The Most Important Person in the Operating Room

“The doctor just left the room. Van isn’t gonna make it.”

There was a lot more information, but his voice broke after that, choked back by a flood of emotion. Kirsten’s brother, Van, who also happens to be one of my closest friends (long story), had some chest pain he thought was heartburn a few days earlier. He’d had some spicy shrimp off a friend’s grill, and he assumed it wasn’t sitting quite right.

When he went to a walk-in clinic in search of an antacid, what he thought was heartburn turned out to be a torn aorta. His primary heart valve was gushing blood internally so fast they weren’t sure he’d even make it to the hospital. While the doctor was explaining all this to Van—just in his early thirties—an ambulance was speeding, sirens blaring, to the clinic to pick him up.

Forty-eight hours later, the leading surgeon at Vanderbilt, America’s top heart hospital by reputation, had just delivered the news: “He’s not gonna make it. Tell the family to get here as quickly as they can.”

We left the church right away. We rushed home and booked the next flight out. By the time we got to the hospital in Nashville the following morning, the medical team had more information. Van was scheduled for a surgery—a surgery that had a significantly greater chance of killing him than healing him. But he was dying, and this was quite literally the only option left.

I sat on the armrest of the chair at the foot of his bed and dropped my head into my hands, peering through my fingers at Van’s tattooed chest. They would slice his skin down the middle and peel open his rib cage in the next twenty-four hours. I was there to say goodbye to someone I was supposed to grow old next to. I brought all the crushing desperation and fear, all the measly hope I could muster, and talked to God about it. I prayed.

That was the beginning of the story. Here’s how it ended: a couple days later, Van woke up in that same hospital room after a successful surgery, the only patient in the hospital’s history to survive this particular combination of multiple open-heart surgeries.

The leading surgeon came in to speak to the family. He wept as he recounted the moment in the operating room when the surgical team gave up and informally declared Van deceased. Then a nursing student, whose only role was to hand the surgeon the scissors, began praying for him in the operating room. Immediately, the surgeon located the bleeding tear he had been unsuccessfully searching for over the last five hours, and Van survived.

Miraculous. That’s not my word. That’s what the non-Christian, non-praying doctor called it as he relayed the story, with tears threatening to overflow the banks of his eyelids.

Yes, prayer stills us, brings us peace, helps us come to terms with what is. Prayer changes the person praying from the inside out. But prayer also releases power. Prayer releases power to affect real change in the tangible world.

From Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools by Tyler Staton