talk with your neighbor or grab a coffee. Otherwise, if love, accountability, pigs, or directness are important in a culture, then the language develops many nuanced and quick ways of expressing different types and qualities of those things.
The converse is also true. Sometimes whole concepts are missing from a language (from the viewpoint of another language), but this can be difficult to describe in the language where the thing is missing. And difficult to wrap your mind around when trying to learn or identify a concept you’ve never had or thought about. It is almost impossible to discover what concepts might be missing from your primary language without spending time trying to translate concepts to and from another language.
For instance, one concept that many Biblical scholars have lamented the lack of in English is a distinction between the singular and plural second person pronoun. Let me break that down for those of you who aren’t grammar nerds or presently mastering verb conjugations in Spanish: “I” is our first person singular pronoun, and “we” is our first person plural pronoun, but “you” is our our second person singular pronoun and “you” can also be used as our second person plural pronoun, but most of the time our context isn’t clear and people just think of themselves individually (singularly) if we say “you.” So we have several informal work-arounds: ya’ll, you all, you guys and you lot. This missing expression creates a large translation problem when the Biblical writers carefully distinguish (in their native tongue) that they are addressing the church altogether or individuals in the church. In English, both for cultural and linguistic reasons, we hear the Bible as though it were always addressing us individually. For instance, consider how you might understand and reflect on these verses differently if translated with the southern work-around:
For I know the plans I have for ya’ll, declares Yahweh, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give ya’ll a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV)
…Work out ya’ll’s salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in ya’ll, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-14, ESV)
Alright, let me tie all this back into the reason you all read this blog. Our family has been working hard to master a new language, learn new concepts and get to know a new group of brothers and sisters in Christ. We’ve been here almost a month and we hope we are just about to hit our stride. On some level, especially in our children, we are rewiring the ways our brain conceptualizes and process input and output (consider that most of your thinking occurs in your primary language). We are in the intensive program, so Bethany and I spend 4 hours a day one-on-one with a native Spanish speaker (and grammar nerd) plus independent homework and study time and regular community immersion as we walk to and from school, shop, worship, and explore Siguatapeque. In all of this we try to absorb as much as possible about the culture, idioms, beliefs, and language of the people we have committed to serve. Our older girls start each day with one hour of language school and then review with us throughout the day.
In this time of transition we are striving to be careful with our words (in both languages). When our children declare they do not like a staple food of Honduras, we encourage them to revise the statement from “I don’t like it!” to “It’s not my favorite.” When they have a melt down and declare they will never again play with the other, we remind them of our family’s words that we say to each other every night, “We love each other, no matter what.” We use leading questions when we know a two hour kid’s church class in Spanish was tiring and difficult for them: “That was hard but fun, wasn’t it?”
Personally, it would be easier for me to pull an example of the ways that Spanish seems deficient when translating from my English for this post (rather than the example from Greek to English above) but I want to be careful with my words. I do not want to reinforce my half-formed thoughts or frustrations with the power of written or spoken word. If a concept is not easily translated, it’s likely not to be very important to my listener so I should find a different approach rather than getting stuck on my dilemma. I want to model what I encourage my girls to do. To speak what is not only true but also noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. To speak and pray a deep and abiding love for the people, language, and culture of Honduras into our lives.
Three powerful words have shaped our reality in the last weeks:
Elizabeth calls our apartment here, “home.”
Ruth spoke the 5th & 6th words she has ever spoken, calling out, “agua” while reaching for her water cup. And “adios” as she waved goodbye to one of our Honduran teachers.
So my brothers and sisters, take care with your words. In the words of TobyMac, “Speak Life.” Understand the reciprocal relationship you have with your words, that your language does not just express how you feel or what you want, but it also firms up, reinforces, and at times creates how and who you and those around you will be.
These are our praises:
-We have wonderful neighbors in our apartments, with wonderful neighbor kids and a great enclosed yard where the children can play.
-We love our teachers and the language school, and we feel like we’re learning and improving our Spanish at a good pace.
-We’ve been healthy and well.
-Little Hannah (our fourth girl who is due March 26th) is still growing and kicking.
-The coffee is wonderful and plentiful.
-Their is an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.
These are our prayer request:
-That we would continue to make our home in Honduras and among its people.
-That we draw together as a family and love one another deeply through this transition and the emotional upheavals and stressors that go along with creating our home in another culture and striving to embrace different norms and routines.
-That Elizabeth and Lydia would find opportunities and age-mates to engage with local Honduran culture and language (our neighbors are also in language school and speak primarily English)
-That Bethany and I would have wisdom as we push our children to learn Spanish and give them space to struggle and relax from this process as appropriate.
-That we would know God’s will and have his guidance regarding the purchase of a vehicle
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are not the views of Samaritan’s Purse or World Medical Mission.
I will skip the dramatic build up and simply say: by the grace of God we have arrived safely in Honduras, all the way to our language school apartment, with all our children and all our bags.
God is Good.
Our week has been a busy, thank you for your prayers. Things have gone a smooth as we dared to imagine.
God allowed us to reschedule our flights with minimal cost, immediately after the embargo ended. He allowed two family members to be available on very short notice to travel with us to juggle luggage, children, and it first week in Honduras.
Here is a run down of our week:
Monday: We loaded our minivan with 12 plastic totes, 5 full size suitcases, 5 carry on bags, 4 carseats, 1 stroller, 1 violin, ( and a partridge in a pear tree). All of our checked bags were carefully packed by my wife, weighed, repacked, and weighed again till each came in between 48 and 49.5lbs.
Tuesday: 2am wake up, 2:30am left the house, 3am checked-in and checked bags, 4am prayers and send off, 5:45am departed Nashville for Miami, 9:45 departed Miami for Honduras. 12pm touch down in San Pedro Sula airport. 1am Visas, Claimed luggage (every single piece with everything inside unbroken and present) and transported all that through customs (with the help of 4 Honduran airport workers). 3pm Pick-up truck loaded with bags and we began the drive from San Pedro Sula to Siguatapeque. 5pm arrived in the apartment where will live for most of the next 6-7 months.
Wednesday: Awoken early by Ruthy who enjoyed many naps in Tuesday and believes that roosters’s crowing should not go unheeded. Deep clean of kitchen, Began unpacking, Grocery run (it’s hard stocking a kitchen from scratch in Honduras), Discussed and signed language school contracts.
Thursday: Language school began. 4 hours of class time for Bethany and I (staggered to allow us to keep the kids). The classes are one-on-one with teachers in and around a beautiful home. 1 hour of class for the girls. Still unpacking.
Friday: Language school: class time, plus homework, plus immersion time. Still unpacking, Beginning to find routine.
As I hope you can see, between the above tasks, and simply keeping or children fed, watered, and rested – we’ve barely had a moment to spare. I apologized for the cliffhanger that my last post may have been for some of you. And thank you for the prayers that worked to smooth out the problems and obstacles we did not even see.
-Safe return travel for the 2 family members that came down with us.
-That our family would embrace, with all our hearts, the language, culture, and people of Honduras.
-That we would work with excellence, perseverance, and joy to become Spanish speakers (especially pray for my girls attitudes towards the overwhelming task of learning a new language)
-That we would transition well and gracefully (especially in our attitudes towards each other in our family) through changes in culture, church, school, language, friends, neighbors, security, and life itself in these next months.
As always, thank you for your prayers, words of encouragement and support.
The last weeks have been a rich outpouring of love, goodbyes, encouragement, blessing, and gifts. We know that the church universal and through them, almighty God, loves us. Thank you for the letters, donations, carbon-composite violin, blessings, prayers, hugs, and tears.
I know that many of you have been praying for us today, thank you. Please continue to pray for us as we keep you posted.
The morning was interesting. We set off to the Nashville airport with all of our children and luggage, ready to depart for Honduras. In the airport we found ourselves surrounded by family, friends, and our pastor. But at the ticketing counter we encountered an obstacle.
“A travel embargo is currently in effect for all luggage going to Honduras,” The lady behind the ticketing counter said, with no small amount of concern as she looked at our luggage.
But we had already read about the embargo in the fine print and having reviewed the criteria with our travel agent we confidently explained, “We understand, but we only have two checked bags per person, all less than 50 pounds, all less than 62 linear inches.” Knowing the embargo was in effect for the duration holiday travel, we had planned to only move with our family’s essential luggage in this first trip. With great care, my wife had packed every square inch of 7 action-packer totes and each one weighed approximately 49.5 pounds (literally, and that requires a lot of repacking and weighing).
But apparently, the awesome rugged totes into which we packed our most essential earthly possessions, fell in the category of box rather than typical luggage, and the ticketing agent as well as her co-workers and supervisor could not allow us to check our totes. We called Samaritan’s Purse and our travel agent and began working our options:
No fee or fine could be paid to wave the restriction. No other luggage, of even half the size, could be purchased for us to transfer and repack. We had friends and family check in every direction: No at every other airline desks, no at the gift shop, no at the unclaimed luggage area downstairs, and finally our pastor even made a Walmart run to see if he could get to and from Walmart with enough luggage and spare time for us to repack and board. (Apparently a group of about 20 short term missionaries had bought out all the luggage they could purchase in the airport to get around the same problem.)
In this scramble, the peace of God transcended our group, and we began to step back and realize that we were not going to make our flights with our luggage, and that was okay. With a baby on the way, a 1 year old, 3 year old, and 5 year old – going without our luggage was not an option (there are no quick or straight-forward shipping options to Honduras either).
In that moment I quietly quoted Jeremiah 29:11 aloud to my Father-in-law and children, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”
Its odd, is it not? The paradox of our faith. Moments like today are polarizing, they force you to either lean in and trust God, or pull away and distrust God. We chose trust. Over and over God has shown me that he does have a plan, and a much more comprehensive planning and purposing strategy than I could ever imagine. I do not understand why I’m writing from Tennessee instead of Honduras tonight, but I trust that He has His reasons.
So we wait. We came home to Mimi and Poppy’s and we are resting and beginning another round of logistical considerations to determine when we will take our next steps of faith, be it tomorrow or next week. We’ll keep you posted.
As we were leaving the airport Lydia said, “I don’t want to go back, I want to go to Honduras.”
The Peace of Jesus Christ be with you.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are not the views of Samaritan’s Purse or World Medical Mission.