Not Until She Graduates

This story was recently accepted for publication in the Chicken Soup for the Soul  book coming out in February about Miracles. Get a peak preview of the book:

In my thirty years of practicing medicine, no patient impacted me like Doris Baxter. Through Doris, I personally witnessed God’s grace and power—a bonafide miracle.

Doris, a pleasant forty-seven-year old librarian, took great pleasure in mothering her bubbly, fifteen-year-old daughter, Julie. Since Doris and her husband had waited seven long years to conceive Julie, they savored every moment with their daughter as a blessing from God. At her annual check-ups, Doris beamed while she displayed photos of Julie singing a solo in church, or kicking the winning soccer goal, or decorating a lopsided birthday cake she had baked for her father. In fact, Doris seemed more interested in sharing about her daughter than complaining about a creaky knee, ten-pound weight gain, or hot flashes, like so many other women her age.

One year, however, Doris came in for her annual physical complaining of profound fatigue, nosebleeds, easy bruising, and chronic sinus infections. A battery of tests confirmed my suspicion: acute leukemia. The leukemia cells, called blasts, had crowded out the healthy cells in her bone marrow  (platelets, which prevent bleeding, red blood cells, which carry oxygen to every organ in the body, and white blood cells, which fight infection.)

I referred her to a top oncologist in Nashville, and she began the first of five grueling cycles of chemotherapy. Hair loss, nausea, worsening fatigue, and frequent blood transfusions became Doris’s constant companions.

Because of Julie, Doris was desperate to live. So desperate, she probably would have snuck into Mexico hidden in the bottom of an avocado truck to obtain illegal Laetrile, if she’d thought it would cure her leukemia. She and Julie did everything together—church choir, camping trips, Girl Scouts, shopping, cooking, you-name-it. Thus, they had never suffered the “you’ve-ruined-my-life, I-hate-you, Mom,” drama that some teenage girls and mothers weather on the rocky path to adulthood. The thought of leaving Julie to fend for herself during her tumultuous teen years reduced Doris to tears and many sleepless nights. It was unthinkable.

One day, after a particularly rough cycle of chemotherapy, Doris gripped my hand and with pleading eyes said, “Please pray for me, that this chemotherapy works, and that God allows me to see Julie graduate from high school. I don’t need to grow old; I just don’t want to abandon Julie when she’s still in high school. Is three years too much to ask of God?”

Tears filled my eyes. As a mother of two children myself, I could only imagine her maternal drive to live long enough to usher her daughter into adulthood. What if my little girl, Eliza, was about to face life with no mommy? With a hand on Doris’s shoulder, I promised, “I will pray for you every single day, Doris, and I’ll get my weekly prayer group to pray also.”

The creases in her face relaxed. “Thank you,” she whispered, squeezing my hand weakly. “All we can do is pray. The rest is in God’s hands.”

We thought our prayers were answered when the blasts disappeared and her blood counts climbed toward normal. We all rejoiced—she was responding to the chemotherapy! But after her fifth cycle, the blasts returned and her blood counts plummeted again. Hopes dashed, we had to admit her leukemia had grown resistant to the chemotherapy drug.

“We’ll try another drug,” her oncologist said, refusing to give up. But it, too, proved a failure. Doris agreed to an experimental drug in a national leukemia trial, but the new drug caused a severe rash and painful mouth sores. Worse yet, it worked no better than the first two drugs.

What about a bone marrow transplant? Unfortunately, no one in her family was a match. Thus, unless some random stranger in the national bone marrow registry had bone marrow that matched Doris’s perfectly, she was out of luck.

With leukemia blasts hogging all the space in Doris’s bone marrow, she required blood and platelet transfusions almost daily. But soon, her body developed antibodies to the platelets and she destroyed the healthy cells within hours of the transfusion.

Her prognosis looked bleak. But Doris had unwavering faith. She, along with her family, church, friends, and doctors prayed for a miracle. Her one persistent prayer? “Just let me see Julie graduate from high school.”

Infections and nose bleeds so profuse she required frequent trips to the Emergency room now plagued her. One night, disaster struck: she hemorrhaged into her lungs and brain and was rushed to the ER, already comatose. Doctors connected her to a respirator, as she had quit breathing on her own. Things looked so hopeless the hematologist called in her family to say their final goodbyes. “She won’t survive the night,” he told them sadly. He advised a “Do Not Resuscitate” order.

Later that night, I came by her room wishing, praying, there was something, anything, I could do to turn things around. I poured over her medical record and shook my head. There was nothing more I could do. I placed a hand on Doris’s shoulder and offered up a heartfelt plea. “God, I pray for a miracle. Doris just wants to see her daughter finish high school. If it is your will, please grant her that.” I exited her room suspecting this would be the last time I’d see her this side of heaven. My eyes pooled, as I’d grown fond of Doris and her family. Why, God? Why Doris? Her family needs her, and she’s such a nice lady.

Amazingly, Doris survived the night, and over the next few days, with no treatment whatsoever, all of her blood counts unexplainably increased. Within four days, the blasts were gone. What was going on? Then, her breathing improved enough to come off the ventilator. But everyone’s unspoken fear? Will she remain in a coma, and if she wakes up, how much brain damage will she have?

One morning, she suddenly bolted awake and started singing to the praise music playing in the background! She moved all four extremities, swallowed water, talked, walked, and acted normal. We doctors scratched out heads, perplexed. How could she have sustained such a massive bleed into her brain and come out of it unscathed? And why had the blasts disappeared? It made no sense.

It made no sense, that is, until Doris shared her near death experience with me. Doris said while she was comatose, Jesus appeared to her in a translucent white robe and told her He had heard her prayers and would heal her long enough to see her daughter graduate from high school. I stared at her, barely able to breathe. God had granted her a miracle!

Just as promised, for the next three years, Doris suffered no serious infections or bleeds and her blood remained blast-free. She enjoyed cheering for Julie at soccer matches, she helped her select a luscious peach prom dress with matching shoes, and she snapped untold pictures of Julie in her graduation cap and gown. Julie headed off to college to begin a four-year program in nursing.

Unfortunately, within three months of Julie starting college, the leukemia returned with a vengeance, and this time nothing stopped it. Doris died of an overwhelming infection shortly after receiving a bone marrow transplant (donated from a stranger whose bone marrow had matched hers exactly.)

Of course, questions remained. Why didn’t God heal Doris permanently, instead of just three years? I have no idea, but I suspect because we only prayed for her to live long enough to see her daughter graduate from high school.

Julie, not surprisingly, became an oncology nurse. While at times sad and tearful about her mother’s death, especially on Mother’s Day and Christmas, she still marvels that God allowed her mother to survive a massive brain and lung hemorrhage, (that carried a zero percent chance of survival without divine intervention) just so Julie could have her mother around another three years. Julie carries pictures in her wallet of her mother styling her hair for the Homecoming dance, and standing in front of Old Faithful, and riding a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyons. “Those three extra years with Mom mean everything to me because I know they were a gift from God. And now I know, with no doubts, where Mom is. She was here on borrowed time. I miss her terribly, but I know someday I’ll be with her in heaven.”

Job 9:10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. (New International Version)