Article Content

As a pediatric nurse, I had cared for children diagnosed with cancer, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and other chronic, often terminal, illnesses for over thirty years. Ongoing exposure to suffering and death left me confused and struggling with my faith. More times than I could count, I went home to my family feeling that I didn't have another ounce of energy to give them because I was already used up.

Figure. No caption a... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. No caption available.
Figure. No caption a... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. No caption available.

How could I answer the question Why? voiced by a grieving parent when I couldn't answer my own Why? How could I support grandparents, grieving for their grandchild and their own child? How could I help a father in his sorrow, when he wanted to stay at the hospital with his wife and child but had to go to work so the family's health insurance coverage wouldn't lapse?


How can we, the professionals, be therapeutic and empowering, when we ourselves are feeling bereft and storming heaven, asking why a loving Father allows such pain?


Then came David. He was twelve years old. His leukemia, a type particularly unresponsive to treatment, was diagnosed in 1978, an era when long-term remissions were rare. Treatments were rigorous, and blood transfusions were often required. Nausea and vomiting often went unchecked because few effective anti-nausea drugs were approved for children. Painful bone marrow aspirations and spinal taps were regularly required. Consequently, it seemed that David was in the clinic or in the hospital most of the time.


David's parents were divorced. He lived with his mom and stepfather. Both parents worked, and with other children in the family, much of the time David was at the hospital alone. I began spending extra time with him when I had a few minutes. If he was admitted, I would visit him on my way home, so we became pretty good buddies.


Whenever David came for treatment, he brought along a large wooden cross that he would place near him for the duration of his hospitalization. He never talked about the cross; it was just always there.


One night he was admitted to the hospital with a high fever. The next morning I noticed his name on the admission log, so I ran up to his room to see him before my day began. He told me that he had become ill and was brought to the hospital so quickly that he had forgotten to bring the cross with him.


He asked me to get the wallet from his jeans' pocket in the closet. He opened the wallet and showed me a card with a tiny metal cross on it. The inscription on the card read: "This cross is to remind me that I must carry my own cross daily." I was speechless and ashamed. How could this boy have such trust and faith in the face of the suffering he was experiencing? Why wasn't he angry at God the way I was?


David's leukemia relapsed and did not respond to treatment. Our goal became keeping him at home and comfortable for as long as possible. However, one night in February, he was admitted again with uncontrolled bleeding. Transfusions were ordered, and he was to be discharged by noon the next day.


Midmorning, I took a few minutes to visit him. He told me how tired he was. We chatted for a few minutes, and then I had to go back to work but planned to return before he was discharged. I started to leave, and he asked if I could stay with him a little while longer. I agreed.


David said he was cold and asked if I would hold him. That seemed like an odd request for a twelve-year-old boy, but he looked younger than his age. The cancer and the requisite treatment had left him waif-thin, bald and pale, his skin looking transparent. I sat on the couch in his room, and his nurse helped move him over to my lap.


My heart was breaking as I looked at him. We sat talking quietly for a few minutes, and then he was silent. Thinking that he'd dozed off, I turned my head to look at him. It was the strangest thing-I can still see it in my mind's eye. I felt the weight of his body shifting and, at the same time, the expression on his face changing, like a scene in slow motion. Instinctively, I knew that he hadn't fallen asleep; something else was happening.


Even though I was holding him, I felt like an observer, watching the event from across the room. David seemed to be escaping, like air out of a balloon. I began crying and calling his name. I blindly tried to grab for him in the air. I called out, "David, don't leave!!" The experience probably only lasted a few seconds, but it seemed like forever. I looked at him again and realized that the David I'd known was gone.


His death was a watershed moment in my life as a Christian and as a nurse. I believe I was given a gift, an opportunity to witness David's spirit breaking free from human confinement and suffering. He was going home to the Father.


Over the years, I have continued to struggle spiritually and intellectually with the pain and torment children have to experience. As a Christian, I believe that human suffering, prayerfully turned over to God, releases an outpouring of grace that joins with the redemptive power of the cross, to transform a broken world.


But some days, it is incredibly difficult to remember the promises of the Father and trust him. Each day I remember better though, because a child named David changed my life.