The Artery

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Surgeon Paul Brand tells a story that provides a gripping picture of the work of the paraclete.

He was a junior doctor in a London hospital when one day he came into the room of an eighty-one-year-old cancer patient named Mrs. Twigg. Her cancer was in her throat and, as he describes it, this “spry, courageous woman … had asked that we do all we could medically to prolong her life, and one of my professors removed her larynx and the malignant tissue around it.”

Brand received an urgent summons to her ward one day, and walked in to find her bleeding profusely from her mouth. He guessed immediately that an artery on the back of her throat had eroded. There was only one thing he knew to do to stop the bleeding: apply pressure. They had only to wait for the surgeon and the anesthetist to arrive. Looking into her terror-stricken eyes as she fought the urge to gag, he assured her that he would not remove his finger until it was absolutely safe to do so. He describes what happened:

We settled into position. My right arm crooked behind her head, supporting her. My left hand nearly disappeared inside her contorted mouth, allowing my index finger to apply pressure at the critical point. I knew from visits to the dentist how fatiguing and painful it must be for tiny Mrs. Twigg to stretch her mouth open wide enough to surround my entire hand. But I could see in her intense blue eyes a resolution to maintain that position for days if necessary. With her face a few inches from mine, I could sense her mortal fear. Even her breath smelled of blood. Her eyes pleaded mutely, “Don’t move—don’t let go!” She knew, as I did, if we relaxed our awkward posture, she would bleed to death.

We sat like that for nearly two hours. Her imploring eyes never left mine. Twice during the first hour, when muscle cramps painfully seized my hand, I tried to move to see if the bleeding had stopped. It had not, and as Mrs. Twigg felt the rush of warm liquid surge up her throat she gripped my shoulder anxiously.

I will never know how I lasted that second hour. My muscles cried out in agony. My fingertip grew totally numb. I thought of rock-climbers who have held their fallen partners for hours by a single rope. In this case the cramping four-inch length of my finger, so numb I could not even feel it, was the strand restraining life from falling away.

I, a junior doctor in my twenties, and this eighty-one-year-old woman clung to each other superhumanly because we had no choice—her survival demanded it.

Finally the surgeon came, and they were wheeled into the operating room. There, as everyone stood poised with gleaming tools, he slowly removed his finger as her aged hand clutched his wrist. When his finger was totally removed, a smile spread across her bruised lips. The clot had held. She would be all right. With no larynx, only her eyes could express her gratitude.

“She knew how my muscles had suffered,” writes Brand. “I knew the depths of her fear. In those two hours in the slumberous hospital wing, we had become almost one person.”

After telling this story, Dr. Brand made two comments: In all of his years as a physician, the thing that keeps coming back to him time and again from his patients is that when they are on their backs and at the very extremes of their ability to believe and to endure, only one kind of person can help. That person rarely has any answers to their questions, he seldom has a winsome and effervescent personality. It is always someone who does not judge or give advice but who will simply be there with them in their suffering, who will be present, perhaps to share tears, or a hug, or a lump in the throat.

Stated theologically, the most helpful person is a paraclete, one who comes alongside.

Brand’s other comment came by way of a quotation by John V. Taylor about the Holy Spirit. He said, “The Holy Spirit is the force in the straining muscles of an arm, the film of sweat between pressed cheeks, the mingled wetness on the back of soft clasped hands. He is as close and as unobtrusive as that, and as irresistibly strong.”

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