The following post was written by Jimmy Hettinger. Jimmy is a member of Seven Mile Road Church and works as a clinical nurse with the progressive care unit at a children’s hospital.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
The song “O come O come Immanuel” has been on repeat in my car and in my head since the day after Thanksgiving. The 3rd verse has always been particularly special to me, mainly because I think it sounds very cool and I like the God as a warrior language, but this year it is taking on a new meaning. The children I take care of at the hospital, with rare exception, have chronic conditions that leave them medically fragile. All of them even at their healthiest are but a few bad moments away from eternity. To put it bluntly, these kids live at death’s door, like they were dropped on his doorstep in a basket at birth.
As you may imagine, working on this unit is a weighty thing; it is rare for us to have nurses with more than 5 years’ experience on this unit. While most days we win more than we lose, death looms over this unit like a dark cloud, lurking in the shadows and hiding in the corners.
The nature of these children’s conditions is that there is no cure, only supportive treatment. Some will grow up to be semi-normal adults, some will reach adulthood but with severe developmental delays, some won’t grow up at all. O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here.
One particular patient death hit me hard this summer. She was 5 years old. The phrase trapped in my psyche for weeks was “she was just supposed to go home.” Of all the patients we see here regularly, she was among the healthiest. From a medical standpoint she was able to go home, but her parents needed training on a new portion of her medical regimen. Until one night she fell into a seizure that we couldn’t break. Despite the team’s best efforts, she seized for 45 minutes straight, and in that time her brain swelled and herniated. She was just supposed to go home. Compared to all the babies with underdeveloped lungs whose parents we train how to manage their ventilator all the while exchanging knowing glances to our coworkers that this baby may not make it home, or all the patients with infections that shouldn’t be survivable and brain injuries that don’t leave much of anything intact, who defy all olds and make it home, she should have been a walk in the park, but she wasn’t and she didn’t.
She was transferred across the floor where they are more capable of handling acute neurological problems, so I went to see her on my lunch break. Her parents clearly hadn’t slept. Her face was pale, and the life was already out of her eyes. I expressed my condolences to the parents. What do you even say to them? I fell on instinct. I asked them if they were praying people. “We’re not religious but we’re spiritual” Whatever that means. I began to pray with them: I prayed for comfort, for healing, for a miracle. As I searched for words to speak I asked for God to show them a silver lining amongst the dark clouds, to show a ray of hope. I placed my hand on her mom’s shoulder, I shook her father’s hand and I took one last glimpse and left. They withdrew supportive care that morning and her soul passed into eternity (if it hadn’t already).
What hope could I offer them? Death had won. The clouds had blocked out the light and the shadows in the corner had engulfed the whole room. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight. The Christmas season reminds us that Jesus has come to defeat the darkness and drive death into flight. He shows us this throughout his life, reviving the son of the widow of Nain, and bringing back Lazarus from the dead. These stories show us the two sides of death’s reality. At Lazarus’ tomb Jesus weeps, even when he fully knows that “he only sleeps,” because death hurts, the sting may have been removed but the scorpion still strikes. To the widow of Nain he says “Do not cry” because victory has come, life shall swallow up death and all tears shall be wiped away. He shows his ultimate power of death when he resurrects himself after laying down his life. He is so abundant in life that his resurrection had aftershocks, bringing others to life at the same time. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in a land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isa 9:2).
I have devoted my life to combatting Death. However, on my own all I can do is slap His hand away, to buy my children time. Death will defeat me, and one day he will come for me as well. Until that day I will keep sparring with death, telling him not yet and refusing to let any go easily. The difference is that I fight from a position of victory. The serpent may still bite but his poison is gone and soon his head will be crushed under the heel of the Day-Spring himself, Jesus Christ, the God-man born in a manger, his birth marked by a star to dispel the darkness of night.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. The best part of that final refrain is that it is not limited to Christmas time. Immanuel has come but he is coming again. On that day Death will flee like a gazelle from the Lion of Judah and God will dwell with his people.