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,
I wondered how long I could hold my breath.
Maybe this is the end
taken my last breath
No! I knew I mustn't dwell on
such thoughts. But the seconds relentlessly labored along. Ninety 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
Ninety-four Mississippi, ninety-five
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
" 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
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
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
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?"
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
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?"
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
For example, someone might've asked me,
"Do you want more morphine?"
"Was that a no?"
" 'No, that wasn't a no?' Or 'no,
you don't want any more morphine?'"
"Okay. You mean, 'no, that was actually
a yes,' or 'yes, that was actually a no?'"
(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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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?"