Linked with God at dawn: moving moments with a San chaplain

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I had just gone to bed when the “on call” phone rang and I was asked to come to the hospital to support a family who had lost their loved one. It was an expected death and the family was prepared for the inevitable. An hour later as I was leaving the ward, I thought of Ron,* a patient in a different ward. He had told me many times that he was unable to sleep, more often than not. I decided to stop by and check in on this patient. 

Upon entering Ron’s room it was clear he was indeed awake. As soon as he saw me, Ron said, “It is no coincidence you are here at this time. I need you badly, I am so troubled, so uncomfortable. I’m not able to sleep, I need your help.” He started crying profusely. 

I sat down beside his bed listening, as he poured out his heart in tears, pain and agony—a 49-year old man on his deathbed. 

Permit me to give you a brief peek into the background of this individual: 

Eight months prior, Ron went to the doctor regarding a minor procedure for a dermal irritation on his genitals. What followed was endless pain; the wound never healed, more surgeries, biopsy, and multiple amputations, diagnosed as an aggressive cancer—leaving open wounds all over including the inner thighs.

After eight months in excruciating pain—bedridden and hopelessly searching for a cure—Ron decided not to take active treatment, based on the two options before him: one being an estimated extra one year with pain and the other sudden death.

I spent hours with Ron exploring these options, his family dynamic, his financial situation, his spirituality, his priorities, meaning and values. I was beside him when he made the choice to die sooner rather than suffer in pain and be bed ridden for another year. 

I spent hours with his wife and 13-year-old son. Ron did not allow his son to visit him in hospital at first because he thought it was a shame for his son to see him in his condition. After repeated conversations we’d had about their son, the couple decided to bring him to the hospital to visit his dad. On a Friday evening Ron called and left a strained voicemail on my phone saying that his son was coming to visit on Saturday at 11am. He asked if I could be there. 

The young man stunned me with the maturity he exhibited. He was bold, brave and courageous. He talked, laughed and shared jokes for about an hour. After that he walked out of the room with me. We went to the cafe; it was his birthday. As soon as we sat down with some juice and snacks, even before I completed my first question, the boy burst into tears and never stopped crying for the next 40 minutes. 

It was too difficult for him to accept that his dad would not be coming home again. It was hard for him to understand why his dad was choosing not to fight the disease. He had questions Why? Why now? Why my dad? And most of all, why am I not allowed to visit him in the hospital? 

Upon returning to Ron’s bedside the 13-year-old looked in his father’s eyes and said, “Dad, I may not have told you this before but I want you to know that you are my hero. Even though I play video games and talk about superheroes, in my life I have only one hero, a true hero—you are my true hero Dad.” I do not know how I held back my tears but I did; while the father and son embraced and went on talking about the beautiful memories they shared, how much they love each other, how much they would miss each other, how important they are in each other’s lives. 

So what happened that night at 2am when I walked into Ron’s room? Why was he so troubled? 

He was troubled because a close friend of his visited him that evening and told him he was committing suicide by not accepting active treatment. His friend also gave him a book on healing and asked him to read two pages which talks of sin, guilt and God’s punishment. He was so troubled thinking that he was indeed committing suicide, that he and his wife were being punished by God for their sins. 

He said, “God was never a part of my life, I did not need God all the years of my life, is that why I am being punished? I think there is a God somewhere but I have nothing to do with him.” For hours he had been battling with these thoughts and at that moment his only source of help was the chaplain who just walked into his room at 2am. 

What followed was the most important and heart-touching conversation in Ron’s life. We talked about life, death, suicide, cancer, Ron’s current situation, the choices he had made and God—a God of love and healing and not a God of punishment. Life beyond this life with that God of love. At 4:40am that morning Ron accepted Jesus Christ as the Lord of his life!!! I held his hand and prayed, committing his life to Jesus Christ. Yes, Ron was linked with God at dawn. 

A few days later, I organised an anointing service in Ron’s room, inviting all the staff members in the ward to join. Dr Branimir Schubert, former San director for mission and culture, anointed Ron. Just as we were concluding the anointing service Ron requested that we sing again, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” 

A friendship that is new, a friendship so rich, a friendship he built in his deathbed, a friendship that was founded in suffering, a friendship that was the only source of hope for a man who endured the most wretchedness of suffering one would have ever seen. What a day that will be when Ron meets his friend Jesus. When Jesus takes Ron by his hand and leads him through the Promised Land. What a day that will be, for Ron is linked with Christ for eternity. 

As I penned these words, in the early hours of another dawn, I was unaware that this day Ron would take his last breath. I bid farewell to a man who had become infinitely less like a patient I sat beside to minister and more like a long lost brother I had the privilege of getting to know in the most trying hours of his life. I lost my brother today; his wife lost a loving, faithful husband; his son lost his true hero; and his brother-in law lost his dearest friend. He will be missed but hope fills my heart knowing that I will see him again because he was linked to God at dawn. 

*Name changed to protect privacy. 

Stenoy (Steve) Stephenson  is a Spiritual Care Services chaplain at Sydney Adventist Hospital, Wahroonga, NSW

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