My husband and I learned that our infant son, Shawn, had a heart murmur when he was one day old. His primary care physician detected it and sent us to a children’s hospital for an echocardiogram. The situation wasn’t dire. The doctor just needed a benchmark for the future.
Almost two years later, however, the physician noticed Shawn’s heart murmur had increased, and he ordered another echo. My husband wasn’t able to go to the appointment with me, so I was alone when the pediatric cardiologist told me that Shawn now needed open-heart surgery. His heart was 80 percent blocked.
When my husband picked me up and asked how the appointment had gone, I replied, “What would be your worst-case scenario?” He knew immediately what the doctor had said.
We went out to eat and attempted to act normal. When the hostess asked how my day was going, I smiled and defaulted to, “I’m fine.” How do you tell a stranger you just got the worst news of your life?
The surgery was set for six weeks out. Shawn romped about, blissfully unaware of what lay ahead—but I was completely on edge. The doctors’ warnings about potential complications made me hypervigilant, and I grew more exhausted by the day.
Back then, whenever I faced a problem, my solution was to fight my way through it. I’m an athlete, so I’m used to persevering. “Buck up and toughen up,” I’d say. The motto had always served me well, but in this situation, it didn’t. My toughness wasn’t helping one bit.
Those six weeks seemed like eternity, and I was coming undone. I prayed like I knew I was supposed to, but I remained unsettled, overwhelmed with what ifs. What if he dies in his sleep tonight? What if the surgery doesn’t work? What if the surgery goes fine, but on the car ride home, we get in an accident? Every imagined scenario increased my dread and fear.
My spirit was ragged. I prayed and read my Bible, but I had no peace. I was so used to being in control, to fixing every situation that came my way. There was no fixing this, and being tough wasn’t solving anything. I kept gritting it out, nonetheless.
I began experiencing abdominal pains. At first the doctor thought it was sympathy pains or a byproduct of stress. Suddenly, I was hospitalized and undergoing surgery myself for three different issues.
Life moved forward at a tediously slow pace. Mentally, I was in a haze as I recuperated, but I continued planning for Shawn’s upcoming surgery. I had to find someone to watch our daughter while we were at the hospital. Our family would be apart at Christmas. I was worried. I was sad.
Then I’d think about my son’s situation, and I’d go from sad to downright terrified. They were going to saw his sternum in half, stop his tiny heart, and put him on a heart-lung bypass machine during the operation. Every fiber of my being was full of dread. All these emotions made me weaker by the day.
I knew I was supposed to trust God to protect my children. And in past situations, I had placed them on the figurative altar without a lot of difficulty. But this time, the situation seemed too big to surrender. I just couldn’t find the courage to give Shawn fully over to God. Worry kept taking over.
But then I thought of Abraham and how God had asked him to place his son, Isaac, on the altar and offer him as a sacrifice (Genesis 9). The only way Abraham could have faced that incredible situation was by completely trusting God. I finally realized the only way I would get through this was by releasing my control and resting in His loving arms. I needed to stop looking at all my crazy what-if scenarios and focus on God—the only One who could see our family through this situation. And when I finally did let go and trusted Him, I found peace.
Through all of this, I continued pouring out my heart to the Lord. I wrote raw and honest journal entries about all that was bottled within me. I read Scripture verses and focused on God’s promises. I kept in touch with friends via email and read their encouraging responses. And God strengthened me as I relied on Him.
Finally, it was time for Shawn’s pre-op blood draw. In the waiting room, my husband and I noticed a stash of books on a cart. A sign offered them as free for the taking. We loved the idea of books being available to children at such an uncertain point in their lives, and on our way home, we discussed ideas for a book drive.
We began telling people about our idea, hoping to take a good collection with us on the day of surgery. To our amazement, our community of friends rallied for the cause. With their help, we donated over 1,000 books to the hospital!
I knew collecting those books would bless others, but I didn’t foresee how they would impact my life. The book drive caused me to focus on a worthy cause instead of the negative circumstances in my life. I learned that helping others during difficult times brings joy.
The day finally came for Shawn’s surgery. God was so near to our family during this time. We clearly saw the evidence of His heart toward us. When our brakes failed on the way to the hospital, God protected us from an accident and provided a replacement vehicle. He sent family and friends to the waiting room to comfort us. He even provided opportunities for us to encourage others. We were able to pray with the nurse assigned to bring us operation updates when she sheepishly admitted she was nervous because her daughter was having her tonsils removed.
My husband and I spent four nights in that hospital with our son, and we learned some great lessons on being thankful. One mother in the cardiology wing had been living there with her daughter for six months. After several surgeries, there were still no signs of improvement. Another family’s daughter couldn’t be jostled in the ambulance during her transport to the hospital. The parents had followed that ambulance for an hour at the agonizing pace of 10 mph. Hearing heart-wrenching stories like these certainly caused us to count our blessings.
That Christmas, we treasured the gift of the health we had in a new way. Shawn’s surgery was a success, and we came home grateful to God for the many lessons He had taught us. We emerged from that experience knowing God much more personally than we had before. Two years later, when Shawn faced another open-heart surgery, we approached that one with confidence because we knew from past experience that God was with us.
Because of Shawn’s surgeries, doors have opened for us to minister to international children who come to the United States for open-heart surgeries through the Children’s Heart Project, a Franklin Graham outreach program. God has allowed us through this particular “mess” to proclaim a message for His glory.
If you met Shawn today, you’d never know what this young man went through. He has received a clean bill of health for many years now. He’s not on regular medications anymore. He plays sports like other kids and, a just couple summers ago, he learned to water ski. What brings the most joy is watching our son use his story to tell others about the faithfulness of God. You can read his story on page 18.
Maybe you’ve received news lately that has rocked your world, and you’re trying to face it with a “buck up and toughen up” mentality. Let the Lord be your refuge and strength, your ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). It’s the only way.
Ask God to help you turn your thoughts heavenward instead of focusing on the pain around you. Read His life-giving Word, surround yourself with encouraging friends, look for ways to serve others during your own painful trials, and remember to give God thanks for what you have. As you trust Him, you will find the strength and peace you need to face whatever lies ahead.
God is faithful. He is near. And He will see you through. †