Patricia E. Clawson
Three days after Anneke Schippers was born, the daughter of Michael and Rachel Schippers had open heart surgery. When that didn't solve the problem, she waited in Loma Linda University Children's Hospital in Loma Linda, California, for four and one-half months for a heart transplant. Then she stayed in recovery another four months.
The long, lonely ordeal was very difficult for Michael and Rachel, who ended up staying near the hospital in a Ronald McDonald House for eight months, waiting for an available heart for Anneke and missing Gideon, their two-year-old son. Gideon stayed part of the time with his grandparents, John and Sylvia Mahaffy, in Newberg, Oregon. John is the pastor of Trinity OPC in Newberg, and the Schippers are members there.
Knowing that one out of four children die while waiting for a new heart, Anneke's parents spent the time reading and singing to her. And while they rocked her, always careful of the IVs and feeding tubes that kept her alive, they prayed nonstop.
People around the world rallied to their support—a gift that brings immeasurable comfort to parents of sick children, who sometimes spend days or even months in a hospital bed. Parents of seriously ill patients struggle with fear, fatigue, and sometimes fatality. How can the church family minister to parents whose lives have narrowed to a world of harsh fluorescent lights, hanging TV sets, and the inescapable smell of both illness and healing?
Most of the Schippers' church friends weren't able to visit Anneke, but those who did visit them would often read the Bible and pray with them. Many sent cards with Bible verses on them and money stuffed inside. "We heard of people praying for us all over the world, and I could literally feel the power of it," said Rachel. "It was so humbling to see where unexpected help would come from and to feel the love and concern of brothers and sisters in Christ whom we didn't even know!"
The Schippers' home church sponsored a yard sale to help with medical expenses. An eleven-year-old cousin held a garage sale. Strangers sent cards of encouragement. Some offered childcare for Gideon or brought meals. Others bought gifts for both Anneke and Gideon.
A few, however, brought unwanted advice or said things without thinking, such as assuming their child wouldn't recover or be normal. Surprisingly, some close friends disappeared.
Anneke recovered from her heart transplant at her home in Oregon. Last June, however, three-and-one-half-year-old Anneke had a biopsy. During the procedure, her heart was perforated and she had to be resuscitated. She returned home two weeks later with stuffed animals, books, balloons, flowers, blankets, and two very relieved parents.
"We have celebrated each birthday, each heart anniversary, each clean biopsy with praise and thanksgiving," said Rachel. "She is a daily reminder to us of God's love, grace, and mercy. She is our miracle."
Other parents remember similar experiences. Anna McNeill, daughter of Brett and Jen McNeill, who live in Olympia, Washington, was diagnosed with cancer when she was two years old. (Brett is the pastor of Reformation OPC in Olympia.) While Anna underwent chemotherapy and surgery to remove her tumor, her parents ended up spending two months in the Ronald McDonald House across from Children's Hospital in Seattle. Family cared for older sister Emma, then four. A year later, during additional surgery, newborn Ellie stayed with Brett and Jen at the Ronald McDonald House.
Because of the distance to the hospital, the McNeills had no change of clothes for four days. They also were denied insurance because Anna's tumor was discovered during their thirty-day insurance probation period. Friends and family helped out, and some sent prepaid credit cards as gifts, which were extremely helpful.
During their stay, the McNeills especially appreciated visitors who called first and then stayed only fifteen minutes. During surgery, they valued having the elders, close family, and a fellow minister stop by to read Scripture and pray. However, it was stressful and tiring to have too many visitors. Cards were appreciated more. "It was too hard to keep up conversation or feel like I had to entertain when I felt so down," said Jen.
Although Brett had been pastor of their congregation for only two months, the members provided for everyday needs, such as meals, watching Emma, praying, giving gifts to both girls, and being patient with their new pastor, who came home on weekends to preach. "We received cards and gifts from fellow Christians we'd never met, mostly from other Orthodox Presbyterians, telling us how they were praying for Anna and were hurting with us," said Jen. "We were in awe from all of that."
Helping sometimes slipped into pushiness. Instead of declaring to the parents what you are going to do to help them, Brett suggests open-ended comments, such as "Can I give someone a ride? Pick anyone up at the airport? Watch your child for a day? Make you a meal? Bring you something to read, or just pray for you?"
Anna is now a healthy four-year-old, although she still needs MRIs to monitor her spine. Looking back, Jen said, "I learned and am still learning that whether in life or death, suffering or peace, God always deserves our praise and worship." Brett adds, "I learned about the frailty of life, and the need to believe what we preachthat this world is not our home."
Anna runs around like any four-year-old. And Anneke is glad to be back home. So are their parents.
Caring for a hospitalized child is a painful, but uplifting, ordeal. When the church family pitches in with willing hands, fervent prayers, and a comforting presence, the parents' burdens are lightened. The next time a parent's wait seems forever, remember to "bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:2)but first call ahead.
The author is a member of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. Her daughter Katie was hospitalized several times as an infant. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2008.