“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” – John 14:27
“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” – Psalm 27:1
July 23, 2014, Panajachel, Guatemala
I was still smiling as I hopped into the boat that would take me over to Panajachel for a quick doctor’s appointment. The morning I spent reuniting with the elders here in Santiago was a homecoming as sweet as the strawberry cake we ate together in celebration of my 29th birthday. I could still hear Concepcion’s voice echoing back to me along with the other elders as we sang the songs I had translated into Tz’utujil. A quick trip across the lake and I’d be back the next day to visit some of the elders in their homes.
The pain below my right hip that I had experienced for about a week had become almost excruciating. Each bounce in the boat over Lake Atitlan’s waves reminded me why I had scheduled an appointment for what I was sure was just an uncomfortable cyst. About fifteen minutes into my doctor’s appointment, the ultrasound results and physical exam confirmed a hernia near the femoral artery. Dra. De Paz, a surgeon who just happened to be returning to her office next door to collect a few forgotten items, was summoned to examen me and look at the ultrasound results. As she pushed below my hip, I yelped in pain and tears filled my eyes. She looked at me and said that this was an urgent case due to the hernia being so close to the femoral artery and that one of the organs being suffocated by the hernia could be the appendix.
“We must operate on you now,” she said, my doctor nodding in agreement behind her. “It is a simple procedure, only lasts about a half hour, but we need to do it now to save whatever organ is being suffocated – we can see something is stuck in there on the ultrasound.”
“Are you sure it is not just a cyst?” I said in disbelief at the quick turn of events.
“No,” she said, “It is definitely not a cyst…this is a femoral hernia and you need to be operated on now. I can drive you to the hospital myself and bring you back tomorrow afternoon.”
Still shocked that surgery was needed, I went to the Sharing the Dream hostel in Panajachel to call my parents in the United States…
“Dad? Um…You know how I had a doctor’s appointment today? Well, it isn’t a cyst…it is a hernia and they tell me it is serious, that I need to be operated on now because there is an organ stuck in the hernia and something about an artery and they want to make sure they can save whatever is being suffocated and they say it is urgent, that they would have to sign a waver for me to leave their office without being operated on so that if anything happens to me they are not legally or medically responsible…I have the number of the doctor here, so write it down…I can’t believe this, I mean, I’ve never had surgery before, let alone in a foreign country…and I’m supposed to fly home to y’all Sunday and then to Taize next week…I’m scared, dad.” I began to cry.
“You sound panicked,” my dad said, in the deep, soothing voice that cut through my fear. “There are a lot of voices in this, but what is God saying to you when you quiet down and listen?”
I sat in silence with the phone receiver on my ear, tears slowly coming down my cheeks.
Suddenly, a wave of comfort and peace swept over me. It was the feeling of home – the comfort I had felt many times over this year when I had sat on the shore of Lake Atitlan, when I listened to Quichua women singing the Psalms in the Andes, when I was in the hospital in Bolivia, when I heard a Guarani woman tell me the freedom from fear she found in Christ, when I gazed up at the new stars I had never seen before blinking in the Brazilian night sky, when I had felt at home being invited into the stories of the people I had met along this journey.
It was the sense of home I feel every time I partake of the eucharist. I knew that it was not my own calm, but that of the Spirit who had hovered over the waters at the beginning of time and has been hovering over me since birth and Who had led me back to this place.
I moved the phone closer to my mouth. “I feel God say…that this needs to happen, that somehow this is supposed to happen, that I should trust the people here and do the surgery now. That is what I feel God saying.” My muscles were relaxed and I heard the tone of my voice change. “I feel the Holy Spirit in this, dad. She is here in this.”
“I have no bad feelings about this, Rachel,” my dad replied, “You are going to be fine. I love you.”
I phoned mom quickly and updated her. “We hear the peace of the Lord in your voice, Rachel,” she and my bonus-dad said to me. From within the depths of my voice, I replied, “The Lord is my Light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?” It was that Spirit’s hovering that drew this promise to my lips as I said good-bye and headed out the door.
My surgeon, Dra. De Paz, drove me to the hospital and friends of mine awaited me in the lobby. Within an hour I was being prepped for surgery in the tiny private hospital, which in the dark of the evening looked more like a small backpacker’s guesthouse than anything in a medical magazine. As the anesthesia kicked in I remember saying, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?” It was the song I had sung earlier with the Tz’utujil elders in Santiago…
I remember waking up in the middle of surgery.
The anesthesia from the mask had worn off, but the spinal anesthesia injection that numbed me from the ribcage down was still working. A curtain separated me from seeing what was going on, but I could feel a tugging sensation on my organs. I looked to my left and saw the anesthesiologist sitting there with concerned eyes.
“Que esta pasando?” (“What is going on?”), I asked him in Spanish.
“The surgery is lasting longer than we thought…it is more complicated,” he said back to me.
“Am I alright?” I asked.
“They are working hard,” he responded…the answer contained no hope or assurance.
I looked at him and in desperation asked, “Can you please recite me a Psalm?”
His head dropped and he looked back at me with an apologetic gaze, “I am so sorry. I am a Christian, but I don’t know any Psalms by heart…” His gaze shifted around and then fixed back on me. “Please forgive me,” he whispered.
“Of course, I forgive you,” I whispered back as I closed my eyes again. “The Lord is my Light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?” I said under my breath.
I awoke with Dra. De Paz speaking over me.
It turns out the surgery was much more complicated than expected and lasted two and a half hours. When Dra. De Paz opened me up, she discovered that intestinal lining was being pushed through the hernia and was tangled around the femoral artery. This meant that extra precaution taken so that the femoral artery would not be cut while she removed the intestinal lining that was tangled around it.
One wrong cut and I would bleed out on the operating table.
Leaving the artery alone would mean the artery would suffocate, cutting off blood to the heart and I would die of cardiac arrest…
“I don’t know how much longer you would have lived had we not discovered this during surgery,” Dra. De Paz said to me as I was wheeled to the recovery room.
“Thank you…You saved my life,” I wept to her as my mind tried to comprehend all she had said.
“No, I was just an instrument,” she replied. “To God be the glory.”
The next day as Dra. De Paz drove me back to my friends’ house in Panajachel she asked me, “What church do you belong to?”
“Well, I’m Lutheran,” I replied.
She squinted her brown eyes at me. “Do you remember that you were singing during the surgery?” she asked intently.
“No!” I responded in surprise. “I was singing?”
“Yes!” she said to me, “You were singing a hymn. I told you that you have a beautiful voice, but the anesthesiologist said that you were already asleep. You just kept singing throughout the surgery. You sang about God’s love. The other surgeon looked at me from across the table and said to me, ‘We are operating on a servant of God.’ And I knew that it was true and that you were going to make it.”
Tears filled my eyes as her car turned a corner and I saw the blue waters of Lake Atitlan. I felt a familiar peace – the hovering of the Spirit – the Peace that calms chaos, the One who speaks life over the waters.
Looking back at a week ago, I know that it was NOT my own strength that carried me through the many decisions and circumstances enveloped in an evening that could have turned out much differently. I cannot do anything but praise God for placing me in the hands of these incredible people that saved my life from something that would have killed me had they not discovered it during the surgery. I raise my hands in awe and bow my head in adoration for the loving-kindness that God has shown me through this whole miracle – through the surgeons, my host family in Panajachel, my friends from Santiago across the lake, and the prayers from hundreds around the globe.
As I spend the next four weeks here in Guatemala recovering from surgery, I will continue to write and reflect on the incredible moments this storycatching journey has held. So stay tuned for more blog posts and stories over the next month! Although this August will look quite different than originally planned, I am assured that the Holy Spirit has led me back here for “such a time as this.”
Thank you for your prayers and constant support on this wonderful and unexpected journey. I cannot express enough how honored I am to be the GPF recipient this year and continue to look forward to all that God has in store for the next month.
In Awe of the Spirit’s Hovering,