Down at the hospital years ago, a Russian elder was rushed to the Emergency Room and prepared for surgery for that very night. She and her daughter remain in memory as remarkably gracious and grateful women, appreciative of all that the providers could do.
The patient’s daughter, a young mother with small children of her own at home, remained with me in the waiting room as anxious hours wore on. Her English was fairly good, but she was glad to have help as we processed the intake paperwork together. “Mama became ill so suddenly this afternoon,” she explained. “One minute she was there beside me in the kitchen, we were talking and laughing and fixing dinner and helping the children. The next moment she collapsed. The ambulance arrived. I waited with the children just until my husband could rush home. The doctors say her chance of surviving this surgery tonight is 50 percent. We will know nothing until morning.”
We continued with our clipboard of informed consent and questionnaires. To verify one medical term, I hauled out my heavy English-Russian dictionary. (This was back before cell phone apps, so useful to our new generation of interpreters.) From my bag, the dictionary also dislodged a small paperback book, one with this cover print here of Jesus — portrayed not as the Orthodox icon Pantokrator, the Almighty, but as a heart’s friend beckoning the reader to come close and follow along by paths unknown:
“What’s that book?” asked the young woman, snapping to attention. Despite her tiring wait, there was a fresh eagerness in her voice. “Something religious?”
“Oh… just an old title from the dollar shelf today at the used bookstore.” I pounced on the book and stuffed it back in my bag, musing with a sigh that although there are no photographs of Jesus of Nazareth, a wide range of portrait renditions still strike a chord for so many people, from so many cultures. But I felt self-conscious about showing the book here while on duty. Most of our Russian patients were old-school Moscow and Petersburg intellectuals. Many were deeply wary of any American provider who might have a religious bias in their practice of medicine. Several Russian patients had already quizzed me to find out my favorite books, and were appalled by my bucolic tastes in even secular literature. And even by my standards, today’s bargain purchase pushed the needle toward the cloying zone. (Though Wikipedia lists it as one of the top selling religious fiction books of all time at some 50 million copies, thanks to an improperly registered copyright.)
“Is it a Christian book?” Her kindly eyes grew even wider and softer. “Something good?”
“It’s not especially well written,” I confessed. I got up and walked to the reception desk to hand the paperwork clipboard back to the staff, then sat down again.
“What is the story?”
“Fiction from 1896. About a town of people who decide that for one year they will do everything as Jesus would do it.”
“In His Steps by Charles Sheldon? The question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’! Mama and I just love that movie!” she exclaimed. “May I possibly borrow your book for the night? I promise to hand it directly to your supervisor at the interpreting office tomorrow. Better still, would you consider selling it to our family? When my husband joins me with the children in the morning, he will gladly pay whatever price you wish.”
“Oh goodness! I couldn’t think of charging you. It cost a quarter! And… your leaving it with my supervisor! No, no need for that.”
That was my real reason for denying my Savior in book form three times.
This medical facility was a State institution. There was absolutely no religious proselytizing permitted. If this dear family member told my supervisor, I would lose the trust of this administration, and perhaps my job. My supervisor was a passionate secular humanist. Her lifetime of refugee care had shown her bitter examples of lives lost when faith-based conventions caused patients and families to refuse medical intervention. She would be very concerned at my revealing this book in the clinics.
“This hospital,” I explained, “provides the best care we can to patients of every faith equally. If I give out a Christian book to one patient, that will be promoting my religious belief, perhaps pressuring a patient to my way of thinking. Besides, the other patients may well think that I will care more about Christians than about anyone else. My supervisor knows that I’m a believer. But she trusts me to separate religion and medical care. I have to honor her trust in me.”
“When the ambulance left with Mama today,” my companion confided, “I hurried soon after her. There was no time even to take money for some tea or small snack, no time to bring warm night clothes for sitting up in this chair tonight. I just was thinking… while waiting for the surgeon’s news, how nice it would be to have some Godly book. I apologize. I would never want to cause a difficulty for you, after all your goodness to Mama.”
Who knew what news awaited this daughter in the morning? I pulled out the book. She and I sat side by side, gazing at the figure on the cover. What would Jesus do? He’d hand her the book. So I did.
She beamed at me, cradling that twenty five cent paperback to her heart.
My pager alarm went off. Time to run.