In 49 B.C., during a time of political unrest, the Roman senate ordered Julius Caesar to disband his army. Ignoring this order, he led his army across the Rubicon River in an act of treason. This was called, “The point of no return” because this tiny river represented a boundary that by law prevented generals from leading their troops into Rome. The march across the Rubicon preceded Caesar’s rise to power. The story I’m about to tell does not involve a rise to power, but I can identify with the point of no return.
I grew up in a home where my parents taught us Christian values, and we were always in church. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about God. My point of no return came when God put me in a position where I had to decide if I believed with absolute certainty the truths that I had repeated for those early years of my life.
I want to take you back to a morning almost seven and a half years ago. I was a bitter sixteen-year-old that hid behind a quiet personality. It was a sunny, November afternoon as I slid into the back of my dad’s car.
My parents were taking my grumpy self to yet another doctor. This time they had to fight a little harder to make it happen. The pastor of our church had called me into the middle of my parents’ counseling session and asked me if I would be willing to see a spine doctor. My brother and sister were both away at college so I figured that my parents must be looking for a kid to distract them from their own problems.
My spine had had an abnormal “s” shaped curvature called scoliosis since I was eight years old. The curve had increased rapidly during my teen years. My rib cage had shifted out of place. Despite my best fashion efforts, my torso was noticeably asymmetrical. I figured this appointment would involve another doctor discussing my “deformity” and trying to convince me to wear a brace.
Fast forward, about two hours later. The normal x-rays are done. I’d been through this so many times I could almost tell the technician the steps. My parents and I are sitting in a cold, white room waiting. In walks the doctor wearing his white coat.
He perches on his spinning chair, slaps the x-rays up on the lighted board, and the fancy talk begins. He’s bringing the questions and I’m bringing the attitude. I am doing my best to let him know I hate him without saying the words that will get me in trouble. This involves avoiding eye contact, exasperated sighs, and the occasional glare.
The doctor asked, “Do you like water or swimming?”
I slowly raise my head, looked him in the eyes and say, “I hate water.”
The doctor did not hesitate, “Well great. Here’s a pamphlet for water therapy you should sign up for.”
So that clenched it, me and the doc wouldn’t be friends. He’s talking curve progression and I’m daydreaming about how to celebrate my birthday in two weeks. I had almost made up my guest list when I tuned back in.
The doctor spoke, “So yeah, we definitely need to operate.”
I was silently expecting my parents to cut in and let him know that wasn’t in our plans. Instead, questions started flying and they just started making crazy notes.
My dad asked, “What time frame are we looking at?”
The doctor responded, “Really, as soon as possible. Needs to be in the next year at least. Since this case is so advanced, I’m going to recommend you to a specialist surgeon.”
The situation seemed to be getting out of hand. Someone really needed to shut this down.
The doctor looked at me like I was an idiot, “If you don’t have surgery, your spine will crush your heart and lungs. Paralysis will set in and this will kill you.”
I wanted nothing more than for him to take those words back. Crying in front of my parents was rare for me. It never ever happened in front of strangers. There didn’t seem any point in holding back now though. I didn’t even avoid eye contact, just started crying a river. I couldn’t have stopped to speak even if I’d had words.
The doctor just looked at me with an incredible lack of emotion, “I can tell this is upsetting you.”
Inside my head, there was a voice screaming, “Way to go Einstein.”
Between my world spinning and wishing this day did not exist, I was searching for evil ideas on how to make this doctor feel the pain he’d just inflicted. My parents somehow got me home.
Being home schooled allowed me to isolate from my friends and put on a cheery face for those times when I was forced to socialize. I felt like life was just flying by, but I was afraid to enjoy it freely because I imagined it would soon be ripped away. I would spend time praying and crying myself to sleep at all hours of the day. Those were some very dark months.
My parents were struggling in their marriage and the issue of my spine condition was a point of serious contention. My mom and I searched the internet for alternative medicine. Reality began to set in as I realized that even if these mildly sketchy options could work, we were out of time. My relationship with my dad was nonexistent. Though I was very wrong in this belief, I was convinced that this push for surgery was his attempt to legally remove me from his world.
By this point, I was seventeen years old. My priority was to either drag this issue out until I was eighteen and could get away from home or convince my mom to deny medical consent for my surgery.
Even though we were on a long waiting list, the months passed too fast. March brought a visit to the specialist surgeon. We met with him to discuss the details of the surgery that everyone except for me was planning. After taking his own x-rays and an MRI, Dr. Horton (the specialist surgeon) was confident of a few things. He was sure that the surgery needed to happen; it would have to be soon; he needed to be the one to operate.
My parents asked a lot more specific questions which he answered. My dad was happy because the other surgeons we had spoken to had refused to operate on me due to the severity of the curve.
Dr. Horton gave me the answer I wanted but it didn’t give me the warm, fuzzy feeling in my soul that I expected. “No, we cannot make you go through with this. However, if you don’t have the surgery, things will not be good. If you’re still alive at forty, you’ll be in a wheel chair. Your lungs and heart will be crushed. You’ve probably lost lung function already. You have to decide what to do.”
I felt like a bowling ball of responsibility had been dropped in my arms.
My questions to Dr. Horton were always blunt and he responded in kind. He was open with the risks of spinal fusion which included paralysis, non-fusion, and infection.
Still, I did not trust anyone once I was unconscious. Dr. Horton said, “Our team won’t leave the operating room until every screw is in place.” I believed he meant it though I doubted if he could make that promise.
I thought He had it in for me. Despite the best intentions of doctors, I knew God had more power. I was struggling to give anyone else control of my life. I saw God as this impersonal being who was creatively punishing me. In the midst of this, trust began to creep into my heart.
I held onto one particular promise/command. Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
Another obstacle worth mentioning was my fear of needles. Shots and blood tests made me faint, nauseous, anxious, my heart race, and hands clammy since I could remember. I had been through it many times and each time was worse.
I thought I would die. I thought I would pass out. I thought I would throw up. I focused on how much I could feel the needle in my arm. So even if I could trust the doctors on the day of surgery, it would have to be without any needles. Well, the good doctor assured me that there would be lots of needles. In fact, a needle would have to be in me for the duration of my hospital stay so they could do blood tests.
So my surgeon sent me to a psychologist for systematic desensitization. This is a process where you list the reasons for your fear, the possible outcomes when facing your fear, the likelihood of each outcome, and how you would handle each outcome.
Those weeks of meeting with the psychologist in the spring of 2009 changed how I saw the world. It did not become some warm, safe place. In the end, I realized, my eternal future is secure. Do I believe that my life on this earth will always be safe and pleasant? No, I have seen too much of pain and suffering in my own life and lives of those I have encountered to expect that I would be spared from all future pain.
No one else could do that. In the words of the apostle Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
I wavered between moments of peace and moments of fear. One afternoon while my parents were gone, I decided to watch a video of another patient undergoing the same surgery on YouTube. Let me tell you, that was not a great idea. The video was just a little too graphic. I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling incredibly nauseous and weeping on the couch.
I remember meeting with a second psychologist who worked closely with my surgeon to ensure that patients were mentally and emotionally prepared to undergo this type of surgery. He gave me an hour long written psychological test. When we met to go over my results, he was actually concerned because my test results showed a lack of stress over the situation.
He was concerned that I might be in denial. In the end, while I was so very aware of the risks, the results of my surgery didn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that I began to trust God to direct my life.
I had spinal fusion surgery on June 2nd of 2009. Dr. Horton moved my spine from an eighty-five degree curve to a 20 degree curve and attached two stainless steel rods and about twenty-two screws to my spine.
The recovery was the roughest thing I have encountered in my twenty-four years of living. My scar is fading and the physical evidence that I ever had scoliosis is so very slight. I hope though that I will never forget the truths that I held so close to my heart in those times.