On Healing: The Mercy of Pain

The other day I was catching up on Grey’s Anatomy (I really wish I could tell you it was a much more sophisticated, socially acceptable show, but here we are) when I found myself burrowed under a blanket, squirming uncomfortably as a scene unfolded on my TV screen. A woman was rushed into the emergency room after a man drenched half of her face in acid—a kitchen towel hung haphazardly over the open wound as she fidgeted on a gurney. The plastic surgeon walks in as she is screaming and fighting against being helped and assures her that she is safe. He promises that they are going to work together to guarantee a full recovery, but he is going to need to remove the towel-turned-bandage. She begs him not to and starts to panic as he holds up the bottle of saline he intends to use to remove the towel. He looks at her as she is screaming and begging for mercy and tells her that this is necessary, that leaving the towel sticking to rotting, deteriorated skin is not an option.

And I had to look away. I had to look away because I wanted him to stop torturing her. I wanted him to leave her alone and let her make her own decisions about whether or not she'd like to walk through the hell of the healing process. I knew that at any second my whole living room was going to be filled with screams that, although artificially generated, are real enough. And I know what it’s like to be the woman on the gurney, screaming out to be left alone. I know what it’s like to have an acid wound covered by a kitchen towel and to prefer my skin to rot underneath the bandage than to feel one more ounce of pain.

Please, please, please have mercy on me.

And despite the woman’s protests, the doctor rips the towel off her face and exposes the wound. He is able to move forward and ignore her pleas because he is sure of his qualifications to make a much better decision for her than she is able to make for herself.

The episode walks through her recovery process, and it extends much further than that first night. She endures countless surgeries over the course of multiple years. At one point, with her face still covered in scars and defeat raging in her eyes, she tells the doctor she’s had enough. The process isn’t working and she needs some peace--she can’t go through another surgery. He patiently reminds her of his promise, the one he made that first night in the emergency room--they are going to move forward together until the healing is finished. He is sure and she is unsteady. He trusts the healing process when she is all rung dry of hope. He is the doctor and she is not. And they move forward because of his unwillingness to give up on her.

Sometimes the word healing, at least in my experience, brings about pictures of meditation and beach scenes, and I am often frustrated that these pictures are just shiny ideals that are far from reality. Healing looks a lot more like screaming on a gurney, begging a doctor not to expose the wound while the nurses hold you down and he drenches your face in saline. It almost never looks or feels or materializes the way we want it to, but praise God that he is qualified to make the call to remove the towel. That he is sure when we are unsteady. That he is God and we are not. And we move forward into the fullness of life and healing because of his unwillingness to give up on us.

So often I feel like the woman in the middle of the episode, already having endured too many surgeries and begging to not go through one more.

God, we’ve already done this. I am exhausted. I am over it. I am ready to leave the hospital room and go outside, even if it’s with a face that's only half healed.

But then the doctor leans in and he reminds me of his promise. A promise to not stop until it is finished, a promise to give me back what I have lost. I do not always trust the process, I do not always hold onto an unwavering hope for healing, but the presence of the one who is promising to never leave and to always be more qualified than me is enough. It is enough. We move forward.

At the end of the episode the doctor, the one who has stood by the woman through countless surgeries and even more moments of defeat and anger towards the process, joyfully agrees to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day. He walks into the bride’s room and she turns around to reveal that there is no more physical evidence that she was ever the woman screaming on a hospital bed, half of her face decayed by acid. No more scars; no remaining wounds; she is new. Years of doubt and fear and unequivocal pain have led to this moment of new life. And on her wedding day, standing beside the doctor who healed her, there is no doubt that the mercy she begged for that first night in the emergency room was not granted the way she hoped, but praise God for that. The doctor ignoring her screams and seeing beyond her temporary relief to the fullness of healing and removing the towel was, no doubt, the greatest act of mercy.