I drive past two large hospitals every day I commute to work. Over the course of a month, I’m sure I often drive past several other hospitals – and I don’t give them a thought. They are buildings.
Yet inside those hospitals are people. People who are worried and afraid, people who are in physical pain and emotional distress. People suffering with no end in sight. People whose suffering might end soon, either for better or worse. People feeling emotionally numb or have cried more tears than they ever imagined possible.
People such as Jackie and Tom.
I met Tom last week, while we were in the intensive care unit waiting room at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Members of my family and I spent many hours in that room for five days after my mom underwent surgery for the removal of a brain tumor.
Jackie, Tom’s wife of more than 30 years, was in ICU room No. 3 on the 10th floor. My mom was in room No. 4. I never met Jackie. She was unconscious from the time my mom got out of surgery Tuesday until my mom passed away early Saturday morning.
By Saturday morning, Jackie had been in the ICU for nine or 10 days. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 which didn’t require a mastectomy but metastasized in her spine. After she underwent treatments, Tom said, “things started to get a lot better. I was actually getting her plumped up.” Recently, though, Jackie suffered a heart attack and that led to her falling unconscious.
Tom and Jackie live in Alton, Illinois, which is about a 45-minute drive from Barnes. I think Tom said Jackie is 59. Tom, whose longish hair is all gray and was tied in a small ponytail, looked like he is about that same age. They have one child, a 30-year-old daughter.
I didn’t ask much more about them. I could tell he was worn out. I think I saw his daughter visiting a few times, but other than that I didn’t see anyone else sitting with him or Jackie. He said he had been home for just a couple of hours three times since his wife had entered the hospital and had stayed in the waiting room overnight every night. A fairly tall man, Tom couldn’t have been comfortable sleeping on a couch that was much shorter than him.
Frankly, Tom wasn’t in that waiting room often. He spent most of the time at Jackie’s bedside.
Late every night, when I left to get a few hours of sleep at home, I told Tom good night and shared that I would be praying for him and Jackie. They were on my mind so much. I hurt for them and couldn’t imagine the anxiety.
“I’m praying for you, Tom,” I told him each time. “How are you?” He said he was hanging on. I didn’t know what more I could say or do.
I noticed he was sleeping on a couch a little before 5 o’clock Saturday morning when my dad and more than a dozen other members of our family gathered in that waiting room. The nurses had asked us to step out of Mom’s room for a while. Her breathing had become strained and unbearable labored, and her vital signs were all out of whack. We knew she likely was feeling much discomfort and probably some pain. She hadn’t opened her eyes in quite some time. It was time to put her comfort ahead of any hopes for healing from the surgery.
So the nurses were taking off a gauze head wrap, in place because she was undergoing a non-stop test on her brain activity. They were removing a tube in her mouth that was delivering some medication. They pulled the IV out of her arm that was used to provide fluids. They got rid of the oxygen mask.
We returned to her room shortly. A little less than two hours later, after tears and good-byes and kisses and prayers, the extremely kind and tender nurse softly told us, “She’s gone.”
As we left Mom’s room and turned left toward the doors that led out of the ICU, we passed Jackie’s room. I must admit I didn’t look that direction to see if Tom was there or not. He no longer was asleep in the waiting room when we left.
Donna and I took the elevator down to the Barnes lobby as we prepared to leave. We still had two exits remaining on our prepaid parking pass, said Donna, “and we should give them to Tom.” “Great idea,” I said. As I began to head back for the elevator, Donna noticed he was coming from the parking garage. It looked like he was wearing a different set of clothes. He looked tired but had a little bit of a smile.
“Tom, how are you?” I said as I extended my hand.
“I’m ok,” he said. “What about you guys?”
I told him Mom had passed about 40 minutes earlier, and his face fell sympathetically. “I’m so sorry,” he said.
“Tom,” I said, “we won’t be needing this parking pass anymore. There are two exits left on it. Please take it. And here’s my card. It has the name of my website there. Go there and you will see I will have you on my prayer list, where a whole bunch of people will be praying for you every day. And it has my email address. Please let me know how you and Jackie are doing. How is she?”
I don’t know if there is a word for the look he gave me at that moment. I could tell my words gave him a little comfort.
Then, Tom’s eyes brightened. “She opened her eyes this morning for a little bit,” he said. “And I think she recognized me.” And that was the look of hope.
On that particular morning, I needed to see some hope. In that moment, I felt a great consolation, a reminder that God indeed hears our prayers. That he cares, that sometimes he cares enough to grant more time to someone who is ill and sometimes he cares enough to end a person’s suffering – and then be there for the people who will be mourning.
I haven’t heard from Tom the last two days. I have thought of Jackie and him many times. And I have thought of all those other people in hospitals everywhere, people who also are suffering and worried, in pain and afraid. People who might not have much support or hope. We drive past those hospitals every day and don’t give them a moment’s consideration.
Will you pray for them, please? Will you pray for Jackie and Tom as well as all the other Jackies and Toms?
Pray for hope.