If you aren’t reading Russ Ramsey’s Behold the King of Glory this Lenten season, you ought to be. It’s the best Lenten devotion I’ve ever seen or heard tell of. Get his Advent devotional, Behold the Lamb of God, and you could be reading Russ 65 days out of the year–that’s 18% of the year! Read him on He Reads Truth, and you can bump up that percentage even higher. Until recently, Russ was my pastor. We were in the same small group when he went through open heart surgery a couple years ago. That experience gave rise to a book on suffering that will be released in 2017.
Hello, Russ, and welcome to Sad Stories Told for Laughs.
Nice to be here.
Just this week you submitted to the publisher a manuscript about suffering.
A lot of it is based on your own health troubles, no?
It’s autobiographical. I use my story as the setting, but the subject reaches to a broader exploration of common things people experience in seasons of affliction.
Often in this series we talk about public embarrassments–stage mishaps, unattended book signings, etc—but today I thought it would be interesting to talk about the humiliations and mortifications that go along with having a body.
You have come to the right guy.
You had some pretty major surgery–what, three years ago this spring?
Summer of 2013. I developed a blood infection that lodged in my heart and chewed up my mitral valve. I had three different week-long hospital stays, the second of which was so that they could operate on my heart.
You spent your fortieth birthday in the hospital. I remember this because I was there that day, and so was your mother… I said, “Mrs. Ramsey, tell me about what you were doing forty years ago today.”
She gave me kind of a blank look and said, “I couldn’t say,” the way I might if somebody asked me, “Tell me what you were doing the night of October 18, 1998.”
One year she forgot my birthday until the end of the day– which was a Sunday. She knew I liked Baskin Robbins ice cream cakes, so she went to the local Baskin Robbins, which was staffed by one teenage boy. She scoured the freezer for a cake and found one that said, “Happy 21st Birthday, Steve.” She took it to the boy at the counter and said, “Any chance you could change this to read ‘Happy 29th Birthday, Russ’?” He looked at the cake for a second and said, “I think I could change the 21 to a 29, but don’t think I could do anything beyond that.”
She said, “Fine. Do that.”
So she proudly brought me home a cake that said, “Happy 29th Birthday, Steve.”
It was delicious. It is the only cake I have any real memories of– and I love that story.
To clarify, you aren’t the sixth of nine kids or anything like that?
One of three. Her favorite, by a mile…
Readers of this feature expect deeper humiliation than having a couple of birthdays forgotten by your mother. Surely your hospital stays produced some mortifications of the flesh.
Well, when [my wife] Lisa and I arrived at the hospital for my open heart surgery– which happened to also be our 18th wedding anniversary– we signed in and took our seats. It was maybe 5:30am. A guy in black scrubs appeared, carrying a clipboard. He barked, “Ramsey. Ramsey!” He sounded like he was angry with me. Nervously, I went over to him, and he told me he would take me up to pre-op.
In the elevator, he said, “Well, if you have any modesty issues, now would be the time to get over them.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they are about to make you strip down naked. Standard procedure.”
He still sounded angry with me. It turned out that what he lacked in bedside manner he made up for in accuracy. Sure enough, a pre-op nurse showed me to my bed and handed me a small hand towel and then said, “Go ahead and strip down. I’ll be here on the other side of the curtain. Just let me know when you’re ready so we can shave you.”
“Um, what?” I said.
My nurse said, “Didn’t someone tell you? We shave heart patients from chin to toes. You can use the towel to cover up when you’re done.”
I was as vulnerable as the day I was born.
(Now would be the time for all readers to close their eyes and envision Russ Ramsey naked and getting shaved. Take as long as you need.)
Did she shave your back?
Ah Hah! I caught you. My nurse was a dude.
Yes, I guess you did catch me. That being said, I’m still going to picture a female nurse next time I envision this scene. It makes a more memorable image.
Well, that’s all I have to say about that.
There was another time, prior to that, when I had to have some kind of scope or something and I had to go under anesthetics. At the hospital, they have these people called “Transport” and their job is to wheel patients around to their various tests and scopes, and the like. Anyway, this Jamaican woman with a super thick accent came a got me to take me to my test. Along the way, in an effort to comfort me, she said, “You know what’s the truth, mon? Death comes for everybody. Young or old. Doesn’t matter none.”
Did it comfort you?
It made me laugh, and as soon as I came to, I wrote it down in the little journal I kept for moments just like that one. Bedside manner is a funny thing
Comfort is a funny thing too. It’s hard to know what’s going to work.
Yeah, but it’s not that hard to guess when something WON’T work.
Being in the hospital is an upside-down experience. Nothing is normal anymore. You’re there because something is wrong, and everyone else is there because the same is true for them, or they intend to be involved in the process of fixing you. Modesty goes away. Medicine often takes away all our filters. We’re just out there. Tact is gone, inhibitions too.
The day after my surgery, I was still pretty medicated. The nurse wanted me to move back and forth from the bed to a chair every other hour, to keep me moving around. But it was a very painful process, and because of a neurological problem I had which made my left foot go completely numb, I needed two people to help me out of bed. It was usually my wife and a nurse. And early on, whenever I would make that move, I’m told I would erupt in a profanity-laced tirade that would make a comedian blush. I have little recollection of that. The one memory I do have is that after saying a bad word, I would think, “I hope no one heard that.”
I’m not much of a cusser, but apparently I dug deep for some of these tirades. My wife suggested that I might have dusted off some of my old material from when I was a kid.
I guess this is kind of a character thing. I had arthroscopic meniscus surgery around the same time, you’ll remember. But I never erupted into any profanity-laced tirades.
Yes, but your surgery might not have been on the same scale.
I hardly think that’s yours to judge.
I hope your knee feels better.
Do you think that diminishes its importance if you call it a “knee” instead of a “meniscus”?
You’re right. The meniscus is only a tiny part of the knee.
Sorry man. That must be the lingering effect of the anesthetic from three years ago. You deserve better from me.
I hope the tiny part of your knee that they operated on for that one hour that afternoon feels better.
It does…which is amazing, because I’m not sure anybody but me prayed for my recovery.
When I heard those terrible words–“torn meniscus”–I thought, “Finally, I’ve got something to contribute during prayer request time.” But no, there’s somebody in my small group about to have open-heart surgery.
If I’m not mistaken, it was literally the same day I was going to do my big reveal that you asked people to pray for your “heart problem.”
I remember that. And I went first.
That did stink for you. You had your surgery while two of your friends were facing major health issues. No one showed you any love at all.
Is there a word or phrase to describe getting trumped like that on a prayer request? If there isn’t, there ought to be.
Let’s invite that in the comments. Folks, what should that be called?
I don’t know if you remember this, but about the time of my surgery, Lisa heard about somebody who had died of complications from a meniscus surgery.
Yeah. The relative of a co-worker or something.
She couldn’t decide whether or not to tell me. She didn’t know if it would terrify me or make me feel validated. I thought it was incredibly validating. Still, you were the one getting all the love.
God has put eternity in our hearts. But he has put our hearts in these bodies… As somebody said, this is ridiculous, like a dog wearing a tuxedo.
Yeah, but its also sacred. Your meniscus, my heart– they were both moments where we had to face the reality that our bodies break down.
I refused to wear the hospital gowns in favor of my own clothes. It made my IV port less accessible, but I felt that if I could keep at least one part of my life normal, it wouldn’t be so bad. We cling to things that remind us that even though some affliction has pinned us to the mat, our lives continue on.
As you’ve already suggested, there were plenty of indignities involved in your hospital stays. What did you learn from having to live with those indignities?
Or to put it another way, what have you taken back into your “regular” life, where it’s easier to guard your dignity?
I am willing to talk very openly about my mortality now. This has proven to be helpful for others. I’ve sort of lost the sense of discretion when it comes to telling my story.
We use the word mortification as a synonym for humiliation or indignity. We’ve been talking about mortifications that are related to the flesh and the failures thereof…do you see any connections between those mortifications and the old idea of “the mortification of the flesh”?
We just recently celebrated Ash Wednesday, where the priest bends down and whispers into the congregant’s ear, “Remember that you have to die.” I think going through an affliction, or being shaved from chin to toes, reminds us of our mortality, which, for me anyway, helps to shape humility.
Are we still laughing? The pastor can’t help himself.
We don’t have to laugh the whole time. Having said that, Lent is a great time to laugh at ourselves.
Yes it is. It is a good time to remember that we are fools.
I think one of the most important messages of Lent—and suffering—is that we don’t have to take the world as seriously as the world takes itself.
I actually kept a page in my hospital journal just for the funny things that happened. Humor played a vital role in maintaining sanity. During my third hospital stay a drunk and disorderly guy was wheeled into the area next to me. We were separated by a curtain. When he first arrived, he was unintelligible, in and out of consciousness, and clearly in pain. When he would come to, he was belligerent.
The police had brought him in and I could hear their radios squawking in the hallway. After a couple of hours, he sobered up enough to have a semi-lucid conversation with his ER doc. Part of the conversation when EXACTLY like this:
Dr: Sir, did you at any point lose consciousness after your cousin hit you in the head with the sledge hammer?
Guy: (clearly insulted, disgusted by the question) No!
Dr: Well, you’re a much tougher man than I.
Guy: Exactly… (nods back off to sleep.)
The absurdity of that conversation was like medicine. It hurt to laugh, but laugh I did.
But even that guy, tough as he might be, is made of dust, and to dust he shall return. And so are you, Russ. And me. And you, dear reader.
Thanks, Russ, for sharing your Sad Stories Told for Laughs.
Glad to bare my soul. (Get it?)
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.