Sometimes there are no miracles, and you can only cry with those who are suffering. Here is the story of Baby Anne.
Sometimes as a physician I find that I have little to offer other than my personal presence. Even then, I am not powerless. My compassion can have a calming effect not only on the suffering person, but on the entire family. I have never felt more helpless than the time in India when I treated a tiny baby named Anne.
She was one of my first patients, brought to me by her young, idealistic missionary parents. Anne was their only child, and they were alarmed by a sudden onset of vomiting. By the time I saw the baby, after they had travelled a long distance to Vellore, she was terribly dehydrated. I examined her and reassured the parents that though Anne’s intestines seemed to be completely blocked, I should be able to deal with it surgically.
I operated immediately, removing the section of impacted and gangrenous bowel. It was routine surgery, and a few days later baby Anne was delivered to the care of her relieved parents.
Within a week, however, the couple returned with their daughter.
As I unwrapped the dressings around Anne’s abdomen, I could smell the unmistakable odour of intestinal fluid seeping out of the surgical wound. I was perplexed and embarrassed. Back to the operating room Anne went, and I reopened the incision. Strangely, the wound fell apart as soon as I cut the stitches, as if no healing had taken place. Inside the abdomen I found the intestine leaking and unhealed.
This time I made a most meticulous closure using many fine stitches.
These were just the first two in a series of surgeries on Anne. It soon became clear that her body lacked some crucial element of the healing process.
Could the problem be due to her earlier starvation and dehydration? I gave her protein and transfusions of fresh blood, but her tissues continued to behave as though they had no responsibility in healing. No alarms went off alerting one part of her body to another’s need. We kept her nourished, and I tried every technique I could think of, even wrapping the intestinal junction with the filmy omentum the body uses to heal accidental wounds. But a surgeon is impotent without the cooperation of the body’s cells. Skin flaps refused to adhere, muscles gaped apart, and sooner or later the intestinal juices trickled out.
I confess that I was unable to keep my “professional distance” around little Anne and her parents.
Anne would lie with a sweet and trusting smile as I examined her, and her face would tug at my heart. She did not seem to feel much pain, but she grew thinner and thinner. I looked at her parents through tears, and just shook my head.
When Anne’s tiny, wasted body was wrapped for burial, I cried in grief and helplessness.
I cried during the funeral procession to the cemetery, almost as if it has been my own child. I felt like a miserable failure even though I suspected no doctor in the world could have kept little Anne alive for long. For more than thirty years, in fact, I remembered Anne with a sense of failure.
Then one day, long after I had moved to Louisiana, I got an invitation to speak at a church in Kentucky. Anne’s father was pastor of the church, which was about celebrate its centenary. I had not heard from him in several decades, and the letter came as a complete surprise. Out of obligation, and perhaps lingering guilt, I accepted his invitation.
When Otto Artopoeus introduced me from the pulpit, he said simply, “I don’t need to introduce Dr. Paul Brand. I’ve told all of you about him. He is the doctor who cried at our Anne’s funeral.”
The congregation nodded knowingly. Otto tried to say a few more words about his daughter and broke down.
That afternoon I went to the Artopoeus home for lunch, and around the table had gathered all of the children who came after Anne, as well as the next generation of children whom they had produced. I was treated with great affection and yet also esteem, like a beloved dignitary who had stepped out of history into their lives. Clearly, I had become part of the family lore.
My first reaction on going to Kentucky had been a stab of guilt and embarrassment. After all, I had been the doctor who let the Artopoeus baby die. But when I got there, I found that the family had no memory of a surgeon who failed.
The children seemed to treasure the oft-repeated story of a missionary surgeon who had cared for their sister Anne and who had wept with the family when she died.
Medically, I failed the entire family. But what I learned, some thirty years later, is that we in the health profession have more to offer than drugs and bandages. Standing side-by-side with patients and families in their suffering is a form of treatment in itself.
– Dr Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain. Published by Zondervan.