Just for fun--and to add to the ominous feeling of the DC Snowpocalypse--I watched a PBS documentary over the weekend on the 1918 influenza epidemic. It was well produced and very informative, but I was left thinking about the limits of medical knowledge at that time. They had microscopes to be able to see bacteria, but they couldn't see viruses. So doctors were trying to create vaccines to fight the suspected bacterium, but of course the vaccines didn't work because it was a viral respiratory infection that left people literally dropping dead on the streets. The early 20th century had made so many advances in medicine that people assumed that doctors would be able to solve any illness, but this flu pandemic humbled everyone.
And so we find ourselves humbled once again nearly a century later. The Washington Post recently carried an article about how some patients in a "vegetative state" were discovered to have alert brains:
As I read this article, I thought of Ian Murphy. Many of you are familiar with Ian's story--how three years ago, he suffered a tremendous brain injury in a car accident. And how he was not supposed to live, then not supposed to leave a comatose state, then not supposed to talk, then not supposed to walk, etc. By the amazing mercy and grace of God, Ian has beaten every prognosis (though he is not completely recovered). Along the way, he has had the jaw-droppingly faithful support of his girlfriend, Larissa, and his family. He has thrived even through sad difficulties such as the sudden death of his father from brain cancer last October.
Many of the patients were labeled with the same grim diagnosis: "vegetative state." Their head injuries, teams of specialists had concluded, condemned them to a netherworld -- alive yet utterly devoid of any awareness of the world around them.
But an international team of scientists decided to try a bold experiment using the latest technology to peek inside the minds of 54 patients to see whether, in fact, they were conscious.
One by one, the men and women were placed inside advanced brain scanners as technicians gave them careful instructions: Imagine you are playing tennis. Imagine you are exploring your home, room by room. For most, the scanner showed nothing.
But, shockingly, for one, then another, and another, and yet two more, the scans flashed exactly like any healthy conscious person's would. These patients, the images clearly indicated, were living silently in their bodies, their minds apparently active. One man could even flawlessly answer detailed yes-or-no questions about his life before his trauma by activating different parts of his brain.
"It was incredible," said Adrian M. Owen, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council who led the groundbreaking research described in a paper published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine. "These are patients who are totally unable to perform functions with their bodies -- even blink an eye or move an eyebrow -- but yet are entirely conscious. It's quite distressing, really, to realize this."
Two days after his accident, the doctors said Ian's brain death was imminent. As people around the world, literally, began to pray for him, he eventually showed brain activity. But as Larissa told one reporter, she prayed that God would help them communicate more directly:
Even if Ian did remember and still loved Larissa, there was no way for him to communicate it. For months after the accident, he barely was able to open his eyes, much less communicate his affection. He couldn’t squeeze her hand, wink at her or whisper that he loved her. There were days Ian couldn’t even acknowledge her presence, but Larissa said she prayed that God would guard her heart and reassure her, when she couldn’t seek assurance from Ian. She prayed that God would give her signs that Ian still loved her.
“From the beginning, when I would go into the room and talk to him, his heart rate would increase,” Larissa said. “God always gave me signs that Ian still loved me and knew who I was.”
Larissa persevered through many months of disappointment and deferred hopes. She was honest about how painful it was to watch other friends get engaged and married, moving on with their lives as she waited for Ian's healing. Then on Christmas Eve, I heard the good news: they were engaged! As happy as she is upon her engagement, Larissa writes about their future marriage with remarkable wisdom:
Marriage is a huge decision. Every couple pursuing marriage must count the costs of a lifetime commitment. For some couples the cost can be as big as giving up a career to move to a new place, or as "small" as giving up holiday traditions to make new ones with in-laws.
The cost of our marriage seems more extreme. And it's not a "picture perfect" wedding that it sometimes feels like the rest of the world has or will have. Ian has a brain injury. Steve died from cancer. We have very little financial means. It's a possibility we won't be able to have children. The list of the "costs" goes on for awhile.
But all of these costs could happen in every single marriage. It's just that we know them in advance. There are no guarantees that anyone will ever be spared of these hardships and "costs." What's guaranteed is that we will have troubles.
So, I guess that logically brings us to why would we get married? Well, as simple as it is, because we love each other. And we enjoy each other. And we believe that Ian was created to be my husband and me to be his helper. Our marriage will look way different than we imagined four years ago. But it must mean something that I can't look at Ian without smiling. And that he has struggled every day for three years to get better--for me.
I hope this doesn't sound preachy. (no offense to our pastors who read this :) ) This is just the truth that I have to come back to at the end of the day through our engagement, as we wrestle through all of the costs and blessings this marriage will bring. Our marriage could last one month, five years, fifty years, until one of us goes to be with God. The most wonderful thing I can think of doing while anxiously waiting for that to happen, is to go through this crazy lifetime, as long or short as it may be, as husband and wife.
I've written about Ian and Larissa many times before on this blog and I hope I will continue to have that privilege in the future. Ian is a "standing stone"--a living reminder that we finite creatures are limited in our knowledge of how the world works and what God is doing in and through His creatures. While science is just catching up with what Larissa and the Murphy family have already experienced, our hope is still not in medical progress. We have a Savior who offers us complete healing in every sense of the word. It's on Him that we hang our every future hope.
(P.S. Some have inquired about how to help Ian and Larissa. If you would like to send a material or financial gift, send it to Ian Murphy, c/o Sovereign Grace Church, 1220 Wayne Avenue, Indiana, Pa. 15701. If it is a monetary gift, please write Murphy Wedding in the memo.)
Photos: Lydia Jane Photography.