Cancer Journal (10.03.13): Why I Should Have Died . . . Again

Last night we celebrated our middle daughter’s turning five years old. Actually her birthday was at the end of February, over two weeks ago. We had originally planned her party for the Friday following her birthday, but we had to cancel. The night of the party, I was in ICU.

Trouble began the second week of February. I began feeling miserable: fever, chills, headaches. Thinking it was just the cold or a flu, I went to my oncologist the day after Valentine’s. He prescribed an antibiotic, but it did little to help.

Heritage’s Church Planting Conference was the next week. I felt well enough to attend most of the sessions, but it was obvious that I was still quite sick. I went back to see my oncologist the last day of the conference, the 24th, our daughter’s birthday. He was puzzled that I was still not well. So he ordered a CT scan of my chest as a precaution, to verify that my cancer hadn’t returned. I thought this was a bit unnecessary, since my symptoms were not the same as those that accompanied my cancer. But my doctor hasn’t been wrong yet, and I wasn’t about to question him.

The next day I went for my CT scan. I felt so miserable that merely sitting in the waiting area was nearly unbearable. I had brought A. W. Pink’s The Attributes of God, but had difficulty concentrating. I just wanted to lie down somewhere and sleep.

That night Kimberly and I planned to take our girls out for dinner. The last night of the Church Planting Conference had preempted our family’s birthday celebration. We were just about to leave when my phone rang. It was my doctor’s office. I quickly deduced that my lab results had come back, but I did not expect to hear my doctor’s voice on the other end. (That’s not normally a good sign.) He explained that I had fluid on my heart, an unexpected development to be sure. At first he thought I might need to go to the hospital immediately, but after talking with the cardiologist, he determined that I could wait for the morning. But if I had any issues, I was to go to the emergency room right away.

Kimberly and I hugged and cried for some time. A new flood of concern swept over us. Was this related to the cancer? Was this a relapse? Or did I have some kind of heart disease? None of the answers were particularly satisfying.

In God’s gracious providence, we have a friend from church, Jeff, who is a physician’s assistant for a thoracic surgeon. I gave him a call to ask his opinion. He patiently explained the various methods of draining fluid from the pericardium and graciously offered any help he could.

After a relatively good night’s sleep (all things considered), we awoke Friday the 26th, took the kids to school and babysitters, and headed to the cardiologist. My appointment was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. After a brief EKG, the doctor advised an echocardiogram–an ultrasound of the heart. It was after noon by the time the technician completed the echo. When the cardiologist returned, he advised, “The fluid needs to come out, and I think it needs to come out right away.” Surprised that I hadn’t been fainting, he expressed concern that waiting for Monday or Tuesday would increase the risk that I would begin to pass out.

The cardiologist then explained the two ways of removing the fluid, essentially needle or surgery. The former method he could perform right there in his office. But it would be only a temporary solution; I would have to do it again if the fluid collected again. Surgery was more radical, but it offered a long-term solution. (Jeff had already reviewed these options with us, so we were prepared.) Given my medical history, the doctor advised surgery and we quickly agreed. He asked if I had a preferred surgeon, and I said, “Whoever Jeff works for.” The cardiologist knew Jeff and his surgeon, so the wheels were set in motion.

What happened over the next hour is largely fuzzy to me. This much I know: surgeries typically occur in the wee hours of the morning and surgical teams are finished by the early afternoon. Now it was already after one o’clock on a Friday afternoon. How quickly could a surgical team be ready? As someone told me that day, it could be midnight before surgery began.

As Providence would have it, I was under general anesthesia by 3:00 p.m.–and it would have been sooner if there hadn’t been a breakdown in communication with the receptionist at the hospital. Like I said, exactly how this happened is a mystery to me. I have a hunch, though, that Jeff pulled a few strings and called in a few favors to get me in.

I awoke some time that evening in ICU. I remember seeing Kimberly and the cardiologist. The latter informed us that the surgeon drained a liter of fluid from my heart. “That much fluid,” he said, “was life-threatening.” I was in and out for the next few hours, but I distinctly remember Kimberly’s next ICU visit. With her were Danny and Kristen Brooks (my pastor and his wife) with Jeff. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but I remember that Danny laid his hands on me and prayed. As I recall, it was the only time I cried that weekend. But cry I did. I think what had happened–especially the proximity of death and the mercy of God–became reality somewhere deep within.

Thankfully I was moved from ICU by noon the next day. That meant Kimberly could stay with me, unhindered by the ICU’s visitation guidelines: twenty minutes every two hours. Other friends stopped by to see me. Danny came again with his oldest son Luke. A friend of Kimberly’s brought her lunch and chatted for a few minutes. One gentleman, a newcomer to Heritage who lives close to Spartanburg Regional, took it upon himself to rescue us from hospital food. He would pop in, take our order, and come back an hour later with dinner for everyone. We received phone calls, text messages. tweets, and Facebook messages (from many of you!) who shared your love, your concern, your prayers. And it meant the world to us.

While I was recovering in the hospital, our concern focused on the cause of the fluid build-up. The surgeon not only removed the liter of fluid, but also took a piece of the pericardium itself. While he was in there, he snagged a lymph node as well, again a precaution to ensure that the cancer hadn’t returned. We waited for the pathology report to come back. It wasn’t until Tuesday, the day I was discharged, that we heard the good news: no sign of cancer. And we rejoiced.

Whence then the fluid? Monday afternoon my radiation oncologist, who had been informed of my situation only earlier that day, stopped in to see me. She was almost apologetic. Not at all that she had committed malpractice. But she reminded me that this is one of the risks of radiating the upper register: fluid on the heart. It occurs in less than one percent of such patients–my oncologist hadn’t seen it before–but it can happen. And apparently I am one of the less than one percent. Furthermore she explained that what the surgeon did was precisely the right solution, even though there hadn’t been time for the surgeon to consult with her. What the surgeon did, she went on, will keep this problem from ever recurring. God be praised!

I am now in the midst of a six-week recovery period. I have a two-inch vertical cut at the base of my sternum that is healing and a less-than-half-inch “stab wound” about an inch southeast of the cut. The possibility of herniating that area means I cannot lift anything more than ten pounds during this period. I’m also finishing up a two-week stretch of not driving. (Good thing I live three doors down from the church!) Most importantly I am supposed to get rest. I can’t say I’ve done a great job of that the last ten days, but I’m learning that my body will stop me if it must.

This whole episode has prompted me to ask Why. Not Why in the sense of “why do I have to suffer?” But Why in the sense of “why aren’t I already dead?” Cancer would have killed me before the calendar struck 2009. And in 2010 as the fluid swelled around my heart, every time I breathed in it forced my right ventricle to close almost completely. Had the fluid not been discovered, I would have run in my first 5K just eight days after the surgery. What then? Could my heart have survived that?

The answer to that question is, as one infamously put it, “above my pay-grade.” Who knows the myriad purposes God fulfills in a single action? But I do know this: God has allowed me to live. No, God has commanded me to live. I am alive because he is willing it to be so right now. And that means I have the joy and opportunity of glorifying him as long as he gives me breath. May his command to live be accompanied by his grace to follow.

Because, though sufferings may fill our lives, we’re confident we’re heirs with Christ–and so we cry, “Abba, Father.” How wonderful the Father’s love for us!

Because the Church Planting Conference prepared us for surgery–and so much more.

Because God positioned my friend Jeff to serve me and my family–literally to save my life.

Because God gave Jeff, a Buckeye, the grace not to inscribe “OSU” on my chest.

Because the surgeon did what the radiation oncologist would have advised.

Because my friend Brad, as soon as he heard I was going into surgery, immediately drove out to Spartanburg to sit with Kimberly while I was under the knife. Even though he had spent much of the previous day in a hospital in Atlanta to care for a member of his church.

Because my oncologist had been wondering why I haven’t bounced back from chemo. He expected me to be back to my usual self (strength, stamina, energy) by now. But the fluid on the heart clarified the matter for him. His hope: that I will feel like myself again after this period of recovering.

Because our middle daughter patiently waited for two weeks to celebrate her fifth birthday. And God graciously satisfied her with a great party, great friends, and great gifts.

That I would finish well. I have as clear a sense as ever that God has left me here–commanded me to be here–on purpose. How I finish is more important than how I start.

That my doctors would see the glory of Christ. I had an incredible opportunity to share the gospel with my oncologist in December. Oh God, open his heart to believe your word!

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2 Responses to Cancer Journal (10.03.13): Why I Should Have Died . . . Again

  1. Jon says:

    Wow! Thanks for taking the time to tell us your story! What a clear display of God's kindness and sovereignty. Although perhaps it would've helped you cultivate enduring humility if a big "OSU" was indelibly marked on your torso!

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks for your words of grace, Matt. I have been praying for you as Matias has kept me abreast of your condition. God has brought me through similar deep waters regarding my health, albeit not as severe as yours. I know what it's like to lie in ICU and wonder what's next. God be praised for His goodness!

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