Camille, After the Storm

Winter has come early to Michigan. Camille looks through the window and watches the snow fall, tries to think about Christmas, but the feeling in her stomach is not comfort and joy. For her, winter has always been a dangerous time. She is stronger now, but her body remembers the risk, still feels the dread.

Her body remembers many things that are no longer true. Starving for air. Being stuck in a hospital room on beautiful summer mornings. Stuck in a chair, watching her friends run and dance.

The problem had been her lungs, which shrank and withered even as her young body grew. Her heart was working itself to death, trying to compensate. Camille pushed on with a smile, but there was no healing for this, no way for her body to continue, and this is the dread she remembers.

But then the miracle they had prayed for, a new heart and lungs. For twenty months now, Camille has been exploring a world she had watched from outside. She can safely touch a flower, touch the earth, lay in the grass, listening to bird songs she used to play on her phone. It is a miracle and it is good, but it is not simple.

A few weeks after the transplant, she stood at the bottom of a hill she had been watching for months through the car window. She would climb it someday, she had told her parents, and today was the day. They started up the hill together but, after a few hundred feet, Camille fell behind. Her parents stopped and asked if she was OK. She looked at them, amazed. “How do you stand it?” she exclaimed. The heat and the sweat and the aching muscles were new to her – and frightening. She had never been strong enough to use her body this way, to make it tired.

Camille being Camille, she eventually made it up that hill, and many other hills, until sweat and aching muscles became the new normal. Eighteen months after her transplant, Camille was in England, competing as a cyclist in the World Transplant Games.

Camille is an overcomer, but that’s not so simple either. She more often speaks of “we” than “I”, and that means her parents Nancy and Eric. Throughout her life, they have researched her condition and traveled to specialists and laughed and wept and suffered alongside. The three of them have, together, clung fiercely to her life and, even more than most families, their lives are intertwined.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much better Camille’s body works since the transplant. She is no longer “the grey girl”, whose very skin announced her fragility. She can run and dance. Having lungs that work helps with other things, too, like memory and even vision. But, still, her mind cannot forget, cannot quite let go of the defenses she developed to survive.

Even church was a dangerous place. The coughs and colds in a typical Sunday crowd were a minefield for someone with Camille’s limited immunity. Kids her age didn’t understand the battle she was fighting and sometimes made it worse by teasing or leaving her out. Those wounds went deep and added to the question of why God would allow her to suffer so much, to be so different.

These are not easy questions and, even now, Camille does not have easy answers. She has made her body strong, but the instability of her past life is not easy to forget. She learned not to plan because her plans never survived, and – even now – she is wary.

There is one exception, one plan drove her even when it seemed she might not survive. Already a Registered Nurse, she is training to be a Physician’s Assistant and wants to work in Boston with one of the doctors who saved her life, helping people who are struggling down the same path she traveled.

As we talk about this, Camille laughs and describes herself as a medical nerd. She wanted her surgeon to keep her old heart and lungs so she could see them, and he did what he could. The heart was huge and weary. The shriveled lungs, once deflated, left little more than a tissue sample. Talking about this does not bother Camille. She was not her heart, not her lungs. They were not her life; only parts that enabled her life, and she is passionate about the need for organ donors. About 90% of people registered for heart transplants lose their life because so few hearts are donated.

This week, she flies again with Wings of Mercy, back to Boston to prepare for minor surgery – all the way to Boston because, after a heart and lung transplant, there is no such thing as minor surgery.

For Camille, that’s just the way it goes. Another hill to climb, another challenge to overcome, in a life that is miraculous and good, but rarely simple.

The Good Father

I know; Fathers’ Day is over. For a few weeks, we thought a little more about the man who first gave shape and color to our world, who gave us one of our first images of our self. Perhaps it was an image of something precious, to be treasured and protected, or… perhaps not. It’s a risky thing to be born, to enter a world of giants, to be so powerless and fragile. It is also a fearsome thing to be the giant to whom a child is given. There are so many ways to fail and to forget, so many things you must surrender if you are to become the good giant, the one who carves out of the hard world a soft, safe place for your child.

Our father was our first hero if he was any father at all; awesome in size and strength. We reached for his giant hand and stared up into his face and hoped to see a smile, some assurance of his love. It is a picture woven into the world, repeated in the experience of every child: our weakness cast upon another’s strength, our desperate need for someone’s mercy, the beauty and necessity of compassion.

Christians recognize in this the careful design of a Creator who built a universe to help us know him, who placed on human fathers the frightening responsibility of having almost godlike power over their children. It seems a terrible risk, and some men prove it so. But, for many more, becoming a father is a door to redemption, an invitation to choose godlike love over our natural gigantic ambition.

I love these pictures because they show what happens when we accept that invitation. Day by day, our pilots practice the beautiful art of Fatherhood, using their strength to care for people who are not strong. We hope to emulate, in our small way, the greatest giant of all, who laid down his life for his friends, and the one Father who is truly good.

 

https://www.facebook.com/wingsofmercyinc/photos/a.331621946918722/2316680111746219/?type=3&xts%5B0%5D=68.ARBF3nFcVrnT7OgH6S6fnokTSz5dm41bx56DcDStOMD2H3PR7LzkoK9_hPn2kMHKV15vzz_clhZ_VHH96FJCObaLK6QmkJCOvXYSIRu2lY-JYTd2QqfwL1mB-2R-cZBRvKMP5Kmo6WakXpwfOufFslcb6nGCta5H8mFN7RdHM8cKl9P9_iU8-YnSq7DEZ1dPUXDpjcck0IJadln4hB0-VWLlsR9o3iAjU5YeEzqETOGnKgg5MRCajtNdIyFgoe8ApfmGSjgK1q6DxWperItFJGbzCcAigvS4UHf8m1-v8AOb01Uap3K-vRv2bqqBfIhrNxmX72bTDBaX1HcojmIBPfND2Q&tn=-R

Danny

I study it, now that it is too late, the dark jewel of an eye, huge and liquid and gleaming.  There are furrows in the grass where his sharp hooves tore the earth a moment ago when he fell.

He is a giant, five times my size, with power to launch himself over obstacles and return gracefully to earth, often wagging his head as if to say, is there nothing higher?  His shining coat glows red in the sun and his thundering hoofbeats send vibrations through the dirt.

He knows his strength and my weakness.  He knows me to carry treats in my pocket and when I don’t deliver, he merrily knocks me backward with a flick of his massive head.  He could easily destroy me, and yet I put my daughter on his back.  We are safe because he chooses for us to be safe.

But things have gone badly for Danny.  Two weeks ago, he began kicking at his side and twisting his head to see what was biting him there.  We brought doctors and medicine, and for a few days he seemed to be himself again, but the blood test said cancer.  On Thursday morning, I found him in agony, his coat sodden with sweat and grime, trotting desperately around the pasture, trying to outrun his cruel and invisible enemy.

We called the vet and trudged into the pasture, carried his halter this one last time.  Even now, in his misery, he is careful of us, careful not to step on us or knock us down as we clumsily try to corral him, and he urgently tries to escape. 

We took a job at the barn, my daughter and I, when we bought Danny.  We feed and water the horses, lead them from their pastures to their stalls. I knew little about horses when we began, but I always admired them.  If they had been winged horses, they would have seemed only slightly more mythical to me.  

How have such creatures come to exist, so graceful and immense, so fearsome when they choose to fight, yet who set aside their great strength to obey us?  And how is it that we find ourselves in such a world as this, so richly carpeted in green, extravagant in air and light, filled with beings more diverse and majestic than we could imagine?  If you say this is all a happy accident, I will wonder if you’re paying attention because we spend our lives trying to make good things and we know it is hard. Luck does not make horseshoes, let alone horses, let alone verdant worlds.

Well, Grace has somehow gotten in front of Danny and, rather than trample her, he jerks to a stop and she quickly slips on the halter.  We lead him to a quiet place.  She wraps her arms around his head and talks to him as the vet pulls something from his pocket. 

A few minutes later, Danny is gone and I am looking at the furrows in the grass where he fell and the great jewel of an eye that has gone dull.  Grace spreads herself over his still body and weeps and I try to understand why I feel I have lost a friend. 

Only a horse.  Only an animal that flew without wings, on whose back Grace flew, too, the wind whipping through her hair, knowing he would use his strength to bring her safely home. Only a horse, but I would give much to look in his eye again. 

Shayla

She sneaks into the room, leans over the bed and studies the little face, listens to him breathe. He seems ok, so she moves to the next bed, and then the next, and then the next, then she lets out a sigh and slips away, back to her own dark room. She closes her eyes but does not let go of the world, dozes off for a few minutes until the alarm in her mind sounds and she opens her eyes, rolls out of bed, does it all over again, hour after hour until the morning comes.

It has been this way for four years, since the day the quadruplets were born – the day much of her old life ended. And it was quite a life – a job she loved, her third master’s degree almost complete… and she slept through the night. Well, that was then… Her eyes open. Another trip to the kids’ room. She stares longest at Kolten, whose life has been especially hard. Already, he’s been through liver failure, through desperate surgeries that saved his life but, in the process, removed most of his intestine and most of his ability to receive nutrition. Even worse were the months she spent pleading for those surgeries, refused by doctors who thought he would die on their operating table.

Kolten weighed only two pounds when he was born – far too small – but he was twice as big as his brother. Doctors looking into her womb saw the littlest one as a lost cause and wanted to remove him but, no, she said, and she hovers over him now, runs her fingers over his dark hair. Sweet Mason. She checks on her sleeping daughters, Ava and Mila, then goes back to bed for a while.

Shayla could probably do anything she wanted to do, and this is what she chooses. Her degrees are not in medicine, but she seems to know every drug and doctor and test and procedure that might help her kids get better. She trained to be a counselor, but life changed her job description. “I’m a huge fighter now”, she says, laughing, and you wonder how such a transformation occurs. Not so long ago, she was a little girl who loved the north woods, the dappled light under the tall trees, the fragrant soil, the freedom and silence and solitude. So unlike a hospital…

Margaret’s story is not so different. For her, as a kid, it was all about horses and the fun of a big family. She didn’t give much thought to marriage, let alone the possibility of laying her life aside to care for a sick child. But she grew up, got married, and her life changed – specifically, on the tenth day after her daughter was born, when they found a malignant tumor in her neck.

For Margaret and Shayla, the birth of their kids brought a sudden end to the quiet and simplicity they had loved, an abrupt relocation into a stainless-steel world of harsh lights and long halls, fragrant antiseptics, the noise and bustle and seeming imprisonment of life in a hospital.

At first, it was too much. “I felt so fragile and weak,” Margaret said. “When a doctor was coming down the hall, I would go the other way and let her dad handle things. But day by day, I got stronger and more independent and, together, we fought for not just Megan’s life, but for her quality of life, too.”

Margaret’s ordeal is behind her now. Her daughter survived the terrifying surgeries and gained strength, grew up and pushed on through college and a master’s degree. Shayla’s fight continues today and is far from over.

At Wings of Mercy, we often talk about kids and airplanes, but this month we’re especially thinking about the incredible people we call moms – about Margaret and Shayla and all the rest; mothers of sick kids and mothers of healthy kids; little girls who grow up and lay their lives aside to build a safe place for their children, who pray and protect and give comfort even when they have themselves run dry.

We often talk about places we go, but this month we’re thinking about where we began; the womb in which God formed us; the extraordinary person who – with love like his own – gave herself for us. Thank you, mothers. You are worthy of greater honor than we can give.

You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Psalm 139


Follow the Meads’ journey here: https://www.facebook.com/meadquads

For more of Margaret and Megan’s story, see https://www.facebook.com/…/a.33162194691…/2189682794445952/…

Megan

Rochester, MN – You never want to see an ambulance on a runway, but there it was, strobes flashing, EMT’s busy over the little body on the stretcher. Stunned, the pilot turned away, walked back toward his airplane, fished out the last of the bags and stacked them on the pavement.

The flight had gone well, and Rochester was just over the horizon when the girl’s father rushed to the cockpit, yelling that something had gone wrong with the baby’s breathing. Peter had done what he could – had radioed the emergency to air traffic control, had pushed the nose down, pushed the throttles forward, pushed the airplane as fast as it would go. Touching down, he immediately shut the engines off as the ambulance roared up behind him on the runway, then he opened the airplane and got out of the way, let the medical people take over.

A few minutes later, a slamming of doors, a puff of diesel smoke, the growl of the ambulance rushing away toward Mayo Clinic. Peter watches them shrink into the distance and, suddenly, the runway is very quiet. It is two days before Christmas, and he had been praying for a miracle for James and Margaret and their little girl. Anything but this. He turns back to his airplane, hears his tired steps scrape over the pavement, feels an empty feeling.

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* * * *

Chicago, IL – Two hundred miles away, a volunteer at the cancer center tilts her head slightly to meet a child’s eye, then smiles and reaches for his hand. Megan, the volunteer, knows the child’s fear because she’s been there herself. She reaches with her left hand because her right hand doesn’t work. She tilts her head a little because her right eye doesn’t work. She smiles because life is good – no matter what cancer has taken away from her – and life is never so good as when she is leading someone else out of that dark valley.

She doesn’t measure her life in what she has lost, but what she is able to give, and mostly what she gives is hope. “I’m fortunate,” she says, “because I don’t have any memory of being able to see out of both eyes or having the use of my right hand, so adjusting to it was easy.” Megan has an unusual concept of easy, and an unusual determination to contribute.

This is her third job supporting cancer victims – the best way for her to serve until she finishes her second teaching degree. After that, she hopes to help sick kids learn. Her mom says that, even with the disease and the surgeries and their side-effects, Megan always wanted to do things herself. Having already survived three cancers and earned a master’s degree, it’s clear that adversity has not changed her mind.

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* * * *

Back in Rochester, on Christmas Eve, a surgeon at Mayo walks into the waiting room, meets Margaret’s eye. She stiffens, holds her breath as he prepares to speak, then relaxes a little when he nods and gives her a grim smile. The procedure was successful. They have removed the tumor. Margaret’s two-year-old daughter is already down one eye and perhaps scarred from the surgery, but there is still hope. A few minutes later, James calls Peter and gives him the miracle he had been praying for.

It was flight number three for Peter’s new project – which Joan, his wife, had named “Wings of Mercy”. The child’s survival feels like a validation of his vision, a memory to hold up against that empty feeling you sometimes get in dark valleys, even when you are trying to do the right thing.

Margaret knows that feeling all too well. She found the first tumor when her baby was only ten days old. The following year, there was another, and now this. Margaret has spent much of the last two years in hospitals, sitting at her daughter’s bedside, or pacing brightly lit halls, or fretting in waiting rooms, her head jerking up each time someone comes through the door.

There is, sometimes, a feeling of great hope. At other times, there is just the quiet, the questions, the need to walk on, not knowing where your steps will lead. Like Peter, she and James are trying to do the right thing, not knowing what comes next, but maybe that’s how holy things feel in this hard world. If there is an angel choir, you cannot hear it. Just the sounds of your shoes scraping on the pavement, or squeaking down a long hospital hall, a door swinging open to bring good news – or bad.

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* * * *

Chicago, IL – Megan finishes her session with the patient family and waves as they file out the door. She pauses for a moment to remember what it was like when she was, herself, that sick and scared. She remembers how her mom, Margaret, was always there and always so proud of her, remembers the story Margaret often told about Christmas in 1991, when Megan was just a baby, and a pilot named Peter rushed them to the hospital on the day she nearly died.

They were stubborn, these people who had fought for her life, with little to encourage them but love – pressing on through silence and darkness and doubt, as if moving to the music of another world.

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The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul…
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me

Psalm 23

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Megan Alexander is a remarkable woman, an accomplished supporter of cancer victims, and Wings of Mercy Patient #3. Read more about her here: https://imermanangels.org/…/behind-matches-vital-role-cance…