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"Physician, Heal Thyself"
by Tom Goodman

December 15, 2006

As ministry leaders, we’re not just spiritual physicians.  We’re spiritual patients, too.  We lead others up the discipleship H.I.L.L. while making that vigorous climb ourselves.

Sam Hassenbusch can tell you something about being both a physician and a patient.  In the current edition of Texas Monthly, Jan Reid has an article on Hassenbusch called, “Physician, Heal Thyself.”  As Reid describes him:

At 51, Sam was full of energy, and his career was peaking.  He was a senior neurosurgeon at the University of Texas’s M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, and an internationally renowned specialist in pain research and management. . . . His idea of recreation was to turn a three-mile commute in the snarl of Houston traffic into a fifty-mile cruise on his Victory Vegas motorcycle.

But when Sam couldn’t overcome his persistent headaches with Tylenol, he scheduled an MRI.  It was when they found glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor that is one of the most aggressive of all human cancers.  Says Reid:

Sam had treated about 500 brain cancer patients in the course of his career, and he had performed more than 150 surgeries to remove glioblastoma tumors.  Whenever he had to break the news to patients that they had the cancer, he’d try to be upbeat about chemotherapy protocols and ongoing research, but he knew that glioblastoma typically kills half its victims within 52 weeks.  With no hint of a cure, little progress had been made in treating the disease.  It was a bitter dose of irony for a brain surgeon at the most celebrated cancer hospital in the Southwest to realize that the very kind of tumor that had most defied his training and skill was now growing inside his skull.

He knew he had a three percent chance of five years’ survival.  But he also knew that God would provide for him.  Again, from the article:

After his diagnosis, it took Sam about three days to steady himself, to “land on my spiritual base,” as he put it.  He was brought up in the Reform Judaism faith in Saint Joseph, Missouri, where he met Rhonda when they were in their teens.  He was educated in Catholic school, and one night on a date she gave him a copy of the New Testament as a gift.  At Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, where he went to undergraduate school and continued with his medical training, picking up a Ph.D. in pharmacology along the way, he became a devout Christian.  Sam is a lay biblical scholar and a fundamentalist whose faith is Scripture based. . . .  He was an elder of churches when he and Rhonda lived in Maryland and Ohio, and in Houston they had joined a congregation called the Four-Square Church.  A large part of its appeal to him was that 20 or 30 percent of the members shared his passion for riding motorcycles.

“In both Judaism and Christianity,” he said, “there’s a Bible passage of great importance: Genesis 22.  Abraham is going up Mount Moriah with his son Isaac, who’s saying, ‘Where’s the ram?  I thought we were going to make a sacrifice.’  Abraham doesn’t want to tell Isaac he may have to be the one offered, and he says, ‘God will provide,’ ‘Jehovah-jireh’ in Hebrew.  And God does.  They find the ram stuck in some thorns.”  In different ways, through different vessels, he chooses to believe God will provide for him.

The surgery went well, and within a week he was back at work and within two weeks he was back on his motorcycle.  Reid says, "After he’d gone through the rounds of radiation and initial chemotherapy, he decided that he would keep his head shaved.  He thought it enhanced his look as a biker."

Sam has actually become a “lab rat” for a new postsurgical option that he himself proposed, combining a chemotheraphy drug called Temodar with an experimental vaccine.  From the article: "Conceivably, the experiment could shorten his life, but the research opportunity was almost unparalleled.  In addition to giving him a chance to fight the disease, it would enable him to become a part of his own medical team, to inhabit the roles of both patient and doctor in the same case."

So far so good, he says: “This observation from my blood tests on my white cells raises a whole new way that Temodar could be used to treat patients and even crosses over to a possible breakthrough in the treatment of patients with other kinds of tumors.  Such is the fun of undergoing double-whammy treatment for the first time in humans with brain cancer.”

As a ministry leader, never forget that you will always be a spiritual patient as well as a spiritual physician.  We never get to the point where we won’t have our own issues to deal with, our own knots to untangle, and our own dragons to slay.  Even as we see after the soul health of those we lead, we have to see after our own soul, too.

This mentality has a number of benefits.  For one, it keeps us from falling into the traps that have caught so many leaders who teach the Word but fail to rigorously monitor their own flaws.  Also, openness about the fact that we’re still getting “treatment” from the Great Physician ourselves makes us more effective with those we lead.  Someone said that we may be able to impress people from afar, but we’ll only influence people up close.  And the only way we can get close with people is to be honest with them about who we really are.

“Praise be . . . to the God of all comfort,” Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”


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