The Secret Place
“Mr. Burton, can I pray with you?”
I could sense the stress in my doctor’s voice, even over the phone. And though the gravity of his concern was for me, he was clearly so shaken by the news he had just reported that I found myself wanting to comfort him. To be honest, I was still digesting the information, most of which was in medical terms I didn’t understand. But I certainly understood the bottom line. I had a brain tumor. A bad one.
I was sitting across from my friend, Paul Osteen, in his office at Lakewood Church. A doctor himself, Paul had been kind enough to swing by the office and take me to pick up the results from the MRI I had that morning. And we had just looked at the images on his computer. So, I was already somewhat aware of the serious condition those images revealed. Paul was cautious as he pointed to one particular “slice” that showed a distinct contrast between my right and left occipital lobes in the lower part of my brain where the optic nerves end. The left was normal with clear patterned lines delineating the area. But the right side, which should have been its mirror image, was blurred, like someone had smudged it accidently with the palm of his hand.
“I’m not an neurologist", Paul said cutiously, "So, I can’t say for certain what that is. But I can tell you that it’s not right. Something’s wrong there.” He paused for a moment. I could tell he was trying to find the right phrasing, the right tone. After all, he was a minister as well as a surgeon. Not to mention a close friend. It’s got to be hard to be completely honest, genuinely compassionate and resolutely hopeful all at the same time. But somehow, he managed. “It could be vascular. I don’t know. But…. Yes. I’m concerned.”
So, when my cell phone rang and I saw the name of my primary care physician displayed, I was already in “processing” mode and somewhat prepared for what he began to tell me. But as words like, “glioblastoma”, “neoplasm” and “astrocytoma” began tumbling through the speaker, I was getting a bit overwhelmed and decided to repeat them out loud so Dr. Paul could hear them. When the doctor concluded his report, he paused. I could sense the difficulty he was having, even over the phone. That’s when he asked if he could pray for me.
After his prayer, I thanked him and let him know that Dr. Paul had helped me secure an appointment with a neurologist the following morning. He was relieved to hear that, since he had not been able to find one who could take me on such short notice. I promised to keep him informed of developments. Then he wished me the best and hung up.
Dr. Paul was quiet. I could tell that his task of being honest and hopeful had just gotten harder by a multiple of a gazillion. What do you say to someone you love, when everything you’ve learned over thirty years in medicine tells you that they have just received a prognosis of certain death. Whether in weeks or months, his experience and knowledge informed him that it would not be years.
That is not to say that Paul is not a man of faith. Quite to the contrary, he had believed for and witnessed many miraculous healings, including that of his own mother, Dodie Osteen. But over decades of medical practice he had also walked with countless others whose healing miracle had not come. Some of them close friends. So, finding the right words, the right tone was a precarious navigation. Nevertheless, he accomplished it.
The phone call had been one report, he told me. But I would be meeting with a neurologist tomorrow. So, it was too soon to draw conclusions. Let’s see what she had to say.
I, too, was searching for the right words and tone. As was my usual approach to just about everything, I was looking for something funny to say. But nothing was coming to mind.
From that moment forward my world began to shift from one anticipated path to an entirely new and foreboding one. Like a yellow brick road spiraling out until it stretched and widened toward a strange, unknown destination. Although something inside me told me everything would be okay, it went against everything reasonable and logical.
All this had begun just a few months ago when I noticed a strange visual “tick” developing. Once or twice a day I would see a small flash of color on the left hand side of my field of vision. It was tiny and looked like a bright blinking miniature stained glass window. Not big enough to distinguish. Just bright and colorful. My initial thought was that it might be an indication I was spending way too much time on my cellular devices.
But over the next month or so the frequency went from once or twice per day for fifteen or twenty seconds to six or seven times a day for up to a minute. My doctor said it was likely something he called an “ocular migraine”, as did the ophthalmologist he sent me to for a second opinion.
But a few days before this phone conversation, I had awakened to a virtual Fourth of July celebration going on in my head. The left side of my field of vision was a kaleidoscope of colored light, blinking on and off. Truly bizarre.
It had been a busy day for me at work and I was managing to get through most of my responsibilities. But by late afternoon, I put everything aside and called my doctor. I described the symptoms and let him know that I wanted to get an MRI. He quickly set up the appointment and called me back with the details.
So, in a sense, all this had unfolded rather quickly and with little real preparation on my part… A brain tumor. Wow…
The meeting with the neurologist the next morning was curious for a couple of reasons. My wife and I showed up for the appointment with my cd of the MRI and was informed that she already had the report. Turns out that the lab where I’d gotten the MRI was part of a larger system whose main office, where all the imaging data was stored, was in the same building as her office. So, when her assistant had confirmed my appointment the previous day and I mentioned I’d already done an MRI at a Memorial Hermann Image Lab, one of dozens they had around the city, she had simply gone downstairs and picked up the report.
But the best part was that having already seen the results, she had also taken it upon herself to secure an appointment for me with a neurosurgeon friend of hers, who just happened to be the chief neurosurgeon at the Mischer Institute of Neuroscience at the same hospital organization I got my MRI. And instead of having to wait weeks to see him, my appointment was in two days… I took it.
The rest of the appointment only confirmed the initial diagnosis from the lab. I asked her if there was any chance that the tumor was not malignant. She replied with a kind but simple, “I don’t think so.”
On the way home from the neurologist’s office, I called my children to give them the news. First, my daughter in New York, and then my son in Los Angeles. Both of them were hit pretty hard by the news and each of them broke down a bit during our conversations, which actually made me feel better. I guess there’s something comforting about feeling like someone else loves you even more than you do.
As surreal as the experience was in hearing that I had an outside shot at maybe two years survival, the truth was I wasn’t very shaken by it. Of course, it could be just a form of regular “shock”. I’m sure there was a measure of that involved. Had to be. But over the course of the next few days as I waited for my surgeon’s appointment ruminating, praying, discussing it with my wife and family, there was also something far more palpable that I was experiencing…. Peace.
By the next day, my kids were already texting and emailing me with encouragement and advice. Each of them had been conducting a flurry of their own investigation on the internet and was passing along information about diet, exercise, books and websites to check out. All of which I took note of and appreciated. But there was a definite lack of panic on my part. As I emailed back to them in response to their messages:
"Appreciate your advice and I promise you I will be doing all I can physically to WIN… Dr. Paul advised that I ask the oncologist to give me the same course of action he would give his own brother or father. Whatever he recommends, I will do.
That said, it's my understanding that the medical prognosis for the type of cancer this looks like is not favorable. So, you guys will need to take that in. To have an expectancy of life longer than 2 years is like 5%. And one of 4 to 9 months is the most likely.
So, in truth, I am going to be leaning with ALL my weight on the power of God to intervene on my behalf. Keeping in mind that from an eternal perspective 2 years or 22 years is smaller than an atom.
Still, for ME, they are golden and I want to have as many as possible. So, I am petitioning Him for as many as I can get!
I have NO fear of death… Sincerely…. But it is a great inconvenience. :-)
I know you're already doing so, but please continue to pray with FAITH. Remember, being anxious and upset will not get God's attention. In fact, it kind of ties His hands.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Let's show God that we trust Him… Together.
Love you both, SO much!… Yes, it sucks that sometimes it takes things like this to grab our focus and attention. But, hey, let's not waste it worrying. Let's thank God for life and for each other. I know you already do. And I'm sooo very glad that we have such a great relationship. While I only wish our physical proximity was closer, I could not possibly love you more or FEEL more LOVED! ….You guys are awesome!
Okay, now I have some reading to do. :-)
For me, the bottom line was that, even if my timeline was less than two years, I had lived a great life already and had far more to be grateful for than afraid of. Besides, I still had to hear from this neurosurgeon. Despite the first two reports, I somehow had an inexplicable expectation that everything would be okay. It didn’t make sense, but that feeling was even more supported by what I found out on Monday morning when my primary physician called to ask how I was doing.
I told him about the neurologist and the appointment with the surgeon she’d arranged. He asked the name of the surgeon.
“I think his name is Dong Kim .”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s the surgeon who operated on Gabby Giffords, the Congresswoman who was shot in the head a few years ago. ”
That’s the moment my hope went into overdrive. Keeping in mind that she had been wounded in Tucson, just an hour’s flight to Los Angeles where there were so many great hospitals, I asked myself why she would come to Houston for surgery. Then I realized, as an astronaut, her husband, Mark Kelly, was a celebrity here in Houston. Probably on the Christmas party short list for every billionaire in town. I couldn’t imagine him asking his friends, “Can you help me find a few good neurosurgeons in town to choose from?” No, he would have asked, “Who’s the best and how can I get a hold of them?”
So, it was quickly becoming quickly clear to me that without any real effort on my part, I had been led to a neurologist whose office happened to be in the building where my MRI data was stored. As a result, she’d been able to review my scan , make a preliminary diagnosis and secure me an appointment with the best surgeon in the entire region. All with in a matter of 3 business days
Like the sudden gust of wind I could feel the hand of God moving on my behalf. and my confidence grew even stronger. Somehow, beyond all conventional reason, I would prevail in this fight. I would live…. As of this writing, that was over two years ago. And I’m doing very well. I continue to work, write, travel and plan for a long and prosperous future. How? Because I believe God..