The suffering surgeon

Kathryn Butler has witnessed her share of suffering.

File photo
File photo

As a critical care surgeon, Kate recalls one evening where three patients all died on her table within moments of each other: a 22-year-old assault victim whose head had been bashed in with a baseball bat while his four-year-old son looked on; a 15-year-old with a gunshot wound to the heart; and another 15-year-old with a gunshot wound to the head.

One after the other she had to assess their condition and feel her heart sink as she realised they could not be saved.

She could do nothing but weep as she thought about the cruelty of the circumstances that had taken each of their lives, and the family and friends whose hearts had been broken with their deaths.

"I tugged the bloodied gloves from my hands, rushed from the room, and hid my face as I cried," she tells Christianity Today.

When that is your job, when your daily reality consists of watching people suffer and die, the idea of a loving God becomes unfathomable.

"How could God allow such evil?" Kathryn remembers asking herself. She had grown up with a basic understanding of Christian traditions, but nothing beyond that. She says she thought Christianity to be synonymous with good behaviour.

Kathryn Butler
Kathryn Butler has seen things she can only describe as ‘miracles’.

In moments such as that night, moments of despair and hopelessness at the state of the world and the prevalence of suffering, Kathryn sometimes tried to pray. But no words came out.

"I felt cut off from God," she says. "I thought the Lord – if He even existed – had abandoned me."

So she fell into agnosticism, convinced nothing was or could be known about the existence or nature of God.

"Doubt led to hopelessness, and hopelessness to despair," Kathryn recalls.

"I dreamed of eternal sleep, of numbness, of annihilation. Thoughts of taking my own life troubled me daily. Only love for my husband, Scottie, brought me home each evening."

Soon after, when Kathryn's husband lost his job, he turned to the church, understood the Bible for the first time, and accepted Jesus as his Lord and Saviour.

“How could
God allow
such evil?”
Kathryn sometimes accompanied him to church, but where Scottie would bow his head in prayer, she "would stare ahead with my thoughts cast outside the church walls, my gaze defiant".

A man she calls Ron, a patient of hers, and his family finally softened that defiant gaze. Ron had suffered cardiac arrest after a hip replacement and was in a vegetative state, needing a mechanical ventilator to breathe, neurologists predicting he would never recover.

Ron's wife and daughters were of a different opinion. They stayed by his side every day and prayed for his healing.

"They could not accept that the boisterous, football-loving, pizza-dough-tossing, belly-laughing man they cherished would never acknowledge them again," Kathryn says.

One day Kathryn walked into Ron's room to his smiling wife.

She told Kathryn, "I was praying and praying last night, and when I woke up, I knew everything would be fine. God told me he's going to be just fine."

"I admired her conviction and her hope, especially as I had neither," Kathryn tells Christianity Today.

"Yet her husband's clinical data promised that everything would not be fine."

She remembers finding their unjustified hope and consistent praying heartbreaking.

Until one afternoon, when Ron's wife and daughters told Kathryn he had moved his toe when they had asked.

"I leaned within inches of Ron's ear and called his name. I urged him to move. Nothing. 'I'm so sorry. It was probably just a reflex,' I said."

But Ron's wife insisted. She put a hand on his shoulder and shouted into his ear for him to wiggle his big toe. He did.

"The next day, he turned his head towards them," Kathryn says.

"Then, he blinked to command. In two weeks, he was awake. In three, he sat in a chair."

This incredible recovery was – Kathryn could not deny it – miraculous. No one could have predicted it, and no one could explain it.

But still she wrestled with God. "How could he bestow such blessing, yet allow such suffering?" she asked.

"Scottie encouraged me to read the Bible," she says.

"The words felt familiar, but with my newly opened heart, the reading unveiled Christ's love in brushstrokes I had never fathomed.

"The agony He suffered for our sake left me breathless. He, too, had endured heartache and had confronted the face of evil. And He bore such affliction – our affliction – for us. He knows suffering.

"The Lord took my despair and fashioned a canvas for His perfect work," Kathryn continues.

"Just as Christ raised Lazarus from the dead in John chapter 11 verses 1-16, so that others might believe, so He redeems suffering – the gunshot wounds, the mourning, the lost jobs, the despondency beside bridge railings – for His glory.

"In His mercy, He descends to buoy us up, and to complete miracles we cannot pretend to comprehend. He pours blessings upon us every day – the jewel tones in autumn, but also the hard nights, and every breath in between."

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