Mike and Kathy Skerritt, along with Mike’s siblings, have a little farm in North East Pennsylvania. At the first of the year I take a week-long retreat to rest, read, work out the sermons for the next year and mostly to be quiet enough, for long enough to hear the still small voice of God. It is one of, if not my favorite weeks of the entire year. Soon after I arrived in Cleveland, after hearing Mike talk about the farm, I asked if there was any way I could use it for my retreat! He loved the idea, I fell in love with the farm and I’ve been dragging myself back there every January since.
“Dragging myself” back there is an important phrase for understanding this story. Normally when I say dragging myself back there I’m simply talking about the wear and tear of a year of ministry, finished off by Christmas at FBC. Every year I’m exhausted; every year I’m in need of the replenishment of that precious week at the farm.
This year, dragging myself to the farm had a few extra connotations. In addition to Advent and Christmas this year I underwent 10 radiation treatments on my shoulder to treat a tumor. The pain, by which we discovered the tumor in the first place, had only gotten worse through the course of treatment and was likely to last a few more weeks. So there was an extra layer of tiredness and some pain accompanying me to the farm this year. Then, to be honest, I was experiencing unusual shortness of breath whenever I exerted myself, even climbing the stairs to my office. The day after Christmas I was concerned enough about this to go get it checked out. The doctor was attentive, checked everything, told me I needed to make an appointment with the oncologist who would be able to tell if there was any connection to the tumor. The doctor said, “I’m not finding any medical reason for this, I wouldn’t be surprised if you just need some extra rest coming off of your radiation.”
These first three paragraphs are offered so that you might have at least the tiniest understanding of why I drove through a snow storm, not feeling at all well, to keep my appointment with God at the farm.
I arrived in the wee hours of the morning. Taking my stuff from the car to the house I had an inkling I was in trouble. By the time I walked the first load up a slight, snowy incline to the front porch I was gasping for breath. I sat down for a few moments, recovered nicely, and decided that if I took breaks every few steps up the incline I would be fine. I was. Mission accomplished!
The next day I rested all day; no breathing issues. I called Kay and talked to her and told her that since I only experienced the shortness of breath on exertion what I really wanted to do was just take it easy and use the week for replenishment and then I’d get back to the doctor just as soon as I got home. I promised also to email my pulmonologist, which I did. Unfortunately after my beautiful first day, I woke the next morning experiencing shortness of breath while just sitting in the recliner chair in which I had chosen to spend the night. When I need divine assistance in making a decision, even in a panic, I get as still as I can get and just wait….and almost always the next right thing to do comes to me. And this is how I made the decisions that got me up and dressed, with a plan for getting myself to the hospital.
One of my very best friends happens to be a chaplain at the Guthrie Clinic not terribly far from the farm. So I called him, he told me how to get there and promised to meet me at the entrance to the campus. Robert Packer Hospital is a big hospital in rural PA, and it was the right choice. What I was experiencing at that moment was so unusual. I’ve had this unusual chronic disease for 27 years called thymoma which has recurred numerous times in my chest, and for which I have had lots of treatment that affects my lungs. I’ve had so much radiation over these many years that it’s difficult for doctors to read CT scans of my chest because they don’t know if they’re looking at a tumor or the aftermath of radiation.
The diagnosis was pneumonia; they admitted me primarily because they could not get my oxygen level to a safe amount. I was put on six liters of oxygen and they started broad band IV antibiotics while they waited on cultures to develop and test results to return. In the mean time, after they looked at the first CT scan, I urged them to contact my doctors at the Cleveland Clinic who had been treating me since 2007; which they did. Jeff stayed with me all day; his wife Jo Ann prepared for Kay to move in with them for the duration. The handprints of God were already obvious everywhere on the journey….but it was just beginning.
Unfortunately I didn’t respond to treatment. After consulting with my doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, my doctor at Guthrie concluded that the difficulty could well be related to the thymoma and/or the treatments I’ve gotten through the years, and that I needed to get back to the Cleveland Clinic and the doctors who had been treating me.
There were several complications to this very logical idea. I was still getting 6 liters of oxygen (which is a lot) and no one felt it safe for me to make a six hour trip by ambulance or automobile. So I needed to be airlifted to Cleveland. Getting that approved by my healthcare provider would be challenging under the best of circumstances….and we have anything but the best of circumstances with our insurance carrier right now. At the end of last year our health provider sold to another company. In the transition following the sale the new health provider cancelled all their contracts with the Cleveland Clinic as of January 1 and switched them to University Hospital. I’d been given an extension to complete the radiation on my arm, but nothing more.
This meant that we were seeking approval for me to be airlifted to and then treated at the Cleveland Clinic knowing full well that the new provider no longer had contracts with the Clinic. I am a man of great faith in God; we had tons of people praying. But I have to admit, I wasn’t too optimistic about the chances of this being approved. Guthrie put the requests in to the new carrier and they immediately denied all the requests, including coverage for my admission to and treatment at Guthrie.
Guthrie persisted to press the new company without much success. And then, the head of social services at Guthrie insisted that the medical director of my new provider have a conversation with the young woman hospitalist, Dr. Acharya, who was treating me and speaking to all the Cleveland doctors. That conversation happened, and in one swipe of a pen, the medical director of the new health provider approved everything; treatment at Guthrie, the medevac to Cleveland, admission to and treatment at the Cleveland Clinic. When Dr. Acharya told me I thought I must have misunderstood her….to me the only explanation is God and the power of prayer.
Once we were assured that everything had been approved, Kay headed back home so she could be there when I arrived. Within a few hours all was arranged and The Cleveland Clinic sent their jet, two pilots, a nurse practitioner and an RN to nearby Elmira New York. They fetched me at the hospital, I was taken by ambulance to the jet, 45 minutes later we landed at Burke Airport in Cleveland and 30 minutes later I was admitted to the Cleveland Clinic. It was/is surreal. What a God we serve!
Forgive a drastic oversimplification but after looking at all the new data and examining the scans my doctors at the Clinic concluded that my pneumonia was caused by the radiation treatments I’d received in December. This changed the course of treatment and very slowly but surely I am improving. The challenge is to get my lungs well enough so that I don't require the oxygen. It will be hard to preach on oxygen.
From my perspective the handprints of God are all over this journey; in small ways, in dramatic ways, in an astounding number of ways. As a person of faith I believe this. I don’t have doubts about God’s involvement in this journey nor doubts about the power of the hundreds of people who have been praying since they learned of my crisis.
Still, I readily admit that I don’t understand it. God is not a magician or a celestial Santa Claus that can be summoned for our purposes. God doesn’t love some of us more than others. Philip Yancey’s studies have led him to conclude that the Bible makes it clear that God’s chief commitment is the commitment to human freedom. We’re not puppets on a string with God in control of our every move. And in honoring this commitment Yancey says God acts only rarely in a way that contradicts the laws of nature.
Throughout the ages there have been large numbers of the faithful that wanted to remove all the supernatural, all the mystery from our faith…and in the process some of them have insisted that prayer is for the delusional; that God doesn’t intervene in response to our praying and so they’ve stopped praying. I’ve read as many books on prayer as on any other single topic and I will tell you that after all that I’ve read, though I’ve been helped immensely by the reading, I don’t understand it. I can’t answer my own questions about prayer, let alone yours.
But I can tell you this story, and I can tell you, having seen it as up close and personal as anyone else, that mountains were moved in this journey when people were praying for them to be moved. I received the exact guidance I needed in a given moment and met up with exactly the right person for a particular situation. Kay and I are daily being sustained in ways that make no sense under the circumstance and that I’m alive today to tell the story. All of this has happened and is happening under the umbrella of literally hundreds of people who are praying for us.
I don’t understand it but it seems to me that the proper response to it, what my heart cries out to sing, what I believe most pays tribute to the God from whom all these blessings have come whether I understand it or not is THANK YOU! Thank You God! Thank you!
In gratitude for all your love, support and PRAYERS!
Rev. Martin Rolfs Massaglia
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