When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail



(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)




Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.





10 thoughts on “When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

  1. Emily, my young Haflinger died this morning of a mysterious cause. She was six and had a sinus infection but no other symptoms. I find it comforting that your post is about a human who died too young of complications from infection. My heart is broken but I trust that the Lord has a good reason I may never know.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, I’m so very sorry to hear you lost her so soon after reading your post last night that she was sick – we are always unprepared for the unexpected death, especially in the young and healthy. I heard back this morning from the mother of this young student and ten years later she is able to say: “God as helped us and blessed us, despite a great many challenges. ” I hope you will be able to look back on this sad day and know God was there for you and always. Bless you! Emily

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, how sad and yet uplifting as well. To give that gift of grace and to share it with young men and women makes such a hard, hard thing somewhat bearable. This brought tears to my eyes and a catch to my heart, for it is beautiful in words and in photos and it comes to me on one of my harder days after my sister’s passing six weeks ago. I thank you for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing this story. I know how hard that must have been. Through these tears I appreciate how courageously, lovingly and tenderly you ushered your beautiful son into the Kingdom of God. Bitter sweet but so beautiful… God Bless…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Heartbreaking, unbearable suffering for the parents and relatives and his young friends — for all those who participated in the young man’s vigil as he prepared to leave his earthly home for his eternal ‘home.’
    Emily, as soon as I read that he had died — no last minute reprieve or dramatic miracle as the words of Amazing Grace were being intoned by those present. A thought began to form in my mind as I continued to read and — behold, dear Emily, you reached the same conclusion I was forming in my mind: THERE WAS INDEED A MIRACLE IN THAT ROOM AS THE YOUNG MAN PASSED INTO ETERNAL LIFE. It was a different kind of miracle, not dramatic, nor immediately discerned perhaps by those present because they were unable to see beyond their loss. The memory of that event would have burned into each person’s soul present there. As they replayed that sorrowful scene later (and will for years to come) they would recognize and forever remember the parents’ sacrifice, and their unshakeable faith and trust in God as they placed their precious son in His hands. Their souls will remember, too, the feeling of shared suffering, reaching out to the family and all present as a beautiful sign of a tiny community gathered to bring caring and support for their young friend.

    Yes, there were indeed miracles in that hospital room that day.

    Liked by 2 people

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