Approaching Critical Care Situations with a Glass Half Full

Approaching Critical Care Situations with a Glass Half Full March 18, 2021

Glass half full or half empty, Sealle, August 3, 2017; Creative Commons

One’s perspective on life, including critical care situations, goes a long way toward how one approaches each day and every major event. One way of putting the matter is: “Do I see life as a glass that is half empty, or do I see life as a glass that is half full?” How I respond to various challenging circumstances each day depends in part on how I go about answering this question. In the case of my son Christopher who is on life support and in a coma for a traumatic brain injury, I try to discern the possibilities and prospects for recovery. Given that he is in stable (though very severe) condition, he is in Progressive Care. The title of the unit is reassuring in that I am so relieved to know that hospitals don’t have “Regressive Care” units! This is but one small example of trying to look for positives in the midst of the most challenging season of my family’s life.

One very big positive is that Christopher is alive. I am so grateful to the medical community for their lightning quick efforts to get him to surgery the evening of the traumatic brain injury. I hate to think what would have happened if they had not. I am also so grateful for the precision-oriented problem-solving skills that the doctors and nurses put to work in trying to guard against infections, as well as to regulate his temperature. Just the other day, a doctor prescribed a medicine that helped reduce what I called my son’s repeated “volcanic” fevers resulting from traumatic impact to the autonomic nervous system. The medication worked. I hate to think what would have happened if they had not been so proactive with medications as well as the periodic ice packs and cooling blankets that clothed his body up to that time.

Christopher is young, resilient, surrounded by caring, skilled medical staff, a devoted family, and an army of heavenly and earthly advocates. I try and keep all this in mind as we face the daunting challenges that present themselves. We do not ignore the challenges. We do not discount the reality that we are facing. We need to deal with the scientific facts and statistics involving general scenarios for those in Christopher’s condition. As our family friend and medical consultant Dr. Robert Potter (M.D., Ph.D.) has noted repeatedly in analyzing his condition with us and the medical professionals overseeing my son’s care, the base stem and midbrain functions are working to support Christopher’s life, for which we are most grateful. We wait to see how the brain responds and if higher functions return. Those who operate from a glass-half-empty paradigm may minimize the import of my son breathing on his own and his heart beating strong. It is certainly true that breathing and heart beat functions are the most basic or primitive facets of brain activity. However, as Dr. Potter argues, if the base or stem and midbrain functions are not working, consciousness does you no good. So we wait and see if consciousness returns. In his long tenure in internal medicine, palliative care, and medical ethics, Dr. Potter hits the pause button on speculating about prognoses at this juncture. He claims that most people know within six months to a year what the prognosis will be. He has also reminded me and others that each patient who is a person is the exception to the rule and that time is the ultimate prognosis.

A nurse told me the other day that health care professionals are often “jaded.” They do not always or often get to see the final outcome for patients under their care, as the patients are transferred elsewhere. Health care professionals also have to deal with family members who expect them to work instant miracles or follow the guidance of whatever “Dr. Google” tells these family members on their internet searches. Essential oils and certain body postures will not work medical miracles. Medical staff rarely see family members deal with reality and so fear that they are not prepared to face the music. I have had to assure medical staff on numerous occasions that we understand the statistical percentages for those in Christopher’s case. But statistics deal with groups of individuals, not each individual. Reality is unfolding. It is not fixed. No one knows what will happen in Christopher’s case at this juncture—only God.

I try to live with a glass half full, and as I told this nurse, in view of a firm conviction that the universe is open, not closed. We wait to see how Christopher’s brain will respond and to what extent his brain will heal. We hope for progression neurologically from the base upward and also account for the possibility of divine intervention. As one neurosurgeon remarked, God only knows what will transpire at this stage in the process.

What I do know is that the glass is half full in Christopher’s critical care situation, not half empty. Or to call to mind a biblical text that has stayed with me for days, I realize there are more forces arrayed for us than are arrayed against us in Christopher’s situation. The text in question is 2 Kings 6. There the King of Aram sends his forces to take the prophet Elisha of Israel captive given that he was alerting Israel’s army to Aram’s movements and sabotaging their seemingly surprise invasions. When Elisha’s servant rose one morning and saw Aram’s army surrounding their dwelling, he panicked. Elisha viewed the situation differently. He did not deny the severity of the situation, but he had better vision. Elisha even asked that God would open his servant’s eyes to see that there were more forces with Elisha and his servant than against them. Here’s the text:

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.

“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, “Strike this army with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked.

Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.” And he led them to Samaria. (2 Kings 6:15-19; NIV)

Given Elisha’s confidence in the Lord, he provided encouragement for his servant and then for Israel’s king. Nor did he let the king of Israel destroy Aram’s forces, even though he had them trapped as a result of their blindness and being led to Samaria. Rather, Elisha encouraged the king to tend to their needs with food and drink and then let them go:

After they entered the city, Elisha said, “Lord, open the eyes of these men so they can see.” Then the Lord opened their eyes and they looked, and there they were, inside Samaria.

When the king of Israel saw them, he asked Elisha, “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?”

“Do not kill them,” he answered. “Would you kill those you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.” So he prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory. (2 Kings 6:20-23).

God’s prophet Elisha worked a great victory. Not only did Aram’s army not capture him and his servant, but also they stopped raiding Israel because of Elisha’s perspective and counsel. Ultimately, Elisha perspective in the situation shaped his orientation and approach to the grave challenge: the forces for them far outweighed the forces against them. Certainly, Israel had seen better days as a nation during King David’s reign. He had provided great and faithful leadership and conquered all of Israel’s menacing enemies. But even at this stage in Israel’s history, with the ever-recurring threat of invading armies, the glass was half full.

The forces arrayed against us in our current ordeal are the variables involving the traumatic damage to my son’s brain. The forces for us include the medical staff, our vast community of supporters and personal medical and pastoral consultants, and ultimately heaven’s host with their chariots of fire. I hope to keep operating from a vantage point of glass half full, not glass half empty. With eyes wide open, we wait to see how Christopher’s body responds and how the Lord of hosts mysteriously leads.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author of numerous works, including Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse. You can read more about the author here.
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