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Pray for Me
Finding Faith in a Crisis
By Rick Hamlin
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- Trade Paperback $13.99 $18.49 CAD
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 9, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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When Rick Hamlin was rushed to the ER, he was immediately admitted to the ICU. No quick diagnosis was made, and for two weeks the doctors struggled to keep his body alive as Rick struggled to keep his faith alive. Pray for Me is the story of one man’s spiritual odyssey to learn how to pray in a new way as healing slowly came and a medical crisis became a spiritual opportunity — a chance for him to learn he was being called to something new, to be born anew. In the end the doctors were never able to diagnose the cause of his illness, but Rick is convinced that the healing came through prayer.
Here's a leg on my journey of prayer that I need to put down, a time of the worst and the best all at once, an episode worth analyzing, although I dread doing it. I often write to get rid of fears or at least to shrink them into manageable size. There on paper they won't haunt me. They are simply words on a page. Once I asked a best-selling author, "Do you ever pray?" "When I write I pray," he said. I thought I understood what he meant. Anything that requires that level of trust as you gaze into the unknown is prayer. You can't go forward without it.
When I think about writing this, I start talking myself out of it: Don't write about that medical crisis. Don't go there. Who wants to know that you almost died? You're alive now, so it's ancient history. You don't want to relive it anyway. It's over, done with. Why wrestle with it? Why do you feel you must give it some meaning on the page? That's so tiresome. You're still processing it anyway. Let it rest. Give it another ten or twenty years. (Twenty years? Geez, I don't even know if I'll be around in twenty years.) Your readers don't know you all that well. Most of them don't know you at all. How is this going to help them?
Would that I could say like Jesus, "Satan, get behind me," because the dark passages of our lives, when shared, can become healing passages of our lives, for us and for others. I will tell it straight up, and you can decide yourself if it's one long organ recital, as in "Can you top this medical disaster story?" or if it was indeed a winding path of prayer. Forgive me for going into clinical details.
It began two years ago—or at least this part of the story began—with a boil on the back of my leg. It looked like some sort of ingrown hair. (Nice.) "That's looking pretty ugly," my wife, Carol, said, "you should go get that checked out." This being the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, the only place I could think of that would be open was the urgent care facility on 165th Street, around the corner from the Art Deco remains of the Audubon Ballroom (where Malcolm X was shot). The urgent-care place is affiliated with and across the street from the sprawling New York–Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, where all my doctors work. If I could go anywhere, I wanted to be in a spot where they could access my medical records at the click of a computer key.
We live about fifteen minutes away. I jogged down Broadway, past bodegas and Laundromats, a parking garage, and an Irish pub, people pushing strollers and shopping carts. I signed in. Didn't have to wait long. A young doctor checked me out, said that yes, it looked infected, and prescribed two antibiotics. I picked up the pills at Hilltop Pharmacy near our house and started taking them that day. I felt pretty good the rest of the weekend, and the boil looked like it was shrinking.
On Sunday we went to church and that afternoon I visited a homebound ninety-four-year-old parishioner, Wesley, who'd served with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. He was also a superb musician. We sang, as always, a few hymns together—he harmonized from his hospital bed. Too weak to sit up, he could still hold the baritone line. I headed home. Carol and I watched TV that night, an episode of Broadchurch, a creepy British mystery series. The next day, Labor Day, I ran some errands, did the laundry, went for a run, washed some windows, vacuumed. So much for a laborless holiday.
On Tuesday I went to work but found myself getting really chilly in the air-conditioned office. I just couldn't get myself warm. Wishing I'd brought a sweater, I wrapped my hands around a mug of tea. "Isn't it cold in here?" I asked my colleagues. "Aren't you freezing?" They humored me but nobody readily agreed. "You probably have a fever," I told myself, gritting my teeth to keep them from chattering, bouncing my legs at my desk to get them warm. Even so, I had no intention of heading home early. There was work to do, five days of it that had to be crammed into a four-day workweek. I'm an editor at Guideposts magazine and just because the world took off for Labor Day didn't mean that our deadlines disappeared. In some faintly puritanical stance, I hesitated about taking an ibuprofen because it seemed like doing that would simply mask the fever rather than make it go away.
I left work at the usual hour, shivering on the subway ride home, ate dinner, took my temperature, finally—yes, I had a fever—and went to bed. Carol's medical advice has always been to give in to whatever you've got sooner rather than later, because you'll get rid of it sooner rather than later. Don't soldier on. Go to bed immediately, take a sick day. Not that I always follow this good advice, but I did then.
I called in sick on Wednesday, the fever not diminishing despite the ibuprofen I was now popping every four hours. I went back to the urgent-care place. They said, "Keep taking the antibiotics." On Thursday I got an appointment with my internist, whose office is in the hospital complex. I like Seth a lot. He's warm, caring, wise, and wry. He's always overbooked, but it's never stopped him from giving his full attention to his patients or insisting, as he once did at the end of a session, on showing me a funny video clip on his computer that I watched over his shoulder while his ever-patient assistants were rolling their eyes and pointing to the clock. I try not to call him Seth but Doctor because I want him to know I respect him and esteem him, but I think of him as Seth.
"It's freezing in here," I said to his assistant when I checked in. The fever speaking.
"Sit in the waiting room," she said. "It's warm in there. The air conditioner isn't working."
"Give him my sweatshirt," Seth called from his office.
They gave me a big gray sweatshirt with NEW YORK–PRESBYTERIAN written on it in red, some swag from a medical conference, I figured. I took a selfie, the coddled patient, and texted it to Carol: "Look what Seth loaned me."
When Seth finally examined me, he listened to my lungs, switched me off one of the antibiotics, had me do some blood tests, and said I might have pneumonia. He sent me to the lab to get a chest X-ray, but all I really wanted to do was get home, get warm, and get in bed. Plenty of rest was the order of the day. He'd let me know if the blood tests showed anything.
"What shall I do with the sweatshirt?" I asked.
"Keep it," he said.
I nursed myself at home on Friday, piling blankets on top of blankets, sipping mugs of tea and broth, even in the warm September weather, and taking these big ibuprofen horse pills. But the fever only got worse. On Saturday morning it spiked at 104.2, with no sign of diminishing. "I should go to the ER," I said to Carol. It was around 11:00 a.m.
"I'm coming with you," she said. "We'll take a cab."
You know it's bad when a tightwad and public transportation junkie like me makes no objections to taking a cab, instead of a bus, the fifteen blocks to the hospital.
We got out at the wrong corner and had to walk half a block more—it felt like half a mile—to the entrance of the emergency room. I expected the usual long wait, like trying to flag down a salesperson at Macy's the week before Christmas, but we sat in the anteroom for less than fifteen minutes before I was admitted. I guess they could tell I was pretty bad off, every breath becoming a struggle, my body trembling to stay warm.
Half aware, half in a daze, I felt myself slipping down mortality's rabbit hole with no desire to reach out to the divine.
How can I explain this? How can I show it? It's at the crux of what I struggle to understand about prayer and the life of the spirit. When my body goes, my faith goes too, and long-practiced spiritual habits hardly count. I remembered this from open-heart surgery. When I'm really sick—and I was really sick then, sicker than I'd ever been—my spirit diminishes. The world becomes smaller, and all my internal anguish takes over. I am not a holy person at all but some poor soul caught in a trap. I want to be able to cry out to God but I can't. I monitor the downward spiral I'm being sucked into, and find no means of salvation. I've read about the saints who found pain and suffering a means for drawing closer to the Lord of sorrows, the one who died on a cross for us. But physical suffering isolates me from such love and solace. I am consumed with myself and forget about my Maker. When I think about dying, this is what worries me most. That I would become such a stranger to myself. Am I just a sunshine patriot and no winter soldier? Is not my faith bigger than this?
Did I think I was dying? Not then. My brain sank into a fog. The techs and nurses put me on oxygen and an IV drip. We were lodged in a cubicle with curtains at the sides, a pod with other patients across from me and Carol in a chair next to me. Everything was illuminated with bright lights whether we were awake or asleep. They hustled me off on a gurney or in a wheelchair for an echocardiogram—I think—and a lung X-ray. They took my temperature and drew blood. The nurses and doctors came and went. I dozed and stared and wondered how long I would have to stay in the ER. Surely they would admit me into the hospital. Maybe they would send me home. What time was it? Couldn't Carol go home? Much of this is fuzzy to me, but then there were moments I was acutely aware of.
I remember when the aides were decking me out in a gown and those non-slippery socks they give you in hospitals. "Not the yellow ones," one woman said to another. "Those are only for the violent ones." I looked at the multi-tattooed patient across from me, a kid who appeared to be strung out on a drug overdose, rattled and shaking. He had yellow socks. A violent one?
The woman next to me was ninety-nine years old—I heard her say that—and I hoped for her sake she could go home and die in her bed rather than this place. She was in a plain gown with brown socks. The woman across from us, in her mere seventies I supposed, resented being told that she was being sent to the hospital's uptown outpost. "I want to stay right here. I don't want to go to the Allen Pavilion," she said, as though she were being asked to shop at a suburban branch of Saks when she was at the Fifth Avenue store.
I must have been seen by more than one doctor, but the only one I remember was a young one with blondish-brown hair, a three-day beard, and a bad bedside manner. He talked to the nurse or Carol about what grave trouble I was in, as though I were too far gone to understand his words, like talking about a deaf person in front of them. I recall him saying my condition was critical, and I realized the adjective had a very specific meaning here, like when they say on the news, "The victim was taken to the hospital and remains in critical condition."
He took my blood pressure. "Ninety over fifty," he said.
"Wow, that's pretty good," I thought to myself. "I've been trying to get it down." Like an anorexic on deathwatch, congratulating herself for being a skeletal eighty-nine pounds.
The endless afternoon and evening wore on. Carol must have gone out to get some food. I don't remember eating, myself. Our twenty-five-year-old son, Timothy, was living with us at the time—and soon to leave on a ten-month mission trip to South Africa. Carol let him know where we were. He texted or called from Brooklyn, where he was at a party with his girlfriend. "Should I come by the hospital?" he asked. "You don't need to," Carol texted back. He knew her and me better than that and showed up at the ER after midnight. I remember him being there. I remember him talking to Carol and me. And then he left.
At 2:00 a.m. they finally admitted me.
I was taken to the step-down unit of the ICU on the sixth floor. They pushed me in a wheelchair on the sky-bridge across Fort Washington Avenue. I'd seen it from below many times but had never been on it. It was the middle of the night and the corridor was lit up like the inside of a refrigerator. I could see the lights of the hospital out the windows, and it seemed as enchanted as the Emerald City. I think of a friend's mother who, when given last rites, exclaimed in wonder, "I've never done this before!" Another friend tells the story of his ailing ninety-three-year-old mother being airlifted off of Martha's Vineyard to get emergency medical care, her last flight on earth, and all she could say about it was, "That was the first time I've ever been on a helicopter!"
Perhaps that's how the spirit speaks when you're not conscious of making any prayer and feel incapable of it. You can still see things to marvel at. I wanted to turn to the aide pushing my wheelchair and tell him, "Gosh, I've never been on this bridge before." But the mask blowing oxygen into my lungs didn't allow for talking.
On the other side of the bridge, in the step-down unit, I kissed Carol good-bye or, more likely, she kissed me because of my oxygen mask. "Go home. Get some sleep," I wanted to say, although I couldn't really speak.
The next morning, Sunday, September 13, Carol sent the first of her mass e-mails:
Dear ones, forgive the mass e-mail but this is the easy way to start this news moving around. Please feel free to forward this e-mail—I started with a bare-bones approach.
Rick has had pneumonia since Thursday and took a turn for the worse yesterday. We went to the emergency room at Columbia-Presbyterian, and at length he was admitted to a step-down unit—a slightly tamer version of the ICU. He is getting great care.
He is very sick. Sepsis was one diagnosis, along with pneumonia, but he was having trouble getting oxygen. When I left him a few hours ago he had on a device that blows oxygen into his lungs.
That's all I can tell you now, but I will keep you apprised, probably via a blast e-mail. Add names if you like.
He doesn't have a phone at his bed (retro!) but he will have access to his cell. Right now he's so sick I don't dare leave it there with him. Ditto computer. Tim is here and we will probably tag team for the next few days.
No visits or phone calls for now but I will pass along messages. E-mails to me might be best—I can print them out and take them to him.
I know you want to know what you can do. If you are praying people, do that. Otherwise, keep us in your thoughts.
Lots of love to you all.
P.S.: I am not really taking calls either but I am texting madly. Always assuming I remember to charge my phone!
Hospital, Day 1
When Timothy was four he broke his femur in a tricycle accident at nursery school. In those pre–cell phone days, Carol called work and left me an urgent message. I was at a dentist appointment and when I walked into the office the receptionist let me know Carol was trying to reach me. I listened to a few messages on my office phone, one telling me about the accident, one telling me how she had picked up William, our older son, from school, one telling me where she had taken Tim for an X-ray, one telling me where I should meet her and the boys.
I rushed uptown to an unfamiliar hospital building near Columbus Circle, not Columbia-Presbyterian, where both boys had been born. I struggled to find them, bouncing around from floor to floor, going up and down in the elevator. Finally I spoke to a person who told me Carol had taken Timothy down to the Hospital for Joint Diseases on East Seventeenth Street. I raced back downtown and at the hospital went up to what I thought was pediatrics. I got off the elevator to hear a doctor in green scrubs say to another doctor, "It's the worst break I've ever seen in a kid. Right through his femur. They said it was a tricycle-riding accident at nursery school, but it's hard to imagine any kid could get hurt that bad by a tricycle."
Some conversations you don't want to overhear.
I asked the doctors where I could find my son, the patient. I was sent back downstairs. Finally I found Carol and seven-year-old William sitting next to Tim in a crib with bars around it like a prison cell. He was lying on his back, his broken leg wrapped in bandages and held up in a swing-like device. He would have to be like that for twenty-six days, in traction. "It's a little like being trapped on an airplane with a toddler for twenty-six days," his babysitter Sharon later observed.
Carol was doing a good job of acting calm in the storm, wearing her best Florence Nightingale face—Nurse Barbie in action—but she was clearly frazzled. "I'll spend the night here with Tim," I said. "We'll be OK." We would have to alternate roles, one parent with the child at home, the other in the hospital with Tim.
That night Tim and I were in a double room, where the kid on the other side of the curtain was crying and his parents were watching a shoot-'em-up movie on TV, the sound blasting through the curtain. I sat in a chair that could be turned into a bed and tried to coax Tim to go to sleep. He and I dozed, on and off, but he woke up several times in the night, the TV still blaring on the other side of the room, the soundtrack in a minor key. I remember Tim grabbing the bars of his crib and clutching them like some prisoner. "Daddy," he said, "we're stuck."
"Yes, Tim-o," I said. "We're stuck."
That was how I felt now in my hospital room, stuck. I had a mask delivering oxygen to me, monitors connected to my heart, an IV drip filling me with pints of fluid. I couldn't go anywhere even if I wanted to. I was still feverish and whenever the fever spiked, I felt short of breath. I could barely talk. The first of many doctors began their procession by my bedside. Columbia-Presbyterian is a teaching hospital, and that meant an extensive cast of characters: residents, interns, physicians, plus the nurses, techs, and aides. This was the new routine.
That morning, like every morning, a beefy guy who looked like a truck driver came in with a big machine to give me a chest X-ray. I assumed the equipment was heavy. Three times a day a sweet-faced woman brought in a tray with breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The food was not very good, but I wanted to eat it because she was lovely and I didn't want to disappoint her, her voice musical with the inflection of some Caribbean island.
Then there were the doctors, interns, and residents. They asked the same questions over and over again. "Have you traveled lately?"
"We were in Southern California visiting my family in July."
"Have you been overseas?"
"We went to Budapest and Vienna in June." This was a dream trip that our sons gave us for Christmas, our anniversary, and our sixtieth birthdays combined, twenty-eight-year-old William cashing in thousands of frequent-flier miles he had garnered from business trips.
"Any other trips? Anything exotic?"
"We went to Kenya about three years ago." We have friends who have been working for several years on a water project in a small village outside Nairobi, building a well, which we got to see. We also took a safari to far-flung places.
"Do you have any pet birds?"
"No." We have a very large, very lazy cat, Fred, named for Frederick Douglass because he was rescued from the A-train platform in Harlem, near Frederick Douglass Boulevard. He's also hirsute like Douglass, with a combination of black, gray, and white hair.
"Have you ever worked in a shipyard?"
- From the darkness of life, when the questions Why me? and Why now? go unanswered, Rick Hamlin leads us to hearing the gentle whispers of God in his deeply personal story of healing.—Debbie Macomber, #1 New York Times bestselling author
- Pray for Me is an utterly relatable book full of honesty and hope.—Sue Monk Kidd, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Life of Bees
- On Sale
- Apr 9, 2019
- Page Count
- 224 pages