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Real Men, Real Faith: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist

  • Compiled by Gene Williams
  • 2004 24 Aug
Real Men, Real Faith: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist

Two Days of Humility

Before becoming a member of the United States Senate, my job was transplanting hearts.  A typical night:  I was in bed, and the telephone rang.  A faceless voice on the other end of the line said, "Dr. Frist, we've got a heart for you.  Blood type A.  Donor 140 pounds.  Sounds like a match for a John Majors."

I received calls like this from the National Organ Donation Registry once or twice a week – usually late at night.

God had answered my first prayer.  And the prayers of John Majors.

John was a 55-year-old friend and patient who was dying from severe, rapidly progressive heart disease.  In bed and wasting away, a few weeks from certain death, he had waited months for a new heart.  He began each day with a prayer that someone, somewhere, would make the gift of a heart so that he could live.  With that late-night call, John's prayers were answered.  God had blessed him with a second chance at a full life – if my transplant team did a perfect job.

Adrenaline now pumping, I got out of bed, kissed my devoted and understanding wife, Karyn, goodnight, checked on our three sleeping sons, and rushed to the hospital to give John and his wife the good news myself – news I knew they feared they would never hear.  Unfortunately, most of my 26 patients who were waiting for a heart would die before a donor heart would become available.

I hurried from home to the hospital to the airport, and an hour later I was on a chartered jet flying through the black night to Chattanooga to remove the healthy heart of a 23-year-old woman who had tragically died hours earlier in a car accident.  From the plane, my team jumped into a waiting ambulance, and with lights and sirens blaring, we rushed through the night to a hospital I had never seen to operate alongside surgeons I had never met on a patient I would never have the opportunity to thank.

We scrubbed, opened the chest, and exposed the heart.  Every eye in the room focused on that heart – powerful and inspiring as it beat in perfect rhythm, expanding and contracting, pumping blood through thousands of miles of capillaries in the human body.  It is a living, vigorous, miracle of God that every second of our lives sustains us with grace and glory.

I cross-clamped the aorta, injected cold cardioplegia into the blood vessels feeding the heart, and instantly the dynamic, magnificently pulsating heart stopped.  Suddenly, it was completely motionless – still and quiet.  Asleep.  That dependable source of energy for physical life, which had not missed a single beat in more than 75 million perfectly timed contractions, was not asleep.

And that's when my own heart began to pound.  I began to operate as fast as I could, because starting at that moment we had only four hours to remove the heart, fly back to Nashville, and get it started again in John's body.

A mistake, a delay – anything that took more than four hours, just 240 minutes – meant that this heart would never restart, and John would not see his family in this world again.

Within 10 minutes the heart was removed.  I placed it in an Igloo ice chest and dashed to the waiting ambulance.  We raced through the night once again, with lights dancing and sirens wailing, to the plane that waited with its engines already expectantly roaring.  We roared into Nashville for another bumpy ambulance ride to the hospital, where John was now asleep in the operating room.  Carefully, I removed John's old, worn-out, fatally diseased heart, and respectfully lowered the young woman's healthy heart into the empty chest cavity.

I sewed the blood vessels together that allowed John's blood to nourish and refill the newly positioned heart.

And then the precious moment of truth arrived – the wait for the heart to come alive again.  The room became hushed.  Absolute silence.  No one moved.  No one spoke.  This is a precious moment that always, in every case, strikes fear deep in my soul.  Will the new heart, suspended now for almost four hours in a lifeless state, come back to life?  What if we'd taken too long?  What if someone had made a mistake in the blood type?  What if I had not done a perfect job in sewing in the new organ?  I questioned and doubted everything we did along the way.

This is the dramatic moment when being a heart surgeon is put in perspective.  This is when the true meaning of humility rushes to dominate life's playing field.  This is when we surgeons realize that we are best just the riverbed and not the river.  This is the moment when God's hand is felt, and His hand is all that matters.

Every time this moment comes, I say a prayer.  The prayer is for life.  It always includes the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd …"

The wait really lasts only a couple of minutes, but, oh, it seems like an eternity.  We wait anxiously, with a profound and deep sense of humility, peering down at the flaccid heart, boldly spotlighted by the bright overhead lights, waiting – waiting for that first sign of life.  Waiting for rebirth.  And more silent prayer.  We can do nothing more.  It is totally, totally out of our control.

Is there a message to this story?  Well, for me it's that whatever we do in life, ultimately, we serve God in whatever way we are so blessed.  We don't determine outcome.  We don't dictate success.  We are just the riverbed for a gloriously flowing magnificent river.

And what a lesson on giving!  The gift is the gift of life from one person to another.  A gift is the ultimate expression of love – and the donation of an organ is the ultimate physical gift.  Who was that 23-year-old woman whose life was so tragically taken in the auto accident, who acted so selflessly, literally giving of herself so others – whom she had never met and would never know – might live?

All of us try to find ways to give that are within our power.  But sometimes we just think about it and don't take action and do it.  Although most people don't even like to think about organ donation and try to avoid the subject altogether, organ donation is the ultimate physical gift.  The donation of an organ is a gift more powerful than any other – the gift of life.  Jesus tells us in John 15 that there is no gift greater than this.  He said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, KJV).

And he also told us to give freely, purely, out of love, without thought of reward:  "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. …  When you give … do not announce it with trumpets … do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matt. 6:1-4)/

There is no gift purer or loftier or more selfless than the gift of a heart or a kidney or a lung.  Neither the donor nor his or her family receives or expects anything in return.  There are no strings attached.  There can't be!  And yet the donor, who gives such an intimate and priceless gift, is rewarded with something just as priceless – a gift that transforms a moment of death into new life, transcendent life that continues after physical presence of either donor or recipient. 

It's a little like the light of the Lord, which, once shared with another, radiates out from person to person until all within its reach are lit by the fire of love.

This story also says something about miracles.  In our everyday lives – climbing out of bed, getting the kids off to school, driving to work, buying groceries, working at the office – miracles often seem like legends left over from childhood.  But miracles are not only the stuff of the great stories of the Bible – making the blind see, the lame walk, the dead rise.

Miracles are the manifestation of God in our everyday lives.  As a transplant surgeon, I was blessed to see it day after day, week after week, year after year in the operating room.  How can an inert piece of muscle, stored in an ice chest for three hours, completely separated from its sustaining blood supply and transported hundreds of miles across the country, explode back to life when placed in another person's body?

Medical scientists can describe it, but I can tell you they can't explain it.  Physicians can define it, but they can't understand it.  Only God knows. 

Now, let me shift gears and leap to another day.  Imagine flying into the heart of Africa in a single-engine plane, loaded to gross weight with medical supplies, 400 feet above the treetops on the way to a small makeshift hospital in a war-torn Sudan. 

We're flying low to avoid being sighted by aircraft that indiscriminately and regularly bomb the villages below.  We're on a medical mission trip with Dr. Dick Furman, founder of World Medical Mission, and my colleagues from Samaritan's Purse, and international Christian relief organization run by my good friend Franklin Graham.

We land the plane on a dirt strip, drive five bumpy miles along a path past a boarded-up, deserted clinic that has been deserted 12 years prior because of landmines from a prior civil war.  We finally arrive at the dilapidated two-room schoolhouse that was converted months earlier into a health clinic.

Prov. 16:9 tells us "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps."

Indeed, I came to Washington as a public servant in the U.S. Senate, but after arriving, my steps for some inexplicable reason had taken me far from the floor of the Senate on medical mission trips to Africa – to the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Sudan.  Six weeks prior to our arrival, Samaritan's Purse courageously opened a small medical clinic in southern Sudan where more than two million people have died and more than four million have been displaced by the war.  There is still indiscriminate bombing by an aircraft from the north in the region. 

We perform surgery where there has been no medical care available for more than a decade.  The conditions are very primitive, and there are few surgical instruments.  No electricity.  No running water.  Ether is the only anesthesia.  Patients walk or are carried for days when they hear that we are there, for we are the only source of care for hundreds of miles.  The civil war has driven off all health care throughout the entire southern Sudan. 

The image of that visit I will forever carry with me is of a small, one-room shed next to a schoolhouse that we used as our clinic.  The little building was used as a recovery room for the sick and injured.  But God's power was at work there.

It was late, and we were just finishing the last operation of a long, tiring day – so long that we completed our last operations under hand-held flashlights.  We were scheduled to leave the next day, and I wearily looked forward to returning home.  A message came that a patient – a man from the Dinka tribe whom I had never met – wanted to see me, "the American doctor."  I just wanted to go to bed, but I went.

Dusk had settled in.  I brushed aside the curtain that served as a door.  It was pitch-black dark inside.  As I approached the voice coming from the corner, I saw the vague silhouette of a man lying in bed.  I could see little except the bulky white dressings covering the obvious stump of his left let and injured right hand.  And then I saw his huge smile.  It was a smile that pierced the darkness of the room.

Pulling my eyes from that luminous face, I noticed the Bible beside his bed and then the interpreter sitting at his bedside.  I asked the patient why he wanted to see "the American doctor."  He explained to me that two years ago his wife and two children had been murdered in the civil war.  I nodded sympathetically.  But that captivating smile seemed to grow even bigger.  It was a smile of caring – a smile of love.

His smile seemed to fill the room.  How could he smile after losing those he loved most? 

Eight days ago, he said, "I lost my leg and fingers when a land mine exploded."

I nodded, still wondering how he smiled.  First he lost his family, and now his leg and most of his hand.  But his smile grew even broader as we talked about his tragedies.  It was a beautiful, shining light in the night.

Finally, I asked, "Why are you smiling – how can you be smiling?"

For two reasons, he explained.  "First, because you, Doctor; come to us to share in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.  And second, because you are a doctor from America.” 

I understood the first reason.  But I was taken aback by the second.  In the transplant medical world I'm accustomed to people thanking me for treating their heart disease – but not because I'm an American.

I asked, "What do you mean, an 'American' doctor?"

Lifting his mutilated limbs for me to see, limbs lost fighting for his own religious freedom, he replied, "Everything I've lost – my family, my leg, my hand – will well be worth the sacrifice if my own people can someday have what you are blessed to have in America – freedom.  The freedom to be and to worship as we please."

That moment was an epiphany of understanding for me.  At that moment, in the heart of Africa and in the dark of night and with the words of a man I have never met, I was filled with the enriched perspective that the freedoms and liberties the United States enjoy were obviously not bestowed by people, but have been endowed by our Creator.  Our freedom is not based on anything given to us by government but on those inalienable rights bestowed on us by God.

I've been back to the Sudan on a number of medical mission trips.  I've operated at the same clinic, now much expanded – though still with no running water – and more developed.  I never saw that Dinka man again.  But I'll always carry his smile with me.

That smile and his words echoed through my consciousness as I sat on the West Front of the Capitol at the swearing-in of President George W. Bush in January 2001.  He reminded us of what a gift we have in freedom, and why it is a gift we must share:  "Once a rock in a raging sea, it is now a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.  It is an ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along."

How true!  Man's freedom did not begin with America, but we have an obligation to pass it on.  And, as President Bush also reminded us that same day, "His purpose is achieved in our duty, and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another."

But what about John Majors?

As we waited breathlessly in the operating room, I prayed that the new heart would be infused with life.  The room was silent.  No one moved, and all eyes were focused on the motionless, lifeless heart in John's chest. 

Suddenly the still heart began to quiver ever so little.  Then the quivering began to coarsen into a stronger and stronger ripple.  It was coming.  Then … oomph!  The heart suddenly jumped and took a strong and powerful squeezing thrust.  In that fraction of a second, the bold, comforting rhythm of life was reborn.  Another miracle.  Another blessing.  And it had all started with a gift.

Taken from "Real Men, Real Faith" compiled by Gene Williams.  Copyright 2004 by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City.  Published by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, MO.   Used by permission.

Gene Williams served as a pastor in the church of the Nazarene for 47 years. He has authored 9 books, including "Living in a Glass House: Surviving the Scrutiny of Ministry and Marriage" and "Living in the Zoo and Loving It!" He and his wife Joyce are founders and directors of Shepard's Fold Ministries, a ministry of encouragement and affirmation to pastors and their families. Gene and Joyce speak in many settings in the U.S. and internationally including special assignments with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They reside in Wichita, Kansas.