My room at University Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, was crowded. I gazed at the faces of our pastor, William Cox, and deacons from our church, including my husband, Brooks, gathered around my bed.
For more than a year I had been fighting a losing battle against a strange liver ailment, recently lingering in a hepatic coma for three days before coming around.
It seemed I had been on the critical list more often than not. But that day I felt relatively good, if weak, and my mind, thankfully, was clear. I caught Brooks’s eye and he smiled reassuringly.
Brooks and I attend First Baptist Church in Warrior, our hometown, where I am a music teacher. All in all we’re a pretty mainstream congregation, and though we certainly believe in prayers for healing, we had never gone in for laying on of hands or anointing with oil. We left that to other churches.
But since I had come out of my coma a verse from the Book of James kept storming into my head: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”
I had begun having trouble in 1984 and a year later was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder that caused my body to attack its own liver cells. In a terrible way the biological process that was supposed to keep me well was making me sick, deathly sick.
By 1986 doctors had all but given up on saving my liver. I had been put at the top of a transplant list at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center–a pioneer hospital in liver transplants–but no one was sure if a new liver would reverse the disease.
I had heard so many medical opinions that I chose to keep one in the front of my mind at all times, something internist Dr. Roy Roddam had told me: “Never forget, Virginia, that God is bigger than any disease.” You know your condition is serious when your doctor starts reminding you to pray.
My hospital stays had become more frequent and complicated. I suffered weight loss, headaches, extreme fatigue, confusion, jaundice and, especially dangerous, bleeding in my esophagus that sometimes wouldn’t stop. My liver functions were deteriorating rapidly.
During those three days when I was in a coma, Brooks had stayed by my bedside reading psalms to me, and our church kept up an unceasing prayer vigil.
I came out of it, but in the absence of a miracle I was probably going to die, sooner rather than later, leaving Brooks to raise our three young children without their mother.
With the verse from James echoing in my mind, I had Brooks ask Pastor Cox if he would be willing to try something different–laying on hands and anointing with oil. “Tell Virginia I don’t see why not,” he had sent word back, “especially since it’s scriptural.”
And that was why they were gathered in my hospital room on a cloudy fall day in 1986.
I looked at the wreath of faces above me–neighbors, friends, pastor, husband. There was a physical sensation of love pouring from them as they leaned over me–warm, comforting, serene. They had prepared themselves through prayer and fasting, as the Bible instructs.
Pastor Cox stood at the head of the bed, Brooks at my right, the others completing the circle. The pastor read aloud. Gently, he anointed my forehead with oil.
They laid hands on me, tentatively at first. I felt the slight press of fingers and a rippling warmth. I can’t say I experienced anything out of the ordinary, save for a subtle yet pervasive sensation of peace that trickled through my entire being.
They finished quickly, since I could not have visitors for long. Holding Brooks’s hand, I fell into a long, deep sleep.
The next morning my liver specialist, Dr. Colin Helman, performed yet another grueling endoscopic exam of my esophagus and stomach, looking through a long fiber-optic tube to locate blood vessels in danger of rupturing.
I was quite surprised to see a pleased but puzzled expression on his face when he finished, and nearly dumbfounded when he said I showed an amazing amount of improvement in the short time since the last endoscopy. He said it as if he had trouble believing it himself.
“Virginia,” he remarked, “all I can say is that I am very relieved.” I was stunned to hear good news when all I had been told of late was to expect the worst.
Later, blood work confirmed the unexpected turn in my condition. Doctors and nurses beamed when they came into my room. People again spoke louder than a whisper. Within days I was removed from the top of the list in Pittsburgh for an urgent liver transplant and put toward the end of the line.
When I was released from the hospital I had an odd, insistent feeling it was for good. Strength returned; I could eat again; there were no more major-bleeding episodes. Over the months my liver-function tests improved steadily.
I felt better than I had in a long time. There was no clear medical explanation for my sudden transformation.
One Sunday about a year later we celebrated the baptism of my youngest son, Hop, then 6 years old. Pastor Cox led the ceremony and I played piano. Halfway through, a parishioner raced up to me with the message that I had an urgent phone call. I knew what it probably was and quickly followed her to the church office. As I thought, it was the transplant coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. They had a liver for me.
Not long before, I wouldn’t have hesitated. Like many transplant candidates, I would have had a bag packed, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Now I paused.
I had already turned down two earlier transplant opportunities, not yet ready to face the overwhelming ordeal of surgery. This was probably my final opportunity.
But if my liver was slowly healing, as it surely appeared to be, might someone else need a transplant more urgently than I? Should I step aside and trust the Lord?
I told the hospital I would call back in 10 minutes and sent the parishioner for Brooks, Pastor Cox and Dr. Oliver Harper, our family physician, who was attending Hop’s baptism. “What do I do?” I asked them, not so much afraid as anxious to make a decision.
Brooks covered my hand with his and all at once an almost physical memory of that day in my hospital room came rushing back. I could see the faces above me and feel the faint warmth of fingertips through the thin, crisp sheet.
In an instant I knew I wanted to remove myself from the transplant list. My healing was well under way. Why interfere? “What would you advise if I were your wife?” I asked Dr. Harper.
“I’d tell you not to have it.”
That was all I needed to hear. I called the hospital and told them I wouldn’t be having the surgery. Then I returned to my son’s baptism and took my seat at the piano as the service resumed.
Today I am 49, the mother of three children, ages 22, 19 and 16. As I’ve said, I come from a fairly traditional church background. I don’t use the word “miracle” lightly. Yet what else can I call it?
I was in and out of a coma, my life hanging by a thread. I was told my liver was beyond saving, and even with a new one I would be fighting heavy odds.
So how do I explain that 11 years later, after six inexperienced members of my church stood in a circle, laid their hands on me and asked the Lord for a healing, my liver functions better than doctors ever dreamed it would and that I enjoy good health again?
No, I don’t use the word “miracle” lightly. Yet when I look back on my experience I find no other word that fits, no other concept that makes sense. The Lord’s grace shone on me and for a reason I am not yet meant to understand fully, I was allowed to live. God showed that he is bigger than any disease.
Download your FREE ebook, A Prayer for Every Need, by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale