Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

August 17, 2008


Life is wonderful even though suffering is part of it


      My wife and I lived in Nashville, Tennessee in the mid-fifties. As a student in the Divinity School, working on a graduate degree, I paid little attention to the massive Vanderbilt University Hospital on campus. Theology was the primary focus of my life.

          That changed in September of 1955 when a compassionate physician, with controlled sadness in his eyes, told us our two-year-old son David was suffering with leukemia, a blood disease mostly incurable at the time.  It was the most shocking moment of our lives.

I had never heard of leukemia. I did not even know how to spell the word. Reluctantly, the kind doctor answered the question I had to ask, “Two months to two years – that’s how much time your son has left,” he said.  He was right. David lived nine more months. It was during those months that we discovered Vanderbilt University Hospital.

Dean and I were young and naïve. We had no idea the hospital had a Children’s Wing where many other children were being treated for various ailments. But there we became members of the Fraternity of Suffering. We soon learned that we were not the only parents struggling with the issue of a dying child. There were many others wondering with us why the innocent suffer.

Over those terrible nine months we were in and out of the University Hospital many times. The purpose of each visit was a blood transfusion for David. New blood would temporarily strengthen red blood cell balance in David’s blood. Leukemia causes the bone marrow to make too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cells. These leukemia cells in time can overpower the red blood cells, resulting in death.

We understood the transfusions offered only temporary relief. Each treatment was an effort to preserve David’s life as long as possible. As he became weaker and weaker, the transfusions became more frequent. Understandably, David hated to go to the hospital. I can still hear him begging me not to let the nurses “hurt” him. I sometimes wonder if I should have allowed him to suffer even one transfusion. But we did what seemed best at the time despite his heartrending cry for his father’s protection.

Near the end we finally heeded our son’s plea and said no to further transfusions. We made no more trips to the hospital. Not long after that decision David died in our arms at home. He had survived a month past his third birthday.

These memories of our time in Vanderbilt University Hospital were stirred by my reading of the death of a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University. At age 46 Dr. David Rabin was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He battled the muscular disease for four years and died at age 50. During those four years he grew weaker, gradually losing control of every muscle in his body except one – his eyebrow. He found a computer that could be controlled by the twitch of his eyebrow.

Amazingly David Rabin used this one remaining muscle to use his computer to write papers, speak to his family, and carry on a medical consulting practice. In the days of his suffering he even published a textbook on endocrinology and won recognition for his work.

Rabin’s story reminds me of three important truths. One, to be alive, to be a human being made in the image of God, is a wonderful thing. Two, to be a human being is to suffer for suffering is part of the warp and woof of human existence. Three, though we must suffer, we can find the courage to use our suffering in such a way that others are inspired and encouraged by our example.

Life is wonderful. Suffering is real. But adding courage to the mix may be the most noble of all our achievements. + + +