Lessons From a Hospital Bed

Sue in pre-op before surgeryIn the last several months, both of my severely arthritic hips were replaced. In addition to the wonderful blessing that I am out of pain, the surgeries and recoveries were full of lessons pointing me to spiritual truths I am so very thankful for:

For a long time, I needed help getting in and out of my car. To be blunt, it was always noisy with involuntary gasps and screams of pain. And while my family and friends were so very glad to be of assistance, it was hard on them to witness me hurting so badly. Now that the pain is behind me, I keep hearing comments like, “Wow! It’s so great not to see your face contorted!” or, “Oh man! You’re not making the horrible sounds you used to make when you were getting into the car!” I told my husband the other day, “I have a feeling all that was a lot worse than I had any idea.” He nodded his head, “Oh yeah. It was bad.” While I am truly sorry that my sweet helpers had to see and hear what they did, it touches me that their compassion ran so deep. I have a new appreciation of what “rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) looks like, and how powerful it is to enter into another person’s highs and lows.

We have an amazing community group who love each other incredibly well. The night before my first surgery, they prayed over me. One of the men, with a twinkle in his eye, admonished me: “Sue, you may think this surgery is about getting a new hip, but it’s not. It’s about the people you’re going to meet and minister to in the hospital. I just want you to remember—it’s not about you, OK?” I know he said it to make me laugh, but his counsel bounced around in my head during both hospital stays. It allowed me to stay aware of the various people who came into my room, from doctors to nurses to housekeepers to the people delivering meal trays, praying, “How can I bless and encourage this person today, Lord?” It really WASN’T all about me!

I had heard from three different doctors, “You have two bad hips and they both need to be replaced.” But I didn’t sense the timing was right, especially with the expense of such huge surgeries and recovery. I learned yet again the importance of trusting God’s timing; in February I turned 65 and crossed the amazing Medicare threshold, which covered basically everything. God’s provision has been a huge part of this “adventure,” including an exceptionally generous outpouring of gifts to a GoFundMe campaign for an expensive stem cell treatment that we had hoped would replace surgery, but it didn’t. I learned again that the Lord is Jehovah Jireh, the God Who Provides (Genesis 22).

This adventure provided minute-by-minute practice in developing an “Attitude of Gratitude.” During the first surgery, it seemed that every time I turned around there was another reason to say, “Thank You, Lord!” From the marvelous shock of waking up in the recovery room in no pain, to walking on my walker a couple of hours after surgery, to the joy of being able to stand again for the simple pleasure of brushing my teeth and washing my hands at the sink, to the delicious hospital food, to the lovely flowers friends brought, to the blessing of being able to fall back asleep after every nighttime “visitor”—I was immersed in nonstop thankfulness.

The day after my second surgery, the Director of Food and Nutrition visited me to check on how the hospital was doing with the quality of the food and service. We had a delightful visit in which I was able to tell him about my immersion in thankfulness during my first hospital stay, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to remember a lot of the things I was thankful for because pain meds made my brain fuzzy. “So,” I pointed to my journal next to my bed, “this time I brought my gratitude journal so I could record the many blessings despite the pain meds. And your food is one of them!” The director grinned and said, “Ah, so that’s where the joy is coming from!” I loved that I was able to recognize a brother in Christ, and that he was able to recognize the connection between gratitude and joy.

The second surgery was a challenge for the surgeon because my hip bones are deformed from polio. I learned that there wasn’t enough hip bone to anchor the new socket with screws, so she had to use surgical cement. She has high hopes that it will hold, but warned me that if the cement doesn’t work over the long haul, “We’ll be in big trouble.” So I started praying that the Lord would literally hold me together. Some of my astute friends pointed out that that is Jesus’ job in Colossians 1:17: “In Him all things hold together.” The context is all of creation, so He can certainly handle one little hip!

I’ve already shared some of the other lessons I’ve learned in this adventure, about how to handle fear by sharing it with others and inviting the Lord into it and how to handle unexpected grief.

But I’m pretty sure there are more lessons ahead. I just pray to keep my eyes open so I don’t miss any of them.

Next Day Addendum:

I was right about there being more lessons, and I remembered one of them this morning as I easily stood up from my scooter to grab the coffee beans and mug from the cabinet for my morning cup of wake-up juice. After several years of not walking or standing because of the pain, I got out of a number of habits. Now I have to remind myself, “Hey! You can do ______ again!” I need to renew my thinking about what I can and can’t do, and in order to make these new ways of thinking permanent, I need to practice thinking differently. That’s how we experience spiritual transformation as well. One of my favorite verses is Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . .” We are transformed by intentionally submitting how we think and interpret life to the authority of God’s word. But we have to practice new ways of thinking in order to be transformed (as opposed to a momentary flicker of a thought).

 

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/lessons_from_a_hospital_bed on November 13, 2018.


Leaning Hard

Sue Bohlin on walker

I wondered when it would happen, when the pain and weakness from post-polio, exacerbated by hip arthritis, would set me up for a fall. And now I know. The other day I took a tumble.

I forgot to have my husband put my walker in the back of my mini-van. At some point this year I discovered that leaning on a cane for stability wasn’t enough, and I need a walker for literally every step. But this level of loss and disability is still new to me; sometimes I forget that my “new normal” demands things like taking a walker with me. When I got to my destination, all I had was my cane, and I thought, “It’s okay, I’ll have the cane in my right hand and I can lean on the car with my left to make my way to the back of the van to get my scooter.”

But it was a drizzly day, and when I leaned hard on the bumper my hand slipped, and I went down HARD. Fortunately, it was also a cold day and my padded coat helped cushion my shoulder and hip as I hit the ground. I instantly had a new appreciation for that old commercial, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Yep. That was me.

My cell phone was in my pocket, praise God, and I was able to call for help. It took two aides to lift me to a vertical position and then get my scooter out of the van, shaken and feeling very fragile but basically okay.

The doctor I was there to see also came out, and when she spoke I knew it was the Lord’s voice through her: “Sue, you’re trying to do too much on your own.” Yep. That was me too.

I’ve thought a lot about how things have changed for me in the past couple of years as I’ve lost so much of my mobility and ability to do even the simplest things around the house. And since there is often a strong correlation between the physical world and spiritual reality, each one teaching us something about the other, I’ve become especially aware of my dependence on my walker and my scooter.

So it deeply blessed me when a friend dealing with stage-four renal cancer was featured in a video where she quoted from J.I. Packer in Joni Eareckson Tada’s book A Lifetime of Wisdom:

“God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other afflictions, as his chisel for sculpting our lives. Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away. To live with your ‘thorn’ uncomplainingly – that is, sweet, patient, and free in heart to love and help others, even though every day you feel weak – is true sanctification. It is true healing for the spirit. It is a supreme victory of grace.”

The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away. Whoa.

“Leaning hard” is the opposite of our American, self-sufficient, can-do independence. But it’s the secret to spiritual vitality and power because “leaning hard” means we access Christ’s strength instead of our own puny efforts.

“Leaning hard” is my new way of understanding “abiding.” And abiding is where stability comes from, just as I am far more stable when I’m “leaning hard” on my walker when I have to walk and on my scooter when I get to ride.

The memory of leaning hard on my slippery car bumper, only to discover it was not a reliable place to support myself so I landed hard on the ground, was also a powerful lesson in the futility of leaning hard on myself or anything other than Jesus Christ Himself. I now have a kinesthetic memory of that spiritual truth!

It stinks to fall, of course, but I sure do love the insight that came from it.

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/leaning_hard on December 27, 2016.


Pain: God’s Just-Right Tool

girl in pain

I wrote this blog post on May 7, 2012. When I ran it again almost five years later, I added this introduction:

Not quite five years ago, when I originally wrote this, I had no idea that by this point, I would hardly be walking, using a scooter 95% of the time and unable to move without a walker for the rest. Pain and serious weakness are my daily companions. As I noticed the counts on my most popular blog posts and discovered this one among the top, I am grateful that the wisdom God gave me five years ago is even more true today. And I am grateful that I can even minister to myself.

It’s now almost ten years later, and I certainly had no idea that by THIS point, the Lord would have so incredibly graciously allowed me to have had both hips replaced so that I live free from pain. Never, ever saw that coming. But I also know that this is a sweet but temporary season, as I keep getting older and the late effects of polio continue to threaten. So I live with a deep sense of gratitude for this season of respite, knowing that any point I may be forced to re-enter the place of pain.

“You know, you’re like the Martha Stewart of kitchen gadgets and tools,” my friend observed as she unloaded our dishwasher. “You’ve got stuff I never knew existed.”

Cherry pitter

I really do like having just-right tools. I only use my cherry pitter during cherry season, but it’s perfect for the job. I don’t use my electric knife sharpener every day, but when I do pull it out to put a finely honed edge on a knife, it brings joy to my culinary tasks. I love being able to chop up nuts in my food chopper in no time flat—and no mess. Tools like these are a reason I enjoy cooking and baking.

Once as I was using a razor blade holder to scrape paint off the windows on our garage door, I said, “Thanks, Lord, for the blessing of a just-right tool.” I sensed Him say, “Do you think it’s any different for Me? I enjoy having the just-right tool in My hand as well.” At the time I got the impression He was talking about using us as instruments of grace and blessing in His hand, but lately I’ve become aware of a different kind of just-right tool in God’s hand.

Pain.

Physical pain, emotional pain, the pain of trials and suffering of all kinds. Pain is an incredibly effective tool to achieve God’s purposes in our lives: transforming His children into the image of His Son Jesus, tearing down strongholds that keep us from being all that He made us to be, restoring what was lost in the Fall.

No Easy Button

Since God has no magic wand and no Easy button (that’s only for Staples commercials), He has to use other means to accomplish the considerable task of changing people who are far more broken and messy and less than we were created to be, into the people He intended us to be from the beginning.

Some of the just-right tools I have personally seen in God’s hands:

George and Pam (not their real names) found the wheels coming off their lives when they learned their middle-schooler was doing drugs, followed shortly by dealing them. Though they were faithful church attenders, neither of them actually knew Jesus. They were directed to a grace-drenched, gospel-preaching church where they both trusted Christ and everything changed. George told me recently that as he had learned, “Suffering keeps us from the delusion of self-sufficiency. This delusion was my main problem. When the sufferings of my failure as a husband, father and man became crushing, I surrendered.” They are now leaders in several ministries at their church.

Jennifer Clouse’s second battle with cancer, which she shares generously via her blog and her friendships with about a gazillion people. Jen is teaching many people what the grace of humor looks like from inside a cancer diagnosis that moves her closer to heaven every day. Her ability to see God in everything is as instructive as when she stood before women teaching the Word. (Note: Jennifer has been with the Lord since 2016.)

Barbara Baker is a missionary in Mexico whose desire to minister to people is far greater than her body’s ability to support it. As her frailty and weakness grows, so do her limitations. When Ray and I visited Barbara and Jonathan in Puebla last year, I saw what happens when the diameter of a spotlight is reduced; it becomes like a laser! Barbara’s physical limitations mean that the things she is able to participate in are that much more valuable, that much more grace-filled. Her light is that much more concentrated.

Holly Loughlin has been fighting Cystic Fibrosis her whole life, which has now reached what used to be the upper limit for CF patients. On her most recent hospitalization, she started daily blogging what life was like for her, and I absolutely loved what she wrote on Day 10:

“The Lord is always in the business of redeeming. Sometimes I see that so clearly here. Everyone gushes about what a great CF patient I am and they are all eager to introduce me other CFers who are struggling because of my hope and outlook and work ethic. But, I wasn’t always like this. I went through 3 really rough years where I refused to do anything that had anything to do with CF. I didn’t take any pills, do any treatments, or even eat the way I was supposed to. All of those things felt like chains that held me at the mercy of CF. I suffered needlessly and went in the hospital many more times than was actually necessary during those years, but the Lord was gracious and allowed me to survive it. Somewhere around the time I went off to UNT at 18 I realized that CF wasn’t something I was going to be able to escape, no matter how I lived and that I had been given a specific set of tools that, if anything could, would help me achieve the goals and dreams I had for my life. I realized that eating, sleeping, doing my treatments and taking my pills were the things that were going to give me the best shot at having a great life.

“I had no idea then how great my life was going to be one day. Some of my dreams didn’t come true. I had to give them up because my body just wouldn’t accomplish them no matter what I did, but the Lord was so gracious to give me new dreams, better dreams. And here I am 20 years later with the best husband anyone could dream up, a daughter more amazing than I could ever have imagined, and a lot of life still ahead of me. That’s our God. He loves to gives His children good gifts. He loves to be called upon. He loves to surprise us when we least expect it. And I’m thankful that He is even now using the folly of those years so long ago to reach out and give hope and encouragement to others.

“I could never have imagined that I would be sitting up in the hospital at this age being the go-to person for giving hope, love, and light to people who are as lost in the weeds of CF now as I was then. I’m so thankful that the Lord has let me live to see this, to be this. I know how much I would’ve given to have had someone for me like I am able to be for these folks.”

Daniel and Kelly Crawford received the devastating news that their unborn son Abel had Trisomy18, a genetic condition incompatible with life. Shortly after he was born, they wrote on their blog,

“[W]e’ve been living in this challenging tension since last July… a total inability to control or manipulate an outcome, which forces you to make a decision: we can fall headlong into depression & despair, or we can return to the promises of the Faithful One.

“So just as we’ve tried to do all along, we want to live out Psalm 143:8 and remind ourselves of God’s steadfast trustworthiness every morning. We want to cling to 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, setting our gaze on our great eternal Hope amidst affliction. And we want to remember James 4:14-15, seizing every precious hour of every precious day and knowing that even you & I are never guaranteed tomorrow.

“God’s sovereignty is something I have subscribed to wholeheartedly for a good long while, but you really ‘put your money where your mouth is’ in these scenarios that truly are out of your hands.”

Their precious little boy lived for 15 days before slipping out of his mama’s arms into Jesus’ arms. The just-right tool of Trisomy18 was what God used to fulfill what the Crawfords confidently told the thousands of people who prayed and wept and followed their story: “The ultimate plan and purpose for Abel’s life (and our life) is to glorify the Glorious One.”  And he did.

And then there’s me.

Advanced arthritis on top of Post-Polio Syndrome means I now need a walker instead of just a cane to walk and stand. Most steps hurt. Two ortho docs have said I will need both hips replaced, but post-surgery rehabbing is questionable when one of my legs is basically worthless. Could this be a just-right tool in God’s hand?

I choose to believe it is. Every day I have the choice to remember and give thanks that a good and loving God is in control. I’ve always lived with a lot on my plate, but He has allowed my “plate” to get smaller. As I upgraded to a walker, I downgraded from a dinner plate to a bread plate. Like Barbara, limitations abound and I have to check with the Lord: what do You want me to do?

I have seen God do some marvelous things in my family through this new challenge. He is good. I may be falling apart on the outside, but my “inner man” is more vibrant than ever, as long as I cling to the truth that God is good.

My new life verse is 2 Corinthians 4:16-18—

Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing way, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

 

This blog post last appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/pain_gods_just-right_toolon May 31, 2016.