What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

By Margaret Treadwell

The last thing I remember clearly is the shrill siren of the ambulance racing me through the streets of Manila to the Makati Medical Center, while my rock of a husband held my hand. Several of us attending a conference on the island of Boracay had experienced food poisoning, which concealed my true diagnosis: a ruptured appendix. When I finally learned what was really wrong, my new friend Annabella sprang into action, phoning her doctors and arranging the flight out to the hospital.

Hours later when I awoke, two doctors were standing beside my bed.

“What happened?” I asked. As they described the extent of the damage, the toxic fluids from the rupture, the peritonitis, the gangrenous appendix, the unlikely good fortune that they had decided to stay in the city and thus were available on All Saint’s Sunday to perform the urgent operation, I burst into tears, sobbing, “You saved my life!”

“I didn’t save your life, God did,” responded Dr. Pastores. “Well, Annabella did have her cell phone to reach the two of us, who happened to have the expertise you needed, but the minute we opened you up, I began praying for you and I haven’t stopped. Even one hour later and you might not be here now.”

I knew in that moment that I would work with these doctors, forming a triangle with God that would heal me.

During my 10-day hospital stay, with an array of lifelines hanging above me containing all my sustenance and medicine, I learned lessons at a deep emotional level.

First, when the doctors happily told me I was the first person they’d seen smiling the day after surgery, I realized that they and the superb nurses responded to cheerfulness. No matter how terrible I felt, a smile helped all of us feel lighter, better able to function and think.

On the third hellish day, as I struggled unsuccessfully to hold down liquids, I decided to envision each person who walked through my door as God the Father or God the Son bringing the Holy Spirit. After this resolve, the second person to arrive was a nurse named Jesus!

Second, when the threat of another operation loomed large due to adhesions that weren’t healing naturally, I became like our 3-year-old grandchildren, who have no shame about their bodies when they discuss vomiting, pooping, and the like. I was open and honest with the doctors as I lived one moment at a time: “Will my vein tolerate this new needle? Can I sit up? How will I get my feet on the floor?”

On the last day of X-rays before the scheduled second operation, I suddenly knew with extraordinary clarity that I did have the strength and stamina to undergo the ordeal, because God would be with me no matter what happened. How freeing to know this! Shortly thereafter I was able to report success in the bathroom, and Dr. Pastores did an enthusiastic jig and let out a cheer – the operation was no longer necessary.

Third, the new friends we had made were wonderfully supportive, bringing me cards, flowers and good humor. Ed, a diabetic chef we’d met earlier in our trip, ended up in the hospital room across the hall. When reintroduced by a mutual friend, we immediately bonded. Ed was released before I was, and decided that food, along with medicine, is the best healer. He asked the doctors what I was able to eat, and on the first day I was allowed solid food prepared a “flan broth” that was the best soup I’ve ever tasted. The next day it was cream of broccoli. The next, he decided on mushroom risotto prepared in large quantity for friends to enjoy.

“Ed, this is too good to be true! But when is it going to stop?” I asked.

“When you leave the Philippines,” he replied with a chuckle.

On the day before our journey home, he invited his favorite chefs and all my new friends to a thanksgiving for healing feast of paella stirred over an outdoor fire.

My toast to all present highlighted three characteristics that I experienced in each one: Deep faith in God and the goodness of life; a profound generosity of spirit – sharing gifts of healing and joy; and an everlasting sense of humor to pull through the toughest times.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and eternally grateful to be alive.

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She writes a monthly column for Washington Window

and teaches a course, “Congregational Leadership: Family Systems Theory for Clergy” at Virginia Theological Seminary’s Center for Lifetime Theological Education.

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