It’s easy to let opportunities for gratitude pass you by. Many of us might find it easier to talk to God when we need something, but then forget to express appreciation when things go well. We might get frustrated or angry when life doesn’t go as planned, yet not take a moment to pause when things are, well, just fine.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I am grateful to God for the miracle of a healthy, working, communicative body. I am writing this article just a few days after undergoing emergency gallbladder surgery. For weeks, I had been a medical mystery, a most dispiriting state of being, but now, I am now well along the path of healing and awestruck by the body’s predominant inclination to move towards health and wellness.
Five weeks ago, I began to feel sick. As it was shortly after the High Holy Days, I figured that I was just catching a chest cold from all of the hard work and handshakes that fill the month of Tishrei. Two rounds of antibiotics did nothing to ease my illness. My chest began to burn, every breath hurt, coughing was staggeringly painful. My right shoulder ached, my abdomen cramped. Normally an energetic person, I now had trouble getting out of bed. I felt as if I was wilting.
Blood work repeatedly showed the presence of a major infection, but myriad tests (CT Scans, Sonograms, X-rays) came back negative. While that was a relief in many ways, it was also baffling. I knew that something was wrong, and I knew that I wasn’t feeling like myself.
I found myself pondering two of our morning prayers. In Asher Yatzar, we thank God for enabling our complicated, incredible bodies to work properly, for if they didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to stand up and praise God. Due to my increasing illness, I could no longer lead services, and I missed Shabbat at my congregation. My body wasn’t working as it should, and thus I couldn’t praise God in the manner which I would have preferred.
I also thought about Elohai N’shamah, a prayer that thanks God for returning our breath (and our souls) to us each and every morning. Though we breathe automatically, Elohai N’shamah ensures that we take a moment to breathe deliberately and with appreciation for the miracle of life. As I became sicker, I desperately wished to be able to breathe without pain, and to take a full, deep breath. I was all too aware of my breathing, and appreciated all the times that breathing had come easily.
Two E.R. visits left me with no further information; in fact, the attending physician essentially said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what it is, so I guess you can just go home.”
I began to doubt myself: Was I imagining the pain? Was I making too big a deal about it? Was I really not that sick?
I kept in touch with my primary care doctor, who, due to the continued mystery, was ready to start entertaining some much scarier possibilities. One afternoon, I sat at home, reading through some of my radiology reports, and noticed something that the E.R. doctor had missed: a gallstone found during the sonogram at the hospital. I immediately called my doctor, who wanted me to see a general surgeon ASAP.
The surgeon was able to see me a few days later (a delay that was so difficult to deal with, as the pain was becoming intolerable), and he required his own set of sonogram results. I swear – after all of these tests, I am surprised that I don’t glow when the lights go out! This sonogram showed a couple of gallstones, so surgery was immediately scheduled. After all of the agony, I finally had an answer – a few little gallstones seemed to be the cause of all this pain.
So, what’s the punch line of the story? The tests were still wrong. Following the operation, the surgeon checked in with my father and my sister in the waiting room. He told my father that my gallbladder was HUGE, and that it had been totally FILLED with gallstones. I later asked the surgeon why we hadn’t known this before, and he told me that about one out of every hundred patients turn out this way – the tests don’t adequately show the problem, and only surgery proves the severity of the situation.
For all of the advances of modern medical technology, nothing worked quite as well as just trusting the messages from my own body. So, this Thanksgiving, I am most grateful for my body’s wisdom, and for its ability to communicate (albeit painfully) that there’s something wrong. I am grateful that God gives our health care providers wisdom and kindness, in order to take care of us and help us get better. I am grateful for the miracle of healing – each day finds me feeling better and better. I am grateful for beloved family and friends who have been sending prayers of healing and love. Above all, I am grateful for the gift, and the adventure, of life.