My husband had just had heart surgery, there were tubes going into him and coming out of several parts of his body, machines were gently whirring, nurses constantly checking all of his vital functions. It was 9 May 1997.
Just 5 days before, we had gone to a clinic for him to be assessed, as he had been having a little bit of pain while walking up hills and, given that there had been a history of heart disease in the family, our doctor wanted to be cautious. But no one really thought he was going to need heart surgery. In fact, the day before the tests, we had asked the doctor what he expected to find: he said probably one artery that needed blown up a bit – he would do angioplasty.
On the day of the test (an angiogram), I accompanied him to the clinic and went for a coffee while he was taken from the ward. I was reading a book by Max Lucado at the time and I remember reading something like ‘You may be sitting in a hospital right now and the cold, icy fingers of fear are gripping you as you wait for news…’ How apt that was. I felt like God was saying he was there with us, in that hospital and, no matter what the news was, he would be with us.
I returned to the ward and, while I waited for Alan, was chatting to the other patient in the room. A nurse came in and started packing Alan’s clothes into his suitcase. Feeling slightly panicky, I asked her if I could help. But she didn’t need my help and continued packing until she came to my coat which had been hanging in Alan’s cupboard. When I told her it was my coat, she looked aghast at me and asked, ‘Are you his wife?’ She must have seen the look on my face, as in those few seconds I wondered if Alan had died, for she quickly said, ‘It’s OK. Your husband is OK. Come with me and I will take you to him’. Off we went and I found Alan hooked up to the machines, where the doctor had found, not one artery slightly blocked, but one artery completely blocked and two others very badly blocked. He should have had a heart attack. The doctor said he was very lucky. We all realised it was more than luck – God had protected him.
But time was of the essence so we were whisked off in an ambulance to the CHUV – a university hospital in Lausanne – where Alan was kept under constant care until he had his surgery 4 days later. How thankful we were that we were living in Switzerland at the time, where private health insurance was compulsory which meant that when something like this happened, there were no long waiting lists to add to the nightmare.
A triple bypass was what was needed and we were thankful for the skills of the surgeon, doctors, nurses and everyone else who cared for Alan at that time. Maybe he was not just so keen on the frequent injections into his stomach, or on the dinner of horse meat which he was served one day!
After a week in hospital, Alan (like all patients of heart surgery in Switzerland) was then able to go to a clinic for 4 weeks of rehabilitation. The exercises started with gentle armchair aerobics and by the time he was leaving, he and his fellow-patients were cycling through the surrounding woods. There were talks about all kinds of self-care following heart surgery and they even had the spouses in to talk about diet. The clinic – la clinique la Ligniere – was in a beautiful setting and I remember our daughters and I spending pleasant evenings sitting in the sunshine with Alan as he recuperated. The rehabilitation helped patients regain their confidence because, after all, they had been cut open right down the middle of their chests and had left hospital feeling very vulnerable and fragile. Little by little their confidence was rebuilt as their bodies mended. Heart surgery – like any major surgery – is also a stark reminder of our mortality and it was not unknown for patients to be a little emotional as they recovered from the trauma. In the clinic, all kinds of staff members were available to help with every aspect of recovery and Alan left after a month, feeling stronger in every way.
During all of that time, we were very well supported as a family by the church we were working with at the time, Westlake church in Nyon. People made meals for us, visited Alan, looked after the girls when necessary, did our ironing for us and helped in all kinds of ways. It was a blessing to be part of a community of people who cared. During Alan’s surgery, the annual church retreat was going on, which meant that most of the church were together and so they prayed often for Alan and followed his progress closely. One church member had a flat near the hospital which she gave me the key of, so that I could come and go without having to go home after each visit.
We had so much to be thankful for at the time. God saw us through it all: the wondering and waiting for results; the bad news; the surgery; the recovery. Since then, Alan has taken his diet and exercise seriously, as anyone who knows him will know (mind you, his aversion to custard has nothing to do with his health!). The heart is a muscle which can be strengthened through exercise, just like any other muscle. Likewise, as AW Tozer said, ‘Faith, like a muscle, grows by stretching’. It is in the hard times that our faith is stretched. It is in the hard times that we also see God at work, assuring us of his presence and providing all that we need, often through communities of his people.