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Shielded by the Lord

He was deathly ill, but a parishioner from his church gave him hope with a special verse.

Dave Hess sits in a pew at his church.

I thanked God that morning for the water-stained ceiling tiles. They were as much a miracle to me as a clear blue sky. When I opened my eyes after a fitful night’s sleep and saw them above my hospital bed, I knew I was still alive. I was pretty sure there were no ceiling tiles in heaven.

I was 39 years old, and wasn’t likely to live out the week, much less see 40. As the morning dragged on, my family and the parishioners of my church came in and out of my room, praying for my recovery.

Prayer was all I had left. It was Franny, one of my older congregants, who seemed to have the most faith in the impossible.

“Pastor Dave, I’m not sure what this means, but you will find the Lord to be a shield around you…that’s in the Bible somewhere, or maybe a hymn. I just know he wanted me to tell you that.”

I recognized the phrase, from one of David’s psalms: “You are a shield around me, O Lord.” But those kinds of miracles, the big biblical ones? They just didn’t apply today.

I’d come through the worst of my battle with acute myeloid leukemia, just completed my final round of chemo. Through it all, my wife, Sheri, stood by me, wearing a hospital gown and a mask to protect my compromised immune system.

It looked like I was going to be okay. The oncologist was pleased with my latest test results. I’d even been able to dance, briefly, with our daughter in my hospital room just before she’d left for the prom. Then something happened that made it all for naught–my appendix burst.

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Sheri was at our son’s soccer game when she got the call. My white blood cells were depleted from the chemo–I couldn’t fight infection. My platelet count was low–my blood wouldn’t clot. In other words, surgery was not an option. And without it, the poison flooding my body would be fatal.

The doctors inserted a tube into my abdomen, hoping to drain off some of the toxins. But it would only buy me hours, not the weeks I needed to build up the strength to survive an appendectomy. Sheri raced to the hospital and told everyone we knew to come, come now.

A procession of visitors murmured their prayers, said goodbye. Except Franny. She was so sure of the message she’d received. I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.

The nurses doped me up to keep me comfortable. I lost track of time. Soon, the sun had set again. My visitors left. Sheri went home to look after the kids.

Holy Spirit is a Catholic hospital, and Scripture readings are broadcast over the PA system at the beginning and end of each day. I could no longer hear those words of hope. In seminary, I learned that fear is not an emotion–it’s a spirit. And this evil spirit spoke louder.

I pictured Sheri sitting alone at home, mustering all her courage to hold the family together. I saw my daughter in her wedding gown, walking down the aisle without me. I saw our sons playing pickup football, no one to cheer them on. “You are gone, they are alone,” the spirit whispered.

I countered it with all I had, Franny’s strange message and David’s prayer at the forefront of my mind. “You are a shield around me, O Lord,” I said aloud. I repeated it over and over until I was able to sleep.

I woke up the next day and saw the ceiling tiles. The day after that too. My doctors and nurses knew of only one case where anyone with cancer like mine survived a burst appendix for so long.

When I passed the one-week mark, a social worker said they were sending me home, but that I’d have to come in every few days for blood tests to see if I was strong enough for surgery. There was no guarantee I would be.

I treasured every moment with my family. Sheri read to me in bed. I played piano with the kids, and we sang, talked and laughed until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I even spent time with our dog, cuddling on the sofa.

Laying my hands on my children’s heads, I prayed for them as if it were the last time I could. “Lord, let all heaven break loose upon them as they fulfill their destinies.”

Each morning, Sheri helped me out of the shower and I stared in the mirror at the tubes hanging out of my chest, the ports from chemotherapy. I looked like the “Terminator” on a bad day.

Somehow, though, I made it six weeks. My platelet levels normalized. The surgeon prepared me for the operation. “I’m going to do an exploratory procedure,” he said. “We need to see what damage has been done.”

Through the fog of anesthesia, I remembered David’s words. Why those? Franny wasn’t sure what they meant, and neither was I. But that passage had sustained me, like provisions during a desolate winter. You are a shield around me.

I opened my eyes to the hospital ceiling tiles, Sheri squeezing my hand. The surgeon came in, holding some five-by-seven-inch glossy photos taken from inside my lower abdomen. “Have you ever had an operation before?” he asked.

“Only my tonsils,” I said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” the surgeon said. He held up one of the photos. It just looked like blobs to me.

“Here is your appendix, what’s left of it,” he said, pointing with his pen. “But surrounding it…is a kind of tent, composed of adhesions.” He made a circle. “It’s the strongest kind of scar tissue there is. We normally see it only after someone has surgery.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

The surgeon fumbled for the right words. “All the toxins were contained within this structure. These adhesions, they acted almost like…tiny shields, tightly packed together.”

I’ll never know why my life was spared, not while I’m here on earth. That’s what heaven is for. For now, I enjoy my family, my friends, the blue sky. I’m not ready to see beyond the ceiling tiles quite yet.

 

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