The Smell of Brimstone and the Sight of a Praying Mother
by Mary Bobbitt with Deborah Slate Ginder
Tax season was hyperactive on April 7, 2006, and my “ to do” list as a small-town CPA in Hillsville, Virginia, was pushing hard. Early mornings. Imaginery lunches. Late evenings–no, make that nights, and you’ll get the picture that there was little time for things that weren’t really important. The 3:00 phone call that afternoon was. Dr. Shaffer wanted to see us.
I hadn’t seen the itinerant emergency room physician since the stormy night almost four weeks earlier when he had attended my son, Eric DeHaven, with urgent perseverance. Kaleidoscopic images and emotions tumbled through my mind and heart as I remembered. . .
Eric, at age thirty-one, was out of control, and the turmoil in his wake was all but wrecking me. I dreaded going to town each morning. Would Eric’s truck be at his apartment? Or was he lying dead somewhere? Would he show up for work at my office? And if he did, could I bear another day of hearing how much he hated the job–though he never looked for another one? How many more arguments? How much more anger?
There was such potential for good in Eric–tender heart, ready wit, contagious laughter. He was bright, blessed with an aptitude for math and a keen interest in science. But somewhere along the way, something went wrong. Eric dropped out of college, preferring partying to studying. And tripping over his inability to believe something he couldn’t explain, Eric declared himself an atheist.
I felt helpless, and almost hopeless. Like a supreme failure as a parent. Part of me wanted to tell Eric to get out of my life. Maybe that would cause him to evaluate his course and make some changes. But what if something dreadful happened to him? Perhaps, I told myself, if I kept seeing him every day, I could somehow get through to him and bring change. But the only things that seemed to be changing were the rising level of tension between us and the increasing number of bad choices Eric was making. A crisis was surely coming.
When a woman phoned me around 7:45 on the evening of March 13, I assumed she wanted me to do her taxes. Instead, she said something about an accident. I wondered what that had to do with me. Slowly I began to comprehend that Eric had been in an auto crash and was trapped in the vehicle. Rescue personnel, who were cutting him out of the wreckage as we spoke, planned an airlift to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, a teaching hospital about ninety-minutes from our home. I knew that wasn’t a good sign.
Eric was conscious enough, the caller said, to explain he had reached down to get something out of the floor while he was driving. He apparently lost control of the truck, which ran off the road, struck some mail boxes, then shot across the lane and smashed head-on into another vehicle. The occupants of that vehicle didn’t appear to be seriously injured, but the description of Eric’s condition was chilling: “It’s bad, Mary. You need to get here as soon as you can.”
By the time my husband, Victor, and I reached the scene, Eric was gone. Strong winds made helicopter transport to Baptist impossible, so somewhere in the night, an ambulance was screaming its way toward our small local hospital, carrying my wandering son. We followed, praying he was still alive.
I made calls while Victor drove. One call was to activate the church’s prayer chain. I’d received those calls many times myself, but I was never sure my petitions made a difference. I am a follower of Jesus, but did God really respond to my voice, to my cries for help? Despite my uncertainty, I prayed passionately as we traveled. My son’s life was at stake.
In the emergency room waiting area, I clutched a Bible as Victor and I continued to pray. That’s what we were doing when a nurse and Dr. Shaffer came to tell us the news. Their faces spoke first, and it was plainly not good. Eric’s injuries were very, very serious, they said. Very serious. The nurse hugged me and said she was sorry. Both Victor and I heard clearly the words they didn’t say: Eric was dying.
It all seemed so unreal. So impossible. This was not the way Eric’s story was supposed to end! “This can’t be happening,” I declared. “We’ll keep praying!”
And we did. Prayers for Eric…the doctors…the nurses.
Sometime later, Dr. Shaffer returned. Eric was being transferred to Baptist Hospital. The physician spoke directly to me. “Whatever you’re doing, “ he said, “keep doing it. It’s working.”
That sounded like hope to me. . . until the ER doctor at Baptist gently summarized Eric’s condition for us. A dire situation, he said. I must prepare for the worst. If family was not on the way, call them. He was sorry, so very sorry. Would I like to see the chaplain? The unsaid was said again: Eric was dying.
Yes, the chaplain. She came. She prayed. She stayed.
The doctor reappeared. Eric’s heart had stopped beating again, he told us, but this time for only 10 seconds. This time? ONLY ten seconds? Yes. It had stopped 5 times in the local hospital ER, once in the ambulance on the way to Baptist, and now a seventh time. I struggled to breathe. Even if Eric survived, the doctor continued, there was the likelihood of brain damage due to possible oxygen deprivation after twenty minutes of CPR and seven cardiac arrests. Long pause. Eric’s pupils were no longer responding to light. . .would I like to be in the room with him?
The litany of sorrow continued as I stood by the bedside of my unconscious son. There are no words for the anguish. Eric was there somewhere. He had to be. Under the labyrinth of noisy machines and bloody tubes. Lungs not working. One completely collapsed. Both severely bruised and soaked with blood, like sponges soaked with water, said the doc. Respirator loudly breathing for him. Body swollen from head to toe. Sternum broken in multiple places. Ribs on each side fractured at several points. Shoulder and leg possibly broken. Large laceration on his left knee. Vile, yawning chasm in his chest.
Human hope was gone now. Someone led us to a quiet room so we could wait together for the end. But a power greater than myself–the very God whose existence Eric denied–led me to pray for the impossible.
“My son, dear God! My son!” I prayed non-stop, family and friends joining in or quietly waiting and listening, Once, as I stood and walked across the room, a good feeling swept through me like a wave. Was it wishful thinking, or was God telling me He would save Eric?
I dared not believe I had heard from God. But morning came, and Eric was still alive. Another morning, still alive. I’m not sure when the miracle actually happened, but it was on that day, March 15, that a doctor first said the word to me. She had been in the ER when Eric was brought in. “This is a miracle,” she declared.
Each day brought amazing improvement. Respirator gone. Tubes removed. Machines turned off. Eric asked for a chocolate milkshake and a burger. He talked so lucidly about March Madness and basketball brackets, the doc said we could stop worrying about brain damage. And on March 23, ten days after the accident, Eric kissed my hand and said he loved me. He planned to stop drinking and start going to church. God exists, he declared. Yes, a miracle!
Eric came home on March 27, and his remarkable recovery continued. So did his struggle with faith. This time it wasn’t about the existence of God; it was about relationship with Him. To intellectually believe in God was one thing; to actively follow Jesus was another. That issue was still unresolved for Eric on April 7, when Dr. Shaffer asked to see us.
“I’m glad to see you!” Dr. Shaffer hugged Eric with tears in his eyes. “You’re a miracle!”
We listened with unwavering attention as Dr. Shaffer told the story from his perspective. Eric’s injuries, he said, were so severe that it seemed almost pointless to try and save him. To complicate matters further, his trachea was torn; his esophagus, crushed. Inserting a breathing tube would be almost impossible.
Dr. Shaffer continued. Knowing Eric’s survival was highly unlikely, he asked Eric if he knew Jesus. Eric said no. Dr. Shaffer told Eric things didn’t look good. Eric said he couldn’t breathe. The anesthesiologist put Eric to sleep.
Then, Dr. Shaffer said, a most extraordinary thing happened–he smelled the unmistakable odor of brimstone, strongly sulfuric and totally unexplainable in their context. It was, he told us, a message to him: if he lost Eric, Eric was lost eternally. The urgency of that realization compelled Dr. Shaffer to persist in his efforts to save Eric’s life. Praying as hard as he could, he and the anesthesiologist finally got the breathing tube inserted.
Dr. Shaffer left the room long enough to come with a nurse to the waiting area. He saw me holding the Bible and praying. That sight, he said, convinced him he must try even harder to save Eric. “He has a praying mother,” he’d told himself. “I can’t give up.”
The situation darkened. In addition to massive bleeding, the medical team was also confronted by the series of five cardiac arrests. Dr. Shaffer persevered, despite some of his colleagues telling him it was time to quit trying. He did everything he knew to do, he said, praying all the while, driven by the smell of brimstone and the sight of a praying mother.
When Eric’s condition seemed slightly better, Dr. Shaffer called Baptist hospital. “I’m sending you a train wreck,” he told the doctor there. After hearing all Dr. Shaffer had done, the physician at Baptist asked the reason for such extreme effort. The answer: “He has a praying mother.”
The trauma doctor at Baptist did what he could for Eric, then phoned Dr. Shaffer. “Why,” he asked, “did you bother to send this man? His lungs are like hamburger. We don’t think he’ll make it, and if he does, there will probably be brain damage.” Dr. Shaffer responded, “I sent him because his mother is a prayer warrior, and you’d better watch out!” The trauma doctor laughed at him. . .
Dr. Shaffer ended his narrative and addressed Eric directly. “You were saved, Eric, because of your mother’s prayers. Not because of what I, or any other doctor, did. In twenty-five years as a physician, I’ve seen a few miracles, usually in children, and the fact that you’re alive is definitely a miracle. Never before have I smelled brimstone while working on a patient. God has given you a second chance, and I don’t believe you’ll get another one. Go and tell what God has done for you.”
That’s when I realized my prayers had really made a difference! God had indeed heard my petitions, my cries for help! Never again would I regard prayer lightly.
And Eric? He isn’t wasting his second chance. He soon committed to follow Jesus, and often shares the miracle story to bless others and honor God. Alcohol has no place in his life, but his wife of three years, his daughter and step-son surely do. They bought a home recently, Eric finished his bachelor’s degree, and he’s working on a graduate degree from a Christian college. Every business day, he comes to work at my office, lighting the place with his smile. And sometimes, he even kisses my hand and says he loves me.
I thank God for his grace on Eric’s life and for his praying mother, Mary. d.