Help My Unbelief

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(I was asked to lead a devotional in a group of Christian doctors. Here is what I shared.)

One man was telling his friend about his doctor. He said, “my doctor guaranteed that I will be walking in just a week after my big surgery.”

The friend remarked, “Wow, that’s impressive.”

The man added, “Yes. I have to walk now because I have to sell my car to pay my doctor’s bill.”

Most of the times, we doctors guarantee healing. But our story today is about a failed healing.

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Our story for our devotional today is found in Mark 9: 17 -27

17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech.18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

The background of the story is that Jesus just came down from the mountain where he had his transfiguration. Though it is really uncertain what mountain, traditionally it is believe to be the Mount Tabor. With him were Peter, James and John. When they got down from the mountain he was met with the rest of his disciples and was told that they failed to heal a boy from his illness.

I want us to view this story from a doctor’s or a healthcare provider’s perspective.

Let’s first examine the boy, the patient, in our story. How old was he? I don’t know, but most likely he is in the pediatric age. Since I am an adult medicine doctor, he will be somebody that will not be brought to me.

What is his illness. If we look at the description of what his illness is, we would say that it is epilepsy with the classic tonic-clonic grand-mal convulsions. The seizures seems to be uncontrolled and frequent that it can come any time, as he would fall in the fire or in the water. Being unable to speak, maybe he also has cerebral palsy with speech impediment.

How long has he been sick? According to his father since his childhood. So for a long time this boy has been suffering. One reason why I did not choose to be a pediatrician, besides I hate placing an IV on a baby is that I cannot stand the sight of suffering children. Especially those sick kids that had poor outcome.

Are there any pediatricians here? I admire you, caring for the most vulnerable among us. May God continue to bless your profession and your ministry.

So if this sick boy was brought to you, what will you give him? Keppra? Carbamazepine? Phenytoin? Or perhaps you will request for CT head, EEG and lumbar puncture first.

But something tells us that this is more than physical illness. Rather, it is an spiritual illness, or more specifically demon-possession. As it was told in the story that Jesus drove the deaf and mute spirit out and ordered it not to come back.

I have witnessed demon-possession when I was still in the Philippines. It happened on an evening prayer meeting and this young lady jumped out of her seat and attacked the speaker. Her voice changed and it took several men in the church to hold her down. It required some intense prayers of the church before the demon was driven out.

Let us examine now the father, the other patient. One thing for sure is this father was desperate. If your child is sick for a long time you will be desperate too. He has been disappointed before, perhaps by other healers that he brought his son to and they tried to heal him, including Jesus’ disciples, but all were unsuccessful. Because this father was let down in the past, he was having trust issues. He has become a skeptic. He told Jesus, “IF you can do something,” (emphasis on the IF), but honestly admitted his doubts by telling Jesus, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

This father is also suffering. It’s not just the boy, but the father as well. Maybe not much physically, but more on emotionally and mentally. Note on verse 22, he did not say “have compassion on my son,” rather he said to Jesus: “have compassion on us and help us.”

He is undergoing mental agony. Perhaps anxiety and depression. Would you give him Prozac? Or maybe a psychotherapy session? But most likely he just needed his son to be healed and he will be healed as well.

Let’s apply the story to our day to day experiences.

First, have you experienced that you were unable to help your patients, even how hard you try, like the disciples did? You probably tried all the medications and procedures known to you, but still your patient was not getting better. I know I have experienced that, all the time. Being a Critical Care doctor, I have lost many patients, which is part of the specialty I chose, especially in this time of COVID pandemic. How frustrating that has been for us. We felt incompetent. Is our training not enough? Is our knowledge and skills not enough? We felt helpless.

But in our story, Jesus said (verse 19), “Bring the boy to me.” Yes my fellow doctors, we can bring our patients to Jesus. We can bring our frustrations, our incompetence and our helplessness to Him. We can bring our problems to the Lord, not just in our patients, but our own personal failures to Him.

Many times though we are also like the child’s father, we suffer with unbelief. As trained scientists and professional clinicians, we believe more in our medications, or in our surgical skills, in our medical science and technology than in God. Have you felt that way sometimes? I know I felt that way, many times!

When I was sick with a flu last year and I felt so awful, I prayed that God will heal me quickly. But I felt I have more faith in the Tylenol that I took to make me feel better than in God who can really take my illness away.

In this story, when the father told Jesus “If you can do something” Jesus used that same words back to him and said “If you can” believe “everything is possible.” May we also pray that father’s prayer, “Lord, help, my unbelief.”

Lastly when the child was taken to Jesus, it appears that he even got worse. The boy had more violent seizures when the evil-spirit saw Jesus. The original text used a term that meant worse than before. The boy went into a grand-mal status epilepticus, worse than he ever had. After the seizure, the people thought that the child was dead (verse 26)! Did Jesus made the situation worse?

Have we experienced something similar? We prayed to God already, and we call on Him to heal our patients, but they seem to be getting worse, not better. Was God not hearing our prayers? Was He not listening to our pleas?

Then when people thought that the boy was dead, (in verse 27) Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him on his feet and he arose. The healing came in God’s way. The healing came in God’s time.

For us today, when we are struggling in our practice, when we are getting discouraged in the outcome of the patients that were placed under our care, we just have to trust in God’s ways, and we have to trust in God’s timing.

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I would like to tell a story that happened to me last year.

It was the height of flu season last year, and this was before COVID, which made this year’s flu season worse. I was working that weekend, and I was in the hospital for 36 hours straight. We had several patients in the hospital that had complications from the flu. There were five on ventilators due to respiratory failure from Influenza A in our ICU. Two of them were on ECMO. 

ECMO is short for extracorporeal membrane oxygen, an extracorporeal life support. It is an intervention to provide adequate amount of gas exchange or perfusion in patients whose heart and lungs have failed to sustain life. It is done by placing a large bore catheter in the patient’s central vein or artery, where the blood was sucked out from the body, then ran through a machine to bathe it with oxygen, then flow it back to the body. We also have used this intervention now for the very severe COVID patients.

Saturday morning, I got a call from another hospital for a woman in her 40’s who had Influenza A and who was rapidly deteriorating. She went into respiratory failure and was placed on ventilator. They want to transfer her to our hospital for possible ECMO.

We rarely have two ECMO patients at the same time in our ICU. Even one patient on ECMO makes us busy, so two was really demanding. But a third one at the same time? That never happened in our hospital before. 

I made some phone calls to verify if we have a machine for a third patient and if we have enough resources and staff to handle a third ECMO. After confirming, I was given the green light to accept the patient.

Additional ICU and ECMO staff were called to come in. I called the interventional cardiologist-on-duty who would assist us to put the Avalon catheter, a dual-lumen catheter half as big as a garden hose that goes from the jugular vein and through the heart. The cardiologist in turn called the cath lab to prepare for the arrival of this patient.

The patient was flown in via helicopter to our hospital and went straight to the cath lab where me, my ICU and ECMO team, as well as the cardiologist and his cath lab team were waiting.

We were ready for the challenge and eager to make it happen. 

While we were doing all this, our patient’s oxygen saturation was only in the 70-80% despite maximum ventilator support, so we knew we needed to work fast.

However problem struck. Working for more than an hour, we had difficulty placing the Avalon catheter in good position. We tried different approaches with different instruments, but cannot get the ECMO flow going.

After deliberation, we decided that we cannot sustain this patient on ECMO. Perhaps it was her vascular anatomy, or perhaps there was a big clot in her vein. Whatever the reason, we could not proceed.

I went out to the cath lab’s waiting room, and gave the sad news to the patient’s family that we couldn’t do the ECMO. All I could say was that we tried and gave our best, but it was unsuccessful.

I felt that we betrayed this patient and her family. After I thought I moved heaven and earth to get this patient to our hospital, only to end up like this was really deflating.

The worse part was, I knew that without ECMO, this patient had little to no chance of surviving and possibly could be dead in a few hours.

We transferred the patient to the ICU, but we left the big neck catheter in place even though it was not hooked to the machine. We have to wait for the heparin we gave when we attempted to start the ECMO, to wear off before we can pull the catheter out.

After about half an hour in the ICU, I was informed that the blood test showed that the heparin had worn off and I can remove the catheter with less risk of bleeding.

When I pulled the Avalon catheter out, I applied direct pressure in the patient’s neck to control the bleeding. I did this for 30 minutes. I was alone in the room with the patient most of that time, with the nurse intermittently coming in and out of the room to adjust the IV pumps or to check on the patient.

All along while I was holding pressure, I was watching the monitor which showed that the patient’s oxygen saturation was staying in the high 70’s to low 80%. I thought death was imminent.

During the time when I was alone with the patient, I felt helpless and defeated. I failed her. We failed her. 

Then a thought came to me: I don’t save lives. It was not up to me. Only a higher power determines who will live or die. That’s when I reached out for the Higher Power.

As a doctor, many times, I put more faith to the medical intervention than God’s healing.

With my hands on the patient’s jugular holding pressure, I turned my thoughts to heaven: “God I am nothing, but an instrument of Your healing hand. I failed. But You never fail. I don’t know this patient personally, but I am personally praying for her. Please heal her in my behalf, and let me witness Your awesome power. Amen.”

After 30 minutes of holding pressure the bleeding stopped. I left the room and went to see other patients, especially the new ICU admission, a young man in his 20’s who had a bad asthma attack, so bad we had to place him on a ventilator.

As I was busy attending to other patients, I was just waiting to be called back to that particular patient if she goes to cardiac arrest or expires.

More than an hour later, I went back to the room of our failed ECMO patient. I looked at the monitor and her oxygen saturation was 100%. I was amazed! The respiratory therapist told me that she even titrated down the oxygen level on the ventilator to almost half as the patient was really doing good.

What happened? I had no other explanation but one: God heard my prayer.

I went down to my call room to be alone. With tears welling in my eyes, I uttered a prayer of thanks. Never would I doubt the power of God again. 

My friends, God healed my unbelief.

May God heal us all with our unbelief, this is my prayer.

4 comments

  1. I am deeply moved with this beautiful message.
    Really God reveals to us with miracles, and I think every miracle is different from one to the other based on what the circumstances require.
    You really are blessed Doc, Cheers!!! 🙂

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