Art's Book: A Walking Miracle

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    A Walking Miracle:
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    Almost the End - Part One

          I'm paralyzed! The terrifying realization swept over me as the ocean's undercurrents thrashed me about. I willed my arms and legs to propel me to the surface, but they refused to obey. Soon, the tide carried me out to calmer waters, and my body drifted lifelessly up to the ocean's surface. Floating face-down in the water, I tried desperately to turn my head for air. It was impossible. I no longer had any command over my body.
          Lord, I'm at your mercy, I prayed. Surely with so many people at this beach, someone will help me soon. Okay. Try to stay calm… One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi…I wondered how long I could hold my breath.
          Maybe this is the end… Maybe I've taken my last breath… Maybe… No! I knew I mustn't dwell on such thoughts. But the seconds relentlessly labored along. Ninety Mississippi, ninety-one Mississippi…What's taking so long? Doesn't anyone see me out here?

          It was December 13th, 1998-two weeks before Christmas. We had just arrived in Kona, Hawaii, to teach at the University of the Nations. My wife, Ellen, and I always looked forward to these times of sharing our passion for ministry with new generations of missionaries. This week, we'd be teaching them how to relate sensitively and effectively to different cultures.
          We had especially looked forward to this particular trip, since Ellen's mother, Liz, was joining us, and our youngest son, David, had managed to synchronize the tour of his one-man show, Song of the Shepherd, with our travel schedule. So, that morning, we had joined a few hundred others in David's audience, all laughing and crying in the awe of David's brilliant singing, dancing and dramatic transformations between 20 different characters.
          Afterward, we ate and talked late into the afternoon. By around 5 pm, we realized we'd better hurry if we wanted to hit the waves before sunset. Actually, in hindsight, it would probably be more appropriate to say that the waves hit us…
          When we arrived at the beach, Ellen and Liz settled down on the sand to bask in the rays that poured from the incandescently blue and coral-hued sky. As spectacular as the view was, though, David and I had no time for that. We raced to the water and began competing for waves.

          The waves were absolutely perfect that day for bodysurfing, a sport that I had enjoyed for more than 40 years. One wave surpassed them all, though, and I prepared myself in eager expectation as it swelled and rolled toward me. In the corner of my eye, I noticed that David was going to miss this one. He had apparently become hypnotized by the sunset, and it took only a quick glance upward for me to realize why. The entire sky seemed to drip with the rich and creamy swirls of a rainbow sorbet.
          Perhaps one more wave, I thought, and then I'll go watch the sunset with Ellen. The approaching wave was the biggest one yet and promised to be a perfect ride to cap off a perfect day. I swam into its crest and rested into the powerful tide, as it drove me toward the shore.
          Suddenly, without warning, the body of the wave sucked back, and the crest slammed my head onto the callous ocean floor. A loud "CRACK!" sounded in my ears, and the pain washed over me in black sheets. I barely managed to retain consciousness as the ocean swells began tossing me about like a rag doll.

          I struggled to contain the air in my lungs, but time was running out! I knew I couldn't hold my breath much longer.
          Ninety-four Mississippi, ninety-five Mississippi… Suddenly I felt two little hands trying to turn my head. Just a couple inches more, and I'd finally be able to grab a breath of air. But the little hands gave up and let go.
          No! Come back! …One hundred and nine Mississippi, One hundred and ten Mississippi…Jesus, help me!
          I felt my lungs give way and uncontrollably prepare for a suctioning in of water, but, at that very moment, my whole body was suddenly flipped. Whirling into my lungs came not water, but marvelous, life-supporting air! Straining to see behind me, I could see that my arms were being pulled by a Hawaiian lifeguard. How surreal! I knew those were my arms, but I couldn't feel them.
          The young man shouted for someone to call 911. "You're gonna be okay, buddy," he consoled me.
          I continued to gasp for air, incredibly grateful to still be conscious… and alive! "My wife and son… name… Sanborn…" I could barely speak.
          The kids who'd alerted the lifeguard to my predicament now went to search for my family. Within moments, Ellen, Liz and David were by my side.
          "It's gonna to be all right, honey. The ambulance is on its way." Ellen urged me to stay alert and talk about what had happened.
          "I'm so cold!" I whispered.
          "We need more towels!" David shouted to the crowd that had gathered. The sun was going down, and the tide was coming in-a chilling combination!
          Where is the ambulance and why can't they move me away from the water? I wondered, as the minutes inched along.
          With my head cradled firmly in his hands, the lifeguard sought to encourage me. "Hey, bro, this happened to me once! I was surfing at this very beach and hit my head. I was paralyzed for six hours, but, hey, in no time at all, I was back on my surfboard!"
          I moved my eyes to Ellen. "What about class? I'm supposed to teach…"
          "Don't worry, sweetheart. I'll teach for the next few days, and then you can finish out the week. I'll call the director from the hospital."
          She was so calm! But what if this isn't temporary? I thought.
          One lady kept asking me, "Can you feel this?"
          I felt nothing. "What's she talking about?" I asked the lifeguard.
          He yelled at the woman, "Ma'am, please don't touch him!"
          "Why can't I feel anything?" I mumbled.
          The lady called for others to come and help move me away from the water's edge.
          The lifeguard barked at the woman, "No, stop! Ma'am, please! We are not moving him. Just, please, back off!"
          As I tried to focus, a scripture that I had read that very morning came to mind: Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. [Psalm 107:28, N.I.V.]
          The lifeguard continued to hold my head secure. As the tide began creeping near us, he called out to those with surfboards to create a dam to block the waves.
          After what seemed like an eternity, the medics finally arrived. They worked quickly, putting me in a neck brace before transferring me to a stretcher.
          "Careful with his neck," one said. "It may be broken."
          As they carefully lifted me into the ambulance, a man approached Ellen to encourage her. He said he knew exactly how she felt, because his father had the exact same injury at this very beach one year earlier.
          "Here is my number. Call me if you need any encouragement," he spoke with sincerity as he handed Ellen his business card.
          "How is your father doing now?" Ellen asked.
          "Oh, he died," he blurted.
          That didn't really do much to alleviate her fears... Needless to say, she never called on him for another dose of that brand of "encouragement!"
          We arrived at the hospital around 7:30 pm. Amazingly, even though it was a Sunday night, the hospital's director was on duty in the emergency room. He ordered X-rays and a CT scan. He then telephoned the head of orthopedics and asked him to rush over.
          My first night in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), with Ellen by my side, I just couldn't rest. I had no control of my body, and the only parts of my body that I could feel-my head and neck-were agonizingly shrill with pain, though I knew the doctors were doing all they could to attend to my needs.
          The next morning, the doctor made arrangements to transfer me by medical air evacuation to Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Honolulu-one of only two hospitals in the state of Hawaii that had the facilities to tend to a spinal cord injury as severe as mine. Even with an operation, though, it was already clear from the initial tests that my spinal cord was at least partially severed, and I would probably be paralyzed for rest of my life.
          A neurosurgery resident at Kaiser received the call from my physician in Kona. As the resident carefully repeated each of my details over the phone, Dr. Bernard Robinson, chairman of that department, casually listened while finishing up some paperwork. Dr. Robinson's ears perked up when he heard that the patient was fifty-three years old.
          What a coincidence, he thought. He's the same age as I am.
          He then heard that the patient was from Tampa, Florida. He thought, My hometown… another coincidence.
          Finally, Dr. Robinson heard that the patient was a Christian missionary. A strong Christian himself and an elder in his church, he prayed, "Okay, God, you've got my attention!"
          Dr. Robinson had already finished his last surgery and had informed the hospital that he was on his way with his family to Tampa for Christmas-for the first time in ten years-and would, under no circumstances, take another patient. The suitcases were packed and he was ready to go, but now he felt God leading him to perform just one more surgery.
          When I arrived at Kaiser Hospital, I was sent directly to radiology for more tests.
          "Welcome to the tunnel," the radiology tech said, "where we've got all the greatest hits from the 70's, 80's, 90's and today. You name it, we got it! What would you like to listen to?"
          "Do you have any jazz?" I asked.
          "You got it, bro!"
          He placed the walkman headset over my ears, and Kenny G's smooth saxophone washed over my frayed nerves and buffered the threat of claustrophobia for the hour or so that I spent in the MRI tunnel.
          Afterward, Dr. Robinson introduced himself and shared that he had reviewed all the tests. I had broken the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae in my spine.
          "You're very lucky to be alive," he said. He pointed out that one more pound of pressure from the rogue wave would likely have killed me. Furthermore, if anyone had rotated my head after the accident, it would have killed me instantaneously. I was so grateful for that lifeguard, and especially grateful since I'd learned that he had been off-duty when my accident occurred and just happened to be there at the beach at just the right moment.
          Dr. Robinson explained that he would probably need to surgically remove bone from my hip to help repair the bones that were broken in my neck. He scheduled me for immediate surgery.
          After the six-hour operation, I awoke to find myself hooked up to all kinds of tubes and machines, my life-support.
          During this period, a dear, sensitive friend and missionary colleague flew to Honolulu to pray for me. He walked into the room, took one horrified look at me and began to weep. Unable to speak, he rushed out of the room. Did I look that revolting? Suddenly, I felt a strange, kindred connection to the Hunchback of Notre Dame…
          The next time I opened my eyes, I saw Dr. Robinson leaning over me. He asked if I could move any part of my body. I tried but could not. He sent me downstairs for another MRI. The technician had queued up Kenny G for me, and I once again entered the imposing MRI tunnel.
          As the medical technicians wheeled me back to the ICU, I found Ellen and David waiting anxiously for me. I was not too clear on what was happening, so Ellen held the phone to my ear so that I could talk with our daughter, Michelle-an internal medicine doctor in her last year of residency at the University of Florida Medical Center in Jacksonville. Michelle told me that she would be on the next plane to Hawaii, and that Dr. Robinson had called her to explain my condition.
          During the operation, Dr. Robinson had discovered that I also had Ossification of the Posterior Longitudinal Ligament (OPLL), a rare disease of the spinal cord, which would possibly have been overlooked by another surgeon. The disease is usually only found in Asians and had been thought to have had a genetic predisposition. In this disease, one of the ligaments encasing the spinal cord slowly "ossifies," thickening as it turns into bone. It therefore impinges into the area, and, in my case, instead of the usual fourteen millimeter space surrounding the spinal cord, this area had shrunk to only four millimeters at the narrowest point, C3-C4, the site of my injury.
          This had made it more likely for a severe injury of the spinal cord to occur when I hyper-extended my neck against the sand bar. If this traumatic injury had not occurred, though, the OPLL could have caused a slow impingement of the spinal cord over the years, with a gradual onset of unusual neurological deficits, making it difficult to diagnose. I would have slowly become a quadriplegic anyway, but without knowing why. And it's very unlikely that they would have suspected this particular disease, since I'm not Asian (although, because of my years spent in Asia, my oriental friends sometimes call me an egg-white on the outside and yellow on the inside.)
          As another miracle in this string of events, it just so happened that Dr. Robinson is one of the world's leading experts on the disease. People fly in from all over Asia to receive his expert treatment!
          Plus, originally, he thought he'd have to cut into my hip to extract the extra bone necessary to fuse my vertebrae, but, by removing all of the bone build-up from the disease, he had a surplus of bone to fuse my broken neck bones. Of course, I wouldn't have even been able to feel the results of the hip surgery, since I was paralyzed. But, still, as a rule, I like to keep the carving of my body to a minimum…
          Michelle explained all these things to me over the phone and said that the surgery had apparently been a success. Dr. Robinson had successfully purged my neck of the disease, while safely fusing the bones back together. They now felt very optimistic about my chances of obtaining some degree of recovery.
          From the first time I heard the hospital personnel referring to me as a quadriplegic, I kept hoping that I would soon wake up from this nightmare to tell Ellen, "Wow, what a horrible dream I just had. By the way, I have decided to give up bodysurfing!"
    Now others had complete control of my life-how much oxygen went into my lungs, how much fluid ran in and out of my body. They didn't even ask permission to take my blood.       I figured I had plenty to spare, but it would've been nice to at least have been asked:
    "Excuse me, would you mind terribly if I borrowed a pint of your blood? We seem to have run out."
          "Not a problem. Take all you want. Are you sure a pint will suffice?"
          "Well, I wouldn't want to impose…"
          "Not an imposition at all, really. Here why don't you take half a gallon, and if you need any more than that, you can always come back for more."
          "Oh, I'm sure that will be plenty. Now, you're sure you don't mind?"
          "Not at all! My pleasure! In fact, why not take out some fat while you're at it?"
          But no one asked me. And because of the oxygen tubes down my throat, it was a fairly monumental task for them to ask me any question at all. My only way of communicating was by blinking my eyes. One blink meant "yes," two blinks meant "no," and three blinks meant "try phrasing the question in a different way."
          For example, someone might've asked me, "Do you want more morphine?"
          One Blink.
          "Was that a no?"
          Two blinks.
          " 'No, that wasn't a no?' Or 'no, you don't want any more morphine?'"
          Three blinks.
          "Okay. You mean, 'no, that was actually a yes,' or 'yes, that was actually a no?'"
          Non-stop blinking… (which is the international sign for "Me want drugs!")
          "Got it. One order of morphine is on its way… You want fries with that?"
          I just wished I had a way of communicating that I'd like the order "Biggie-sized."

          I felt my spirit fighting to stay alive. I had seen others die before, and I knew that, when a life hangs by a thread, the patient's level of determination is often what makes the difference.
          But why fight it? The thought seeped in. If you live, you're going to be a full-time burden on your family. And living with a 24-hour a day migraine and no ability to move-that wouldn't be really living anyway.
          Struggling against these thoughts, I turned my focus toward worshipping Jesus. As I did so, He filled me with the will to persevere. I reflected on Scriptures that I'd memorized, and those Scriptures gave light to my present situation. The thought had been nagging me: What can I possibly do in this situation to be productive? It now occurred to me that I could use this time to pray and intercede for others.
          So I spent much of my waking hours doing just that. As a result, I knew I was robbing Satan of any little victory he might have gained from the destruction of my spinal cord.
          A deep joy engulfed me as I envisioned the "Godfather" of the Underworld slapping around his demons and angrily yelling, "All right, youse guys! Whose bright idea was dis, anyway? Come on, we go da all dis effort to provide as many distractions as possible, and, then, one of youse wise guys gets da genius proposition to take a man away from all dem distractions to a sichee-ation where he has nuttin' to do but pray?! Wha'samata fo' you? Come on! Fess up! …Screwtape? It was you? Aah, you broke my heart… you broke my heart."
          At this point, I had no sensation or bodily capacity from my neck down, but my mind was as clear and functional as it ever was… which, of course, isn't saying much… but I determined that I would be grateful for whatever I did have, even if I had to spend the rest of my life in bed, completely paralyzed. That said, I would still continue to pray for healing in my body, since the miraculous power of Jesus has no limits.
          Ellen told me one day that the office of Joni Eareckson Tada had called to inform me that they had heard about my accident. Joni wanted me to know that she was praying for me and would be happy to talk to me if I needed some encouragement.
          I remembered reading about this amazing woman before we left for the mission field. Joni had broken her neck as a teenager, and, even though she has been wheelchair-bound ever since then, she has had a profound impact on thousands of lives around the world. She celebrates life with a contagious, unshakeable peace and joy that goes beyond circumstances and points directly to her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. She's also a living reminder of how God can often work much more tremendous results by choosing not to heal someone's physical ailments.
          I, therefore, reasoned with my God, "Lord there is no possibility that I could ever match what this courageous woman has done with her life in a wheelchair. So, if I can't improve on what Joni has done, how about doing something different with me? I mean, healing me, for instance, now that would be a great testimony… don't you think?"
          After ten days, the ICU staff finally weaned me off the mechanical ventilator, which had already caused a lung infection that would take two months to heal. To my great relief, I could finally speak, though my voice was still rather weak and gravelly. Oxygen still flowed from a tank to my nostrils, however, by a plastic tube, which, after only one day, caused my nose to become red, rough, chapped and irritable.
          So I looked over at Ellen and said, "Ellen, please remove this tube from my nose… it's really uncomfortable."
          "Honey, we can all see how your nose is reacting to the plastic tubing, so the hospital personnel have tried numerous times to free you from the oxygen tank. So far, though, every time the tubes have been removed, your blood oxygen has quickly dropped to dangerous levels. I'm afraid you can't be weaned off the oxygen tank yet, but we'll find some medication to soothe your poor nose," Ellen answered.
    What she didn't say is that it was unlikely that I would ever be weaned off the oxygen tank.
          I asked, "In what position is my body lying?"
          "You're lying flat on your back," she answered. "Why?"
          "I have the strangest sensation that I am lying in the fetal position…"
          When Michelle arrived in Honolulu, she sent David out to buy me some high-top, basketball shoes to wear at all times, so as to prevent my ankles from getting locked straight out. She knew this would be important if, in fact, I was miraculously able to walk some day. Some of the nurses understandably complained that this was a waste of their time, since it was clearly impossible for me to ever walk again. So, even though this chore was on my chart, it fell to Ellen, David and Michelle to continually carry out the task.
          Ellen asked me one day, "Honey, why do you think God allowed this to happen?"
    After a moment, I answered, "I don't know… I don't know why, but I do know that this has not taken God by surprise."
          David chimed in. "What about all those e-mails we've been getting that say, 'Oh, you must be learning so much through this time of trial.' I know they mean well, but… have you been learning anything?"
          "I don't know. Maybe someday we'll look back on this and glean some great, significant truth, but… I can't even read the Bible anymore, unless you read it to me. And, though I think it's certainly good to ask, 'What can I learn from this?' …I think the more important question is not 'What can I get out of this?' but 'What can God get out of this?' In other words: 'How can I respond to this in a way that will glorify God?' That's what really matters."
          Perhaps it would be clich? to say that I had been thinking about the ancient story of Job. Though he lost everything, he refused to sin by charging God with wrongdoing. This had become my creed during this trial. I knew I mustn't measure my success-or purpose for living-by prosperity, power or health, but rather, by how cheerfully and faithfully I honor God. I believe that He can even turn tragedies for His glory, especially if we keep our attitudes in check.
          On the eleventh day, my doctor transferred me from the ICU to my own, private room, just in time for Christmas.
          Though our children are grown, and Ellen and I are constantly on the road, we still do whatever we can to try to get together as a family for Christmas. This year, Sean, our eldest son, and his wife, Anne, were visiting Anne's family in Australia, something they hadn't been able to do since they were married 3 ? years before. We, therefore, purposely withheld the more discouraging details of my injury from them, convinced that they would've flown to us in a heartbeat if they'd known.
          Ellen's mother, Liz, had already arranged to be with Ellen's siblings for Christmas, but Michelle, David, Ellen and I celebrated in my tiny hospital room. Though hospital policy forbade the use of Christmas tree lights, we had a small plastic tree (courtesy of our dear friend, Pastor Fili), some last minute gifts and, most of all, each other. It was a precious time.
          For the next two weeks, this room became my home. I remained totally dependent on others for everything. They fed me, brushed and flossed my teeth, shaved me, changed me and dressed me. If I had an itch, Ellen, David or Michelle had to scratch it for me.
          Pekka, my physical therapist, began working out my lifeless limbs to ward off atrophy. My family had been massaging my limbs since Day One, but now Pekka taught them how to also rotate my arms and legs to stimulate the muscular and sensory nervous system. Ellen faithfully did this daily for the next three months.
          Pekka also gave me a spirometer, and advised me to use it to exercise my lungs as often as possible. The thought of having that respirator forced down my throat again gave me all the incentive I needed to exercise my lungs several times each day. On two occasions, my physical therapists tried to sit me up in a wheelchair, but each time I suffered from tremendous pain and lightheadedness.
          On New Year's Eve, two male nurses lifted me up and transferred me onto a wooden board. They strapped me in and cranked the board up into a vertical position. It felt good to be upright after laying horizontal for so long. That first day I stayed vertical for only fifteen minutes, but each day my time on the board increased. By day twenty-three, they were placing me upright twice a day for short intervals.
          Every day, the medical staff and my family would ask me if I could move one of my fingers, since that remained a slight possibility. To all of our surprise and delight, on the twenty-first day, I was suddenly able to move my left index finger a fraction of an inch.
    Ellen exclaimed excitedly, "Honey! You just moved your finger!"
          I smiled, then quickly feigned ambivalence. "I've been mostly dead for three weeks, and you think a little nod of the finger is going to make me happy? Hmm?"

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    Last Updated: April 2010


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