A Message to the Men of My Church: Ten Things I Learned Through Triple Bypass Heart Surgery

What I learned from my heart surgery and why it is important for me to share this with you and others.

I learned through my heart surgery that the “ordinary” gestures of care we extend to others really become extraordinary in lives of those who are sick or are in recovery. Recovery is an odd condition: not sick anymore, but certainly not well. For me, the big challenges have been incredible weakness, dizziness, lack of mental focus, and frequent digestive distress. And there is also a lot of feeling “cut off” from the work and relationships that normally fill and enrich our days. That is why cards and calls and meals became very important. 

 

It was late August, and it was hot and humid in Charlotte. At first, I thought that explained the odd chest pressure and breathlessness which would come upon me when I was exercising. After all, I had no history of heart trouble — neither did my parents — and at least in the last several years, I had been more careful about what I was eating and more disciplined about exercise.  But, then, cutting the grass one day, it was so intense I had to actually sit down in the yard several times and rest in order to finish the job.  At first I assumed it was just the hot humid weather – denial is not just a river in Egypt.

But, finally, I was alarmed enough to go to my doctor. He scheduled a stress test, which I failed, and within 24 hours of that, a heart catheter had revealed that stents would be useless in the face of the complete blockage of two arteries of the heart and 90% blockage of a third.  To say I was living on borrowed time is an understatement.  It was basically, “Mr. Turbeville, you have coronary artery disease involving native coronary arteries of the heart with unstable agina pectoris,” and, “have this surgery now, or you will die.”  There were two especially intense episodes of angina pain the week before the surgery; quite dreadful experiences in the middle of the night when we were on a vacation trip to Maine (I now know these were actually heart attacks which did some minor permanent damage to the heart).  I do think I was days, perhaps even hours, from likely death.

But that is not why I wanted to speak to you this morning. What I want to declare to you dear brothers this morning is, “This poor man cried, and the Lord saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” (Psalm 34:6-7) So said King David, after he faked insanity before a violent pagan king and was spared.  And so say I: this poor man cried, and the Lord saved him out of all his troubles by means of my heart surgery on September 30, when I, too, was mercifully spared.

In 1979 the Lord saved my spiritual heart; in 2015 God gave me a renewed physical heart. Reformed pastors are most comfortable commenting on biblical texts, but like David sometimes we are all called to exegete our own lives –we all are — as we reflect on the grace of God through a personal trial.  Brothers, it is not that I have felt wise or discerning through this; indeed, during most of my recovery time my mind felt too weak, too scattered to ponder doctrine or Scripture.  I could receive the Word from my brothers and their preaching.

Many times online, when Nancy and I could not be present in worship, we did just that. But I could not handle and minister the Word myself, even to myself, and I frankly did not want to read anything.  I hardly opened my Bible during the first 6 weeks or so of recovery. I am very sympathetic to the words of another pastor who went through the same experience, when he said, “Don’t look to me to be profound or wise or spiritual; I am just trying to survive this thing.”

Yet in reflecting on it, I do think now there are at least ten things I learned (or re-learned) through my heart surgery over four months ago. These are not new thoughts; you have probably thought some of them yourselves.

First, the age-old knowledge is true: That no one knows the day or the hour, of Christ’s coming or of our home-going. For all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flowers falls. Or, as I said to my daughter who was recently lamenting the death of the “great” David Bowie (after all, you must understand, she is an artist herself), I said, “Well, you know, Lydia, as Bowie himself said, “ch-ch-changes!”

Death is the great Change. And men, my encounter with the “Big D” was a change I did not see coming.  My cardiologist and surgeon both told me that sometimes it is hard to figure out a cause for artery occlusion. My excellent cardiologist said, “Dean, you should not be here in my office. Truly, I do not understand the heart.”  How refreshing to find a highly educated modern man who is wise enough to know he is not omniscient!  But this much we do understand: God is sovereign. As the very wise Solomon said, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).  And in my case, a time to be spared from death!

Yet, to confess God’s sovereignty is not to pretend to know his reasons. This keystone doctrine of the sovereignty of God raises almost as many questions as it answers, but they are much easier questions to live with. Still, I do know this much: I was not spared because I deserved to be spared.  It is all of God, and it is all of his grace and favor.

Two Sundays after my surgery, a friend of mine about my age in Pennsylvania who had once been in our presbytery down here in North Carolina came home from preaching that morning and died in his home that afternoon from a massive heart attack.  Unlike me, he had no warning signs.  Certainly, he did not pass away because he was being bad, and I was not saved from death because I was being good.  The truth of the matter is all of us assume we have much time left on earth, and none of us have a guarantee of another day or hour; nor does our God owe it to us.  I really have a fresh sense of that!

Jesus told a parable of a man who trusted in his financial holdings, but God came unexpectedly to him one evening and said, “This very night, your soul is demanded of you” (Luke 12:20) Now, he did not tell us that parable to make us insecure or to prevent us from buying green bananas or investing in an IRA. He said it so that we would find everlasting security by casting ourselves upon his mercy now, this very day, not later.  So let us all gain a heart of wisdom by numbering our days (Psalm 90:12).  Time is passing, and eternity is approaching.

Secondly, while most of the usual factors for heart disease were not present in my life, one was: stress. We all have stress, but unrelieved stress is like having disease which affects all the organs and systems of your body, and none for the better. Pastoral life is stressful, especially for an introspective, already hypertensive guy like myself.  My doctor said I have been working on a bad heart for thirty years, but quite frankly, I believe it all began even earlier for me: even when I got on the big yellow bus and left home for first grade… I’m talking about stress, brothers; the stress of life!

Not now, thanks be to God, but in the early years of my ministry, I would eat a bowl of stress every morning for months at a time during seasons of particular difficulty in the ministry. During one period years ago (I’ve never shared this in public before now), the first thing I would do in the morning is go into the bathroom and wretch.  Dry heaves.  That’s stress! Things are so much better now – light years better!  But I am still going to be more careful after this surgery in choosing what tasks I accept from my presbytery.

A few weeks before my surgery last year, I was asked to help another pastor mediate a rather ugly dispute between two brothers (and two friends of mine) in my presbytery. We all met at a restaurant.  After two very difficult hours trying to bring reconciliation between these angry men, I got into my car to leave and the chest pressure I was feeling was so great I almost called 911.  It was at least fifteen minutes before I felt it safe to drive.  I need to be wiser about these things in the future, and, when given a choice, to avoid throwing myself into the heat of every battle.

You know, the youngest men I have met at the cardiac rehab center are fellow pastors. As one of the therapists there said to me, “We get a lot of you guys here.” But when that same therapist handed me a book about dealing with stressful job situations entitled Is It Worth It?,” I responded by saying, “You know, I am sure there are many things I could do to improve the way I handle stress, and this book may help,  but the truth is, it is worth it.  If I spend my life and even give my life in this work of shepherding God’s people, it is most certainly worth it.  Indeed I am a very blessed man to be a pastor.”

The third thing I learned through this was just how kind God is to a sick man like me. That may be the single largest impression I have of this whole experience: the great, great kindness of our God.  God was so kind to give this poor man chest pain to alert me to the problem.  The sovereign God was kind to give me the one of the princes of thoracic surgeons in the man who performed my surgery. I was not scheduled to have him take my case, but a distant connection through my sister’s husband, who lives in Georgia, himself a notable retired heart surgeon, unbeknownst to us, called this Charlotte surgeon out of surgery one day to insist he take my case! Did I mention that the God of all providence was kind to me?

The Lord was kind to give me an incredibly supportive family during this time. Right after my surgery, one of the nurses told me the Turbeville clan had virtually taken over the surgical waiting room!  Providence was kind to me in that I am on a pastoral staff able and willing to fill the gaps left by my absence and elders who were more than willing to pay my salary when I was doing nothing at all for the church except praying for it.  Oh, the manifold kindnesses of the Lord!  I have never felt more loved and cared for than these last four months. And brothers, to top it all off, I have not had one moment of angina, of actual heart pain, since my surgery was completed.  God is great, and God is good, but above all to me, God has been so very kind. Praise God!

Speaking of pain, my fourth point is all about pain.  Heart surgery of this kind hurts a good bit; there’s no denying it.  But except for just a few moments in the first week, it is rarely excruciating.  Still, it is an awesome and in some respects awful thing to have your sternum sawn in two, your heart stopped for seventy minutes and your blood pumped by a machine.  Even more than most surgeries, heart surgery is a kind of healing violence which invades the inner sanctum of your physical body, your chest, and is very psychologically disruptive.

In the several days after the surgery, when my already hyperactive imagination was being fueled by morphine, I had a “vision” – or at least a strong mental impression! – that a harpy was standing on my chest. For those of you not familiar with Greek mythology, a harpy is a kind of flying female demon.  And this harpy had long metallic fingernails, like Edward Scissorhands, and she would stand on my chest, and dissect my heart and eat it with a smile, saying to me, “unless I do this, you cannot live.”

That was a low point, for sure, but there is an element of truth in what my imaginary harpy said! For unless I was cut on I could not live.  Of course, the fact that pain and healing often go together should not be alien to us confessional evangelicals: for it was through the divinely-embraced pain of the cross that we were redeemed. Moses lifted up the image of the very thing that was hurting the people, the snake, so they would see it and be healed.  In a fallen world, pain and healing must often go together.  “There is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood” (Hebrews 9:22).

The fifth thing I learned through heart surgery is that nurses are angels, and drugs are a means of grace. Yes, my tongue is in my cheek, a bit, but make no mistake, these means God has appointed for us, especially in the first week after surgery, were just that important.  The surgery would not be possible without the surgeons, but the nurses are the ones who bring sweet relief and consolation to the suffering day by day and night by night.  My mother was a nurse, and I thought I respected nurses before this, but brothers, I am telling you if you are ever in my position you will be tempted to an idolatrous adoration of them.  They work incredibly hard, often with very grumpy people, and yet they typically extend kindness and concern in each room they enter.

Nancy and I made a point to express our appreciation of them and to call them by name, and they gave us the finest care, from the first thing in the morning to the middle of the night. While we believers faithfully confess God to be our Father, we should also note that there are maternal aspects to God’s nature, and Scripture describes him as a nurturing mother and gathering hen. When Jesus told of the Good Samaritan bandaging the beaten man and taking him to hospital, he was speaking of God’s own nature being reflected in a despised Samaritan.  God our Father truly loves us, body and soul, even with a mother’s tenderness.

And drugs are God’s gift as well. Scripture says God gave wine to relieve the poor man’s misery, and consider such texts as Proverbs 31 and Psalm 104.  The fact that our Savior was offered bitter vinegar instead of soothing wine on the cross was a part of his appointed suffering for us.  The morphine, Oxycodone and Tramadol that I needed for a while were “of the Lord.”  Obviously such potent gifts can be abused, but surgery without them would be immeasurably more painful, as it was for folks not so long ago.  Particularly for heart surgery is this so; the sternum is a crossroads of nerves, and their cutting involves a real challenge for pain management.  Even now, if I sneeze really hard, I may need to take some pain medicine to get to sleep that night.

Number six is where I may break down and cry. My friends, I think I never comprehended the full meaning of marriage until now. You know I was deeply moved by our pastor’s recent sermon on Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah, and how the Scripture says that his marriage to Rebekah “comforted Isaac after his mother’s death,” which Ralph Davis says shows God’s own nature toward us.

Brothers, let’s be honest: when we were young men and took a bride for ourselves, most of us had other things on our minds than comfort in our sorrows and help when we were sick and disabled. But this is a major part of God’s provision for us in marriage.  Only Nancy could stay on a cot in my hospital room 24/7.  Only Nancy could lift me out of bed at 3:00 a.m. when I could not use my arms to leverage my sitting up.   Only Nancy was there to change my catheter bag 4 times a day during the first several weeks.  Only Nancy held onto me in the shower so that I wouldn’t fall.  Only Nancy was there to encourage me the half dozen times I hit a wall and told her, “I can’t do this anymore.”  There is a reason that folks who have this surgery and are not married have a 40% higher mortality rate than folks who are married.

I will tell you this: on May 22, 1982, when my wife took the vow to support me in sickness and in health, she meant it! Certainly, marriage is not about equal giving to each other: I will never equal what she has done for me.  It’s hopeless! And most certainly, true marriage is about more than a mere matching of similar personalities.  Nancy and I, for instance, do not have a single letter in the Myers-Briggs personality test in common.  Not one! But we have Christ in common, and he has given us a love for one another in our very differences. Vive la difference!

Here is my seventh discernment: Compared to all others who preceded us, we are awesomely privileged people to live in this time with this medical culture.  How often do we spend our time just complaining about the cost and quality of our health care, and no doubt there are some real problems.  But frankly, we are but rank ingrates if we do not bless God for the progress that has been made in treating our diseases.  Yes, it is surely true that the high saturated-fat, high sugar, high processed food diet we Westerners have, combined with sedentary living, has made a mess of us, but it is also true that we have dazzling skills and technology to help us.

I was fully conscious when they used a heart catheter to look inside my arteries: I clearly remember the Led Zeppelin and Doobie Brothers music they were playing.   And when they rolled me into that ultra-high-tech room, I felt like I was on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.  The video they later showed me of my diseased heart pumping is something I will never forget.  It’s the same with the amazing regime of healing they plug you into when you have surgery like this.  From the no-slip socks they give you to wear in the hospital, to the teleporting blood monitors you take home with you, to the visits by home health nurses, to the rehabilitation regime including monitored exercise and classes on everything from drug interactions to how to read nutrition labels:  the process is simply amazing.

I have a drug in me this morning (as I will for the rest of my life), Metoprolol, which my cardiologist describes as a protective shield around my heart, and which not only reduces my blood pressure but keeps my heart rate significantly lower than it would be otherwise.  (Finally, something to make me calm down!)  Speaking of my heart rate, if I want to know what it is, I need only tap my Fitbit a few times to find out my rate right now is 72. It tells me that by sensing the motion of my body and then flashing infrared laser light onto my skin, thereby detecting the pulse rate of blood through my arteries. What helps for our health we have today!  My doctor says the goal now is for me to drop dead in my mid-nineties!

All this progress is not accidental. When we read of Jesus’ ministry in the New Testament, we see that supernatural healing of our bodies was a major aspect of it.  Crippled, leprous, bleeding and blind people were healed by him, in vast numbers. And we preachers typically say two things about that:  number one, that these miraculous signs were designed to point to the supernatural origins of Christ Jesus and his identity as the eternal Son of God. True.  The second thing we say is that these outward healings are like pictures of the greater spiritual salvation we have in God’s Son. Although we are spiritually dead in our sins, not merely sick in them, the misery which our spiritual condition produces does resemble the effects of illness.  In Christ, we have a cure for our sin-sick souls; we were blind, but now we see; we were lame; now we leap for joy in our hearts.

Again, all true! But we also can say a third thing: it is in the very nature of God and his kingdom to bring healing, wholeness and vitality. It could not be otherwise. When God arrives into a broken and dying world, people are made whole and healthy, not in a health and wealth gospel way, but in an eschatological way, in an in-breaking kingdom kind of way.  In these “last days” of the age of the Church and Spirit, it is no accident that the great hospital movement and the medical missions movement and really the entire progress of medical arts has come about principally in the Western world under the cultural influence of the Christian church.

We will never have paradise on earth until the new heavens and the new earth, but we do have foretastes of it now. And brothers, this is not a political statement, and I don’t claim to know the best way to do it, but we should do all we can to make this medical blessing available to as many of our fellow citizens as possible. All should have this who truly need it.

The eighth thing I learned through my heart surgery is that the “ordinary” gestures of care we extend to others really become extraordinary in lives of those who are sick or are in recovery. Recovery is an odd condition: not sick anymore, but certainly not well. For me, the big challenges have been incredible weakness, dizziness, lack of mental focus, and frequent digestive distress. And there is also a lot of feeling “cut off” from the work and relationships that normally fill and enrich our days.  That is why cards and calls and meals became very important.

Simple things become quite precious at times like this, and Jesus taught that he who gives his brother or sister a cup of cold water will not lose his reward in heaven. It is so good to be, as Bob Stewart has said, “ordinary Christians, serving each other in ordinary ways.”

I could speak of so many of you who were so helpful, but let me speak of the McCanns. I’ll never forget the day Lindsey brought the girls over to see us. To be around such sweet children was a red-letter day for us.  It was the same way when the Smoak children were brought to see us.  When Sean came by at another time I spent much of the afternoon with him, and we laughed so hard I had to double my pain meds that night.  Some of you even came over and cut my grass for me – for several months.  Claudia Waters’ pumpkin bread is about the only thing I could eat the first few days after the surgery.

I could go on and on. Friends, the true church of Jesus Christ really is what the Bible says it is.  And when Nancy and I were able to first return to public worship, it was an incredibly vivid emotional experience for me. Oh, the extraordinary effects of the ordinary means!

In ninth place is this: there really is a peace that passes our full understanding. Christ himself gives us his peace in our distress. Honestly, we had so many medical tests to take and decisions to make in those couple of days right before the surgery, that, other than some brief prayers, we didn’t avail ourselves much of our spiritual resources.  But at 5:30 a.m. on September 30th, right before I was wheeled into the operating room, Nancy and I had some quiet personal time in a kind of residential room with dimly lit lamps and a bed in it.  After the person who shaved all the hair off my body left the room, I lay down on the bed in my hospital gown.  Nancy lay down next to me. Suddenly the full weight of what was about to happen hit us both.  I said to Nancy, “I don’t mind telling you, Nancy, I feel pretty scared now.”

In 34 years of marriage, I don’t think I had ever said that to her as her husband. She confessed she felt the same way, and she suggested we turn to the Word together, reading it off our phones since we did not have a Bible there. But we were too choked up to read the text.  In a brilliant stroke, she turned on her phone and accessed the English Standard Version app and turned on the audio function.

She said, “What do you want to have read to us?” I immediately said, “Psalm 139 and Romans 8.”  And brothers, I tell you, in that moment, as those words were read to us, Christ himself spoke his own Word to us:

O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.  You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.  Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:1-12 ESV).

And then we read from Romans that:

the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” And that, “even as the whole creation groans with us waiting our full liberation, so we,  who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies… And that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. For we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  

And we read that

“if God is for us, who can be against us? For who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For we are sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”  (Romans 8:18-39 ESV).

As these passages were read, we wept – no, we sobbed, and sobbed, with groanings too deep for words. The Spirit was praying through us. We have never wept like this before. But brothers, please understand: there was no sorrow in it, not a bit; only great relief, and great release. It was not that the Lord assured me the surgery would be successful.  I want to stress that.  I did not have a so-called “word of knowledge.” I had instead the knowledge of God’s Word in Scripture.  Through it he assured me he would never leave me, never leave us, and take care of us no matter what happened in that operating room.  Brothers, I tell you Christ himself spoke to us, and we had, and we have, infallible assurance of that fact!  Reflecting on the word “anointing” in 2 Cor. 1:21,  John Calvin wrote, “God, by pouring down upon us the heavenly grace of the Spirit, does, in this manner, seal upon our hearts the certainty of his own Word.”

Our hearts were sealed in that room that morning. I have a good friend who does not allow his children to use the word “awesome” except when referring to God. Nancy and I felt awesomely privileged to have God speak to us in this certain way in that uncertain moment.  We were, and we still are, wonder-struck at it.  So, I did not leave that room with less fear. I left that room with no fear.  I left that room as happy as I have ever been in my life, and as light as a feather, and I am not exaggerating.  I was, in fact, ecstatic.  My friend and fellow pastor Nathan Trice saw me in the hallway, and he later said, “Dean, I’ve never seen anyone so happy to be going into surgery.  As I walked past you down the hallway from where you had come, I kept looking for Jesus to come around the corner.” This was Christ’s supreme gift to us.  Brothers, I have been privileged like few men are, to go to the edge, before the great abyss of death, the last enemy, and the word I bring back to you is that Christ is as much there as he is here on a Sunday morning in May.

Lastly, number ten.  Most all of us men think of ourselves as doers and workers and givers.  It is our job to initiate things and accomplish things and take care of people and be active in our lives.  Passivity is considered unmanly and distinctly not admirable.  Indeed, our worst-case scenario is to be a dependent, a burden to others: to our children, our spouses, and our friends in Christ.

But we are quite wrong about that, during certain seasons. In all our lives, there will come God-appointed times when our entire job is to simply be helpless and not fight against it.  To be a fifty-six-year old man, days after surgery, tubes coming out of my chest and other parts of my body as well, lying on my bed naked, with a twenty year old woman giving me a sponge bath.  To be the paralyzed man on the pallet who is let down by his friends through the roof.  To not be the one to wash the Lord’s feet, but to have him wash ours. As Jesus later said to Peter: Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). It may not be martyrdom in our case, but still we must be willing to turn ourselves over to others who love us and who are charged to care for us, even as Jesus, in his passive obedience to his Father, was willing to turn himself over to those who hated him.  We can do this because we know that no circumstance: not life, not death, not anything in all the creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, and that in our physical weakness, his strength is displayed through our faith.  And by doing so, by letting others take care of us, we also enable them to fulfill their own sacred duties to the Lord.

And so, brothers, to conclude: I am not ashamed of the big vertical scar on my chest. The first pastoral call I made after my heart surgery was to visit Ruth Ann Wilson right before Christmas.  The day that Nancy and I saw her, her daughter Reba Ball was there with her five boys to put up the Christmas tree.  You remember that last year we prayed for little Seth when he had open heart surgery. Seth saw me and said, “Pastor Dean, we both had the same thing.”  And I congratulated him and we fist-bumped.  And then Seth said, “If you show me yours, I will show you mine.” And then I did something I have never done before in all my years of pastoral visitation – we lifted up our shirts and shared our scars.

Christ’s scars, his own crucifixion scars, are in heaven right now, and they will speak in all eternity of his grace to his elect people. I don’t know if my scar, and Seth’s scar, will be with us in our resurrections.  But if they are, they will speak of the same thing they witness to right now:  Christ’s great grace to his people.  In the words of the hymn, O Love That Will Not Let Me Go, a link to a choral version of which Andy McCray sent me on a dark day several months ago, we often sing this line:

O Joy, that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee, I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain, that morn shall tearless be.

And so it is brothers, and so it will be. Glory to God! Amen!  

Dean Turbeville is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), and serves as Pasto- in-Residence at Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Charlotte, NC.