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Just As I Am
Just a few months before I received my M.D. from Johns Hopkins, I sat in the sumptuous office of the great Surgeon-in-Chief up at the world famous Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, the ivory tower high above upper New York City. Across the desk from me sat the famous man.
Columbia was recruiting me vigorously for my internship after medical school, as were a number of other hospitals, and I was kind of taking a “victory lap” as it were, after a rather stellar stint at Hopkins, the “mecca” of the medical universe.
I did not know the Lord at the time and was very full of myself, of course, and way more immature than I could ever have appreciated at the time. I was totally clueless as to life in so many ways and would remain so for many years.
The great man leaned forward and looked at me intently.
“Dr. Dombroff, in thirty or forty years, what do you want to have accomplished,” he asked.
I did not expect that question, but I remember exactly what my answer was. I mulled it over for a moment but it was not hard for me to answer, because interestly, it had been on my mind for a long time as I had gone through the Ivy League, medical school at Hopkins, and had engaged in cardiac surgery research that later turned out to be groundbreaking. I was 24 at the time.
I suspect that my interviewer asked this question regularly and expected answers something along the lines of brilliant surgical achievements and so forth. I wasn’t thinking in those terms.
“I want to look back and be able to say that I changed someone’s life in a profound way for the better that would not have happened had I not been passing through their life at that moment,” I answered. I really didn’t know exactly what I meant by this at the time and uncharacteristically blurted it out
He looked quizzical and we moved on to touring the wards and seeing some patients at the world-renowned medical center. However, I never forgot the encounter because unexpectedly I revealed something about Richard to the great man, but more significantly, I learned something about myself. Actually, I was a little embarrassed at my answer because it seemed as it was a little “airy-fairy,” so to speak.
There’s no question that in life we gain so much as the years pass, however, life is also so often characterized by loss. Things are taken from us in the natural course of human existence. Often, we throw things away, not reckoning the cost.
In Oliver Stone’s brilliant cinematic treatment of professional athletics, Any Given Sunday, the protagonist, played by Al Pacino, is an aging football player-turned-head coach who addresses his superstar players in the locker one last time before the championship game.
He talks about how life is often about loss, how life takes things from us and how we squander so many of our blessings ourselves. He then goes on to tell the young stars : “I p-ssed away all my money and chased away anyone who ever loved me.”
Obviously, that is a common story and it pretty much sums up my storied existence, but only up to a point.
These days, as a nursing home and hospice chaplain, I tend to make rounds in a way which is very similar to my years in clinical medicine and surgery at the great hospitals of the world. I have certain patients who are on my list to see and also I poke my head into rooms to say,”Hi” to new patients, introduce myself as “Chaplain Rock” and ask them if there is anything I can do for them.
As happenstance would have it, I came into the room of a young man who was dying with cancer which was widely metastatic to all of his body, including his brain. I asked him cheerfully, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Do you have anything for liver cancer?” he asked.
I do not get into discussions with sick people about the details of their specific conditions because that’s not my job and also there are more than enough doctors and others who are more than willing to entertain endless blather about sickness, disease, and death. Even in Christian healing prayer services, well-intentioned believers often spend more time testifying about the intricacies and minutiae of disease and death than they devote to speaking healing and life over themselves or others. They don’t need me to add to that doubt and unbelief.
The long and the short of this was that after chatting with this young man with metastatic liver cancer, I prayed with him, something he had never done in his life. I then asked him if he would like to get things “right with God.” He said he would and I guided him to a saving knowledge and confession of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. We took the Lord’s Supper together at his bedside, we hugged each other, I congratulated him, and I told him I would see him next weekend. I will always remember that he smiled an amazing little sly grin as I left the room.
I have found that when people are at the precipice of death, they are often freed from the bondage to traditions and cultural inhibitions learned from family, communities, and life experiences. In short, they are desperate for the meaning of their lives and all the bankrupt philosophies of man that they may have been taught growing up, often don’t amount to a hill ‘beans and they seem to develop a sixth sense for Truth. That’s where the Gospel comes in.
This young fellow was no different and like many others, I have been privileged, as an Ambassador for Christ, to bring them to the only source of true peace and meaning in their lives, the living God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth.
Truly, at that moment, as I left his room, in my spirit, I could hear the angels singing in the throne room of God. I love that sound. I’ve heard it many times.
Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.
I put him on my visitation list and proceeded on with rounds. I do not recall his name, but that is of no import, because I knew that the Lord had his name literally tattooed on the palms of His hands from before the foundation of the Universe.
Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.
The following Sunday, as I was making my rounds, I entered this young fellow’s room, and as I entered I exclaimed, “Hi ya, Brother, Chaplain Rock here!”
He lay in his bed comatose, surrounded by family, a sister and a brother. They looked up at me, with initial surprise, but then with welcoming grins, similar to the amazing smile I remembered the young man had given me the week earlier.
His sister came up to me and I was half afraid that I was going to get scolded for something. That’s an occupational hazard of getting into so much trouble in life.
She took my hand and said: “Chaplain Rock, my brother told me about you praying with him and we are very grateful. We were raised Jewish, but we’re not religious people. Thank you so much, it meant a lot to him. He’s in a coma and he’s going now.”
I hugged her and walked slowly around to the right side of his bed. This was the side I always ministered from. It was an old habit because we surgeons always do our best work from the patient’s right side of the operating table.
I took His hand and anointed his forehead with oil. He was semi-comatose and his breathing was stertorous. I prayed out loud, in the natural as well as quietly in tongues, for when we pray over someone in tongues we pray the “perfect will of God” in their lives.
We joined hands around his bed and prayed as well. They knew he was at the end of his painful journey. I assured them truthfully that their brother would be in Heaven with the Lord forever. We had settled that.
I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
When we were finished, we sat in loving silence all together for a while. Their brother and I had sung praise and worship songs together when he had come to the Lord last week. So we all sang together. Just before leaving, I leaned way over the young man’s right ear, without any assurance that he would hear me. I knew his spirit would hear it anyway. I kneeled down by his bedside and I sang to him one last song, my favorite:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me
Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
It evoked no immediate reaction from him, but just as I finished, he turned his head ever so slightly to me, still on my knees in prayer at his bedside, he squeezed my hand gently, and, eyes still closed, he evidenced that famous family grin I now knew so well.
Then, finally freed, he went home to be with the Lord.
I realized at that moment that I had finally fulfilled the elusive life ambition I had so unexpectedly articulated in that pretentious surgical internship interview forty years earlier in New York. The goal that had eluded me for nearly six decades. I had accomplished what I had set out to do in life, but in a way that I could never have dreamed possible as a young, hungry man in a rush. But, after all the triumphs and all the adulation, after all the gains and losses, despite all the pain and sorrow, it had been worth the trip.
Today, I have a very sweet, modest and rather solitary life in ministry, as well as some speaking, teaching, and global consulting projects, just to keep my “hand in.” My life, of course, is very different than I could ever have imagined.
I can see the evidence all around me that I am different as well. That “man in the mirror” from olden days is gone. I live comfortably and quietly. All the money that I have in the world is in my back pocket. However, for the first time in my life, miraculously, I seem to save money every month. The Lord is so gracious. Loaves and fishes, loaves and fishes.
I possess none of the trappings of worldly wealth or greatness, no more yachts or private jets, no more Rolls Royces or homes in Trump Tower. They are memories. Some wonderful, some not so. However, now dancing as David danced before the Lord or when ministering on my knees to the sick and suffering, I sometimes get flashes of realization that I have finally become, in the Lord, the man I was always intended to be.
My family, all raised culturally Jewish, does not return my calls and I spend most of my holidays alone. As I have become more active and recognized in Christian ministry, they will they no longer acknowledge that I even exist. My children, whom I adore, will not and have not seen me for years. I understand that I have two grandchildren, neither of which I have ever seen, except on Facebook, where I occasionally sneak a peek that warms my heart and breaks it at the same time. I am sad to say that these youngsters probably do not know my name. Their mother, Nicole, my firstborn, the light of my life and my soulmate for so many years, has not spoken to me in eight years, since I have been born again.
Of course, of everything that I have gained and lost, these human losses pain me unspeakably and they are the hardest cross to bear. Sometimes I cannot lift up my head, contemplating this. I have had to turn this over to the Lord, because only The Great Physician call heal this. I am believing Him, for He is a “board-certified” specialist in reconciliation.
I am healthy and robust and, although I do not know what the future will bring, I do know that God is not through with me. I pledged my life to Him as a sacrifice years ago, when He delivered me from my prison chains and I spoke with him just this morning. I am still “the apple of His eye.” (Zechariah 2:8)
I am believing that He will continue to work out His plans for my life in His service. Like the Apostle Paul, writing from the Philippian jail, I am confident of this:
“....he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ”
I do sometimes think I see dark clouds of uncertainty ahead and every once in awhile, like the discouraged prophet Elijah, fresh from his triumph, I want to just go sit down, “under a juniper tree” and have a good cry. (1 Kings 19:5). They would not be bitter tears, however. Perhaps bittersweet.
Like everyone, I do not want to die alone. I know we are mere blades of grass and that our lives are as a vapor.
But Life today in the Lord is beautiful and, above all, I do know one thing for sure:
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Just as I am.