This is a mission hospital. That means different things to different people, but I imagine that I'm not the only one who knows that tends to mean that we are short-staffed. Christmas is no different in that regard…except of course that we are more short-staffed than usual. Despite taking more call days, I was blessed to not be on call either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day this year. You should understand, though, that being one of a handful of people helping to manage the hospital tends to mean getting called anyway.
Christmas Eve was wonderful. I didn't work. Nobody called. I spent the entire day sitting with my family and playing games with my children. We let them open some gifts that evening, and we were even able to video chat with some family back home. What a lovely gift that day was!
Africa feels very different from home. Many of us certainly don't miss the snow, but during the Christmas season, it can be difficult to feel very festive. To give our families here a bit of that feeling, we'd made an effort to celebrate the holidays this year with several social events culminating in a community Christmas brunch on Christmas Day. So, with many Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, Christmas carols, and even Christmas eggnog, Christmas day finally came, and my family and I were just about ready to leave for Christmas brunch when the phone rang.
The doctor who had been working through the night had just finished his work in the maternity ward and was ready to go home and then take his family to the Christmas brunch. Just as he was leaving, a pregnant woman came into the hospital bleeding…and she was bleeding a lot. We have no radiologist and no ultrasound technician, so he called me to come help try to figure out what the problem was. There we were, two family doctors and an ultrasound machine. Was the baby outside the uterus? Had the uterus torn? No, we determined that the placenta was separating from the wall of the uterus. Placental abruption is dangerous for both the baby and the mother. The baby was at risk of losing her source of oxygen and the mother was at risk of bleeding to death.
We called the surgeon to ask that he come right away to perform a C-section. The baby's heart rate was decreasing. The mother continued to bleed and screamed in pain. We have no anesthesiologist and only one nurse anesthetist who does not currently work nights, weekends, or holidays. This time the anesthesia was up to me, a family doctor. The other family doctor who had called me would often help the surgeon with the C-section, but he knew the baby was going to need extra help, so he waited to "catch" the baby.
Praise God! The spinal medication went in quickly and easily. The surgical site was prepared. The surgeon was ready to go. The other family doctor and an assistant were ready to receive the baby. Just as they started to make the incision, I leaned over the mother and asked her, "Connaissez-vous Jésus?" Do you know Jesus? She said that she did know Jesus as Savior. I said to her, "Il est là avec nous maintenant." He is here with us now. She nodded in understanding.
I was praying for a Christmas miracle. The baby was out quickly. The mother's bleeding was improving, but I could tell there was a problem. The baby was not breathing. There was no heartbeat. They had started chest compressions and placed a tube in the baby's airway. They asked me for some epinephrine to give to the baby in hopes of starting the heart up again. Time passed.
The baby did not live.
The mother was awake throughout the procedure. They asked if she had been told about the baby. "Not yet," I said, "better to wait until after her operation is finished." After they took the baby quietly from the room, I sat at the mother's head and watched the tracing of her heartbeat. How was I to tell her this awful news? When she was in the recovery area, I knelt next to her bed said in childlike French, "Mother, do you understand that your baby has died? I am so sorry." Her blank expression seemed to last far longer than the actual seconds that passed, and I thought that perhaps she had known or suspected, but she quickly melted into the gut-wrenching wailing of a mother who has lost her child.
Not for the first time, I left the hospital in tears. I was supposed to spend the rest of the morning celebrating Christmas with my family and friends, but a death, especially that of a child, always darkens a day's mood. The day couldn't be viewed the same way. Fellowship and laughter couldn't feel rich. Peace would give way to restlessness and doubts. How could I celebrate Christmas? I tried to look for good. The mother was alive. She would be okay. She would return to her family. Truly, there were so many blessings. So much to be thankful for. Yet, my joy was gone.
Christmas should be joyful…but why is Christmas joyful? Isn't death enough to ruin Christmas? I realized something, not for the first time, and I am sure not for the last. I remembered that Christmas and Easter are inseparable. What does that mean? There have always been birth and death. Every person in every culture in all parts of the world understands birth and death. The baby in this story was born and died this Christmas. We prefer that the death come far later than that, but we all know that it's coming; we know that it will sting. Is that sting enough to ruin Christmas? It would have been - but there is something more than birth and death. There is resurrection! There is hope! This is the very reason we celebrate Christmas. Easter is coming. “Oh death, where is your sting?”
It is because of the birth, death, and resurrection of the perfect God-man, Jesus Christ, that we can have a hope that is more than a passing fancy. We can be sure of our hope. This is the Christmas miracle, that Christ came to die so that we could have life. Death cannot ruin Christmas: Christmas ruined death.
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. -Romans 5:2
Read the context of that verse.
Be encouraged in the hope that we have in Christ Jesus. If you want a New Year’s resolution, it could always be to push in further and know Jesus more. This is a battle. I pray each of you looks for the strength to fight this battle in none other than Christ.
Merry (7th day of) Christmas and Happy New Year. All glory be to Christ the king!