One of my duties as chaplain is to visit athletes and be with them and their families before surgery. This past weekend, I found myself in surgery waiting as my middle daughter, Caley (10), had appendicitis. It is one thing to be with people and their families prior to surgery. I have spent countless hours in hospitals and in hospice with others. I have not spent as much time in hospitals myself. As one friend called me this weekend, “Rev, who visits you when you go into the hospital?” Fortunately, my brother lives close by to where we were. But it feels very different when you or your loved one is in the hospital. I want to share some reflections on what surgery waiting feels like – as a chaplain for a football club and as a father, as well.
Surgery Waiting: Waiting for Surgery
When surgery is imminent, it always seems a long wait. I recently went to be with a player going in for ACL surgery, it was nearly one week from the time of the injury until his surgery time. In the same way, it felt like my wife and I were waiting forever to find out when our daughter’s surgery might happen. We arrived at the hospital around 8:30 pm – surgery wasn’t the next day until nearly 2:00 pm. When your child is in pain; when waiting to be healed or fixed; when you are wanting to start down the road of recovery it can feel like forever. While my own experience around hospitals has helped prep me for surgery waiting, I can say that for my wife and daughter and for others for whom it is their first time it is tremendously hard.
If we take the concept of surgery waiting into life a bit, sometimes we know we need help. Whether we struggle with an addiction like alcoholism or infidelity or whether it is a trial like infertility or injury there are moments where we know we need help, we reach out for that help, but we have to wait for the resources or help to come. We have to get sober before we can get treatment. We have to let the swelling go down before they can operate. We have to wait for a cycle to finish before we can try again. We have to go through counseling before we can have reconciliation. Waiting for surgery isn’t fun. Waiting for surgery is difficult.
Surgery Waiting: Pre-op Prep
Before going back for surgery, there is always the pre-operation work that needs to go on. IV’s, fluids, antibiotics, forms to sign, a talk with the doctor, more forms to sign, a talk with the anesthesiologist, a trip to the bathroom, a prayer, hugs, a last kiss, maybe some tears — a lot happens before going back for surgery. And this is exclusive of the labs and assessments and conversations and paperwork that have all preceded a procedure.
In life, too, there is often pre-work that we must undertake before the cutting begins. A book read, visits to the counselor, an assessment on our emotional or spiritual state, a time out — all part of the prep work that goes on when we need to have part of us repaired or worked on. I remember a few years ago, a friend was about to check into rehab. We met prior to going in – to pray, to encourage, to visit one last time before undergoing isolation. I’d like to think that the time together was part of what helped carry through a difficult time.
Surgery Waiting: Simply Waiting
It is interesting to consider that when we wait during surgery, we are often “unaware.” There is no camera angle, there’s no audio channel, the doctor isn’t taking selfies and posting to his friends on a social media network. The surgery itself is almost a state of limbo — for the patient, as well as for the ones in surgery waiting. No updates, no progression bar, maybe a stated time frame but little else is given.
There are few places in modern milieu where knowledge ceases and time passes slowly. Sure, surgery waiting is filled with personal phones and tablets and TVs to aid in passing time, but time still seems to crawl as one awaits news of their loved one and their status. This limbo state often induces us to think of what might have been or how we might have changed something to effect our circumstances. We reply, often harshly and with guilt, the reel of choices and decision leading up to pain or tragedy.
As my wife and I sat awaiting our daughter’s surgery outcome, we thought back to the signs and symptoms of the appendicitis that we had missed — an upset stomach a week earlier, some complaint of pain during a camping trip, etc. — the danger is in assuming we might have changed an outcome by responding differently or that we might have acted differently “if only we had known.
Surgery Waiting: Wrestling with Regret
The emotional wrestling during surgery waiting reminds me of something that C.S. Lewis wrote about in Prince Caspian and a few other places within his Chronicles of Narnia series. Lucy speaking to Aslan, asks the what might have been question to which Aslan responds,
“What would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.”
There is a deep desire within us to know and understand what might have been if only we had listened, if only we had obeyed, if only we had chose differently. If you grew up with the Choose Your Own Adventure books, you know how easy it was to make the choice. But did you keep your thumb on the page in case it wasn’t the right choice? The temptation to go back and choose differently was too easy. Life is not so. There is no reset button. There is no unwinding of the clock. I believe God does this to protect us.
Living with the burden of choices that might have been emotionally and spiritually buries one under an onerous burden of grief, guilt, and remorse. Choices made in the past become stumbling blocks to living in the present and future. Life becomes all about second guessing.
To be honest, though, for my wife and I, we will probably always take the complaints of tummy pain and nausea from our young children in a different way. Our experiences shape us this way.
Surgery Waiting: Waking to Recovery
When waking up out of surgery, everything is fuzzy, foggy, blurry. Memory has difficulty catching up. What just happened? Where am I? The displaced person attempts to recollect. The road to healing and recovery may begin, but it is like waking up from a dream, maybe even a nightmare. For the caregivers or parents, this waking to recovery can also be a difficult time, too. New duties — medicines to be delivered, helping a patient up from bed, waiting on them, serving them — all are fatiguing and difficult. One wonders when recovery will end and things return to “normal.” Of course, for some, there is never going back to being normal. In fact, a major part of recovery is learning what the new normal will be for a person.
Undergoing a spiritual or emotional surgery, too, means sometimes a life-long recovery. For some, they can never go back. The alcoholic must commit to never having a drink again. The one caught up in sexual addiction has to change lifestyle habits forever. The one recovering from injury must commit to exercise and rehabilitation to restore health and wholeness. There are steps forward and times when we move backward in our recovery process.
Just as we were getting ready to be discharged, our daughter threw up. A delay in the recovery. Another day in the hospital. Downheartedness and discouragement for mom, dad, and patient. It is within these moments that we must take food, nourishment. Not necessarily physical food but spiritual food, God’s Word — this sustains our faith when life is trying and testing.
Surgery Waiting: Sustaining Words
Below are some linked references to scripture has lifted me and others that I have served in times like surgery waiting. I pray they are a source of encouragement for you or your loved ones, too.
Rev. Brad Kenney