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My Next Book…Year 6, Chapter 1…That Had to Hurt

January 29, 2010

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You might have noticed that I have been AWOL on writing timely musings — Chapters for My Next Book, the last few weeks. Let me explain. On December 27, Linda and I were enjoying the Christmas season at our 19th century Still Point Farm. I lifted a huge log to put in the fireplace, twisted my back and it proved beyond my powers. I haven’t been in a hospital for forty years, but the pain for what I thought was a sprained back was at about eleven on a ten scale. It felt like a cross between a broken rib and kidney stones.

I’m not big on untreated pain sooo we cut short our sabbatical and opted out for primary care in Dallas – as it turned out an odyssey of conflicting disease diagnoses from all manner of super specialists at UT Southwestern University Hospital.

The obvious first guess was that I had dislocated ribs. Ribs do hurt. I imagine Donovan McNab and Brett Farve would have a lot to say about ribs. That concept led to a week of physical therapy, prodding and high octane pills. Result: things go worse!

One morning, a 32-year old physical therapist did about the bravest thing I can imagine. She said, “I think you need a second opinion.” By this time, I had lost 15 pounds in about two weeks. I guess there is a silver lining behind every cloud.

After a few good guesses, the diagnosis turned out to be something utterly different than we were working on. MRIs proved that there was abscess on my upper spine. Sitting across from the doctor and looking at the very clear pictures, I heard the doctor say, “It’s either infection or cancer. Don’t even think about going home. I am checking you into the hospital right now. Take this seriously. It is life threatening.”

It is now eight days later and I have been in the hands of Southwestern 24/7 (literally) ever since that fateful phrase. After plenty of tests, the certain diagnosis proved to be infection which is (thank God) treatable rather than cancer. Within an hour or so of the infection diagnosis and ever since, I have been fed by a constant intravenous stream of very powerful antibiotics for most of the hours of every day and night.

Things are remarkably better and instead of worrying about cancer, we are now tracking down the source of the infection and treating it. I am going to be kept on a short radius between Dallas and Still Point Farm, but I am back in action about half speed, having been released to home healthcare on Wednesday. The antibiotics have dramatically alleviated the pain in my back which had nothing at all to do with muscle spasms. Whew!

My next door neighbor in Tyler, oilman Curtis Mewbourne, who has been a lifelong wildcatter, describes a bad oil well by saying, “I didn’t even get a lesson out of that one.” I want to tell you that this one week in the constant care of world-class doctors and well-prepared nurses at UT-Southwestern has taught me a bevy of lessons. I thought them worth sharing:

Lesson 1. Trust God
I learned how to relinquish control of my life for the second time. The first time, of course, was when Linda and I lost our 24-year old son, Ross. The Proverb that kept us going was from Solomon, Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto thine own understanding.” Albert Einstein expressed it differently, “That which is beyond the realm of science is in the realm of God.” Linda and I have done a lot of trusting God in the last week just as we did when Ross died.

Lesson 2. Pain is an enormous diversion – it takes over your life.
The challenge of self-absorption sucks up almost all your attention. It makes you more compassionate in retrospect, but certainly not at its most intense point. Almost anything for comfort.

Lesson 3. People who have made the transition, early in their life or later, from success to significance are happier than other people I know.
Almost universally, the doctors, nurses, and other caregivers at UT-Southwestern, including those on the 7 PM – 7 AM night shift, all smiled and were incredibly responsive to my needs. I can honestly say there wasn’t a one of them I didn’t like and whose work I didn’t respect.

Lesson 4. There are just some things that money can’t buy.
Health seems to me, at this point, a privilege rather than an entitlement. Money can have an influence. Lifestyle can certainly have an influence, but in the final analysis it is up to your God and your body.  My friend, Tom Luce, told me a famous oncologist at UT-Southwestern, told him that stress had more influence on the outcome of cancer than chemotherapy or radiation. Think about it.

Lesson 5: Pain fosters compassion.
I feel a great deal more empathy for the hurts of others, most of them greater than mine. This has proved an enormous benefit before and is once again. Despite all the advances in medical science, life is still a very human enterprise. Caring friends and deep enduring relationships still matter a great deal.

That is a way of saying how grateful Linda and I are for all the expressions of concern via email, faxed notes and letters. Peter Drucker said to Linda and me by phone after Ross died, “Isn’t it a shame it requires an occasion like this to say the things we need to say to one another.”

Practical Facts: What I have is an infection in the marrow of my spine. For the next six weeks, I will, waking and sleeping, carry with me a small device pumping me full of antibiotics. My travel radius will probably be Dallas and Still Point Farm. I can work half days by email and phone. BJ knows my schedule seven days a week. I expect to be fully recovered in six weeks.

What About You?

  1. What has been the most physical pain you have ever experienced?
  2. What were the relationships that mattered most in that season of pain?
  3. What lessons did you learn?
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Derek Bell permalink*
    January 29, 2010 4:28 PM

    Bob – I am thankful that you are on the mend. We will continue to pray for you and Linda. There is much work to do.
    Alongside, Derek Bell

  2. January 29, 2010 5:19 PM

    Thank you for sharing your generous wisdom in what you have learned through this situation. Praying for a speedy recovery and blessed by all you share.
    Deb Ingino

    • January 29, 2010 9:23 PM

      Since you asked, Bob…
      My greatest pain, other than childbirth which merits a category all its own, was when I dislocated a rib and it slipped up under my scapula on the right side of my back. I have never EVER felt anything so intense and captivating…emphasis on captive! I walked around for 2 weeks with my right arm up over my head, the only position that granted me a tiny bit of relief. My son drove me to and from physician and chiropractor visits. The chiropractor saved my sanity! I have no clue why this happened. I literally went from a normal, happy person to someone in excrutiating pain!

  3. January 30, 2010 7:30 PM


    Sure glad you are on the mend.

    In reference to your question, the greatest physical pain I ever experienced was when I was running my first marathon. The lessons I learned from this were.

    Throughout the race there were people lining the roads shouting encouragement. They were handing us water, gateraide, bananas and oranges. However at mile 18 there were a group of people drinking beer and shouting…”You idiots…you paid for this!” And strangly enough…I found more comfort in their honesty. To be honest, we probably were silly for putting our bodies through this.

    A friend of mine, Steve, volunteered to join me at mile 20 to run the last 6.2 miles. While Steve had very good intentions, the first few minutes he was with me he encouraged me verbally with words like, “You look great!” “You can do it!” “Keep up the great work!” What I discovered is that I found more comfort when he was silent and just ran with me. I learned from that experience that while we may think we need to say the right things when people are in pain the best thing we can do is just be there. No words are really necessary.

    I am sure there is more I could share from this experience but relative to what you have gone through and what others I have posted I am thankful to be able to share I have lived a rather pain free life.


    Greg Murtha

    • Derek Bell permalink*
      January 31, 2010 9:14 AM

      I agree with Mr. Murtha – I learned as a young man about the powerful “ministry” of simply being present. I think that being present can include physically (being there) or even helping that person to know that you will put everything down to be there when called. Then sometimes words get in the way–the ministry of presence doesn’t call for words – just your presence.

  4. Jimmy Rippy permalink
    February 22, 2010 11:22 PM

    Bob…If these incredible insights are you operating at half speed, then I can’t wait to see you back up to full speed.

    I don’t believe that God will be finished using you down here anytime soon, so continue to hang tuff my friend, and my wife and I will be praying for your recovery.

    Thank you for mentoring us with your musings these past few years!

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