Heart Surgery before Holy Week: When You Need Answers for Your Broken Heart & the Suffering of the World

I am scared to whisper here.

What do you dare say when you’ve been sleeping beside a hospital bed for the last 12 days, been sleeping alongside the brave 300 children curled and splayed in stacked floors of beds under the sign: Hospital for Sick Kids.

How many times have the hallways buzzed with Code Blue, Code Blue?

How many times have a child’s cries and begging no’s seized us down these hallways and we cracked wide open with prayers for all these caught in the land of the suffering?

They cut through her sternum before dawn on the third Friday of Lent. You do whatever you have do to get to a broken heart.

I sang “Jesus loves me” into the curl of her ear till the very last second, till they took her from us, till they rolled her into the operating room, sang that one line over and over again: “Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong,” kept singing it after I thought my legs would give out.

How many caffeine-drunk prayers can you murmur for the surgeon who is holding your daughter’s half-heart in his willing hands — while you keep pacing, climbing, the hospital’s atrium stairs — rising and ascending 8 flights, rising with hope, descending into aching questions, turning and climbing upward again.

I want her healed, I desperately want us all healed, I want to walk out of Lent and into the rising.

But I know: There is no healing until you get down to the heart of your heartache.

I stop short, mid-riser, somewhere between the 3rd and 4th floor. Under the lights of the OR on the 2nd floor, there’s a surgeon bent with a scalpel over our daughter’s pulsing inferior vena cava and there’s this cutting through everything down to the heart of our being:

Suffering is not our main stress. Estrangement is.  

It feels brazen to believe it standing there in the Hospital for Sick Children, in the midst of all kinds of suffering children:

The cause of our deepest distress is all that keeps us estranged from God — more than the stress of any suffering.  

Jesus got down to the heart of our heartbreak: The very heart of our pain is the things that keep us apart from God. 

God, do surgery, just do whatever it takes to heal our hearts and everything that keeps us apart. 

Humanity’s greatest problem — is not the problem of suffering — but the problem of sin. And Jesus completely solved that problem with His own  suffering on the cross. 

Jesus could have just healed our bodies — but in this broken world, our bodies would have just broken again, will keep breaking again — so Jesus came to completely heal the deepest aloneness and brokenness  in our souls.

Six interminably long hours of a surgeon working painstakingly in the chest cavity of our daughter, six hours of pacing, six hours of praying through this moment —  and then the next.

When I see her surgeon walk into the waiting room looking for our faces, we are on our feet again. He’s smiling, reassuring –  talking about a fenestration and lateral tunnel through the heart versus an extra cardiac Fontan but I just keep staring at his hands: His hands held her broken heart. Those hands.

When you need to see God’s hand, look at the hands all around you. 

When you can’t see God’s hand, close your eyes and rest in the rhythm of His safe heart. 

When the surgeon says this final surgery was a success – the final surgery to finish rerouting the blood flow of her beating, single ventricle heart – should last us decades before the next step of a heart transplant, I brim, find the Farmer’s hand, murmur a choked thank you to the surgeon who took a sharp scalpel to our daughter’s heart, to try to heal her heart. 

I believe: What feels like the woundings of God can be the healing of God. 

After surgery, all the days bleed into streams of nights, the Farmer and I keeping unmoveable vigil beside our daughter’s bed in CICU, refusing to take our eyes off her heart rate, her oxygen, her heart beat pulsing across a screen.

Every recovering breath through her oxygen mask sounds like raspy hope.

Tubes from her chest bleed and drain away in all this surgical aftermath. Hope is always painfully messy, unbelievably hard, fiercely resilient. And every fighter deserves a witness.

When anyone has to bear pain, they deserve someone to at least bear witness to it. We’re here for it, here for all of it. We’re but one of the bleary-eyed huddle of parents barnacled to the side of a child’s bed in ICU.

In a world of suffering, the believers really believe:

A God who is beyond great, must, by definition, work in ways that are beyond our understanding. 

I watch her tracking monitors, her dripping IVs, through the night watches and trust the ways of God:

For our Father to have created a world without suffering — would our Father then have had to create a world with different children? For a world without suffering to exist at all — would humans get to exist at all? 

Maybe a world without suffering changes the DNA of everything that would leave a world without us?

Isn’t a life of suffering that can still lead to eternal life better than creating a world where there may be no human life as we know it at all?

Tucked into the corner of her bed is her hand-crocheted, long-haired superhero doll, SHEro, the doll my mama’s sister made for her, that my mama stitched a heart on to mirror the same rare side our girl’s heart is on. Her SHERO rolled into surgery with her.

If God had created a world without great suffering — would this be a world without great souls? Suffering is the ink of all the unforgettable stories. Eliminate adversity and you obliterate bravery. Take away overwhelming suffering from the world and you take away the overcomers of the world.

Virtues are only visible against a backdrop of adversity. 

It’s forging through, that forges greatness in you. 

It’s scars that mark a soul with otherworldly strength. 

When her surgically-traumatized heart jolts into a wild gallop of an arrhythmia, and her room fills with a dozen of the cardiac team just after midnight, explaining to us the risks of this arrhythmia… the risks of the medications to reign it back into its steady pace, I keep stroking her hair back, keep hoping for morning with her here.

Slow and steady, Braveheart. There is a world of suffering out there, but there is a world of indestructible hope within us.

They track her rhythm with EKGs, measuring beats — and five times throughout the night, they administer medications through her IVs, trying to shock her relentlessly racing heart into slow and steady, slow and steady. My heart aches with praying.

This is a broken-hearted world but we are a lion-hearted people.

We roar prayers and love large.

And the Lion of Judah Himself enters into the suffering with us, staying with us, forever living to intercede in prayer for us.

Even Friedrich Nietzsche has to concede that “the only satisfactory (answer to the problem of suffering)” is that “the gods justified human life by living it themselves.”

And I believe it here beside her with heart pounding hard at breakneck speeds, here with hundreds of Sick Kids struggling to breathe, to sleep:

He who names Himself “God with us” never stops suffering with us.

Suffering has to have enough purpose in the world if God Himself daily purposes to endure suffering with us.

And the night before the nails, as Jesus approaches the cross, the God Man confesses, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38).  Whatever unbelievable suffering crosses our path, Jesus suffered through that and worse at the Cross — so we can believe the problem of suffering is solved by the plan of salvation.

Our estrangement is solved by the strange grace of the Cross — and we are saved from purposeless suffering by our Suffering Savior. The God with us feels all the suffering that walks with us.

“Mama?” She whispers, reaching for me from the hospital bed. “How we get there?”

I think she’s asking about how, in the midst of monitors and leads and oxygen, to get to down the hall to the playroom?

“We can just walk to the playroom, baby? One step at a time?”

But she puts her hand on my cheek:

“No, how we get there? How we get out of here and get home?” She looks so fragile, her eyes begging mine.

“As soon as your heart is stronger, I promise — we will go home.” My eyes try to calm hers.

“Can you make it all go faster, Mama?” Her eyes keep searching mine. I kiss her forehead gently.

What if our problem of suffering in the world is really our problem with the sovereignty of God?

When I don’t understand God’s timing, my heart will keep time with God’s heart.

On the evening of the 13th day, when her cardiac team feels sure she is safe, this brave beating heart rerouted and healing –  this new beta-blocker medication which will hold our girl’s post-operative heart in a steady rhythm, and we’re discharged to walk out the hospital door — I stop at the bottom of the stairs, her grinning, and the Farmer holding her the tightest, and I brave a smile through everything brimming.

Home. She gets to go home.

It’s true – this heart journey of hers is a story that never ends… a warrior road that will always be hers to bravely walk… but she smiles. This chapter is now finished and she gets to go home. 

How we do all survive the survivor’s guilt?

Why do we get another morning, why do get the grace of days, why do get to breathe at all? We got yesterday — how do live through the miracle that the hope of tomorrow becomes the reality of now? We got the last hour — why do we get more?

Why in the world did we get the miracle of now — and how do we steward the miracle of more? Is the only way to survive survivor’s guilt — is to help more survive their suffering?

And how can we not be overwhelmed, not with the question of suffering — but with the question of amazing, saving grace?

When we walk out of the hospital doors, feel the sun again on our faces — I lay my hand over her scarred heart and I am undone with the mystery of His ways and the poetry of the ordinary and I can feel the beat of the coming Holy Week and all these holy moments:

This is a broken-hearted world but we are a lion-hearted people and there is nothing now to fear.