Ty was born with a vascular tumor that has consumed most of his left arm. The doctors examining him after birth assumed that the large purple mark spanning from his shoulder to his hand was a just a bruise resulting from a somewhat traumatic c-section. As the weeks passed, however, and his shoulder grew large and lumpy, it became clear that something more sinister was going on in his little body.
To be honest, I wasn't initially bothered by my son's "defect"; to my untrained eye, it looked like a birthmark. But as Ty got older, more and more comments were made in my direction. The grocery store clerk would ask me what had happened to his hand; children in the park would tell me that his arm looked "gross"; our extended family started making noise about getting him checked out by a specialist; and one dear friend wrote me a letter reminding me that my son was "still beautiful on the inside." I tried not to be hurt by these well-intentioned remarks, but when I held Ty close and kissed his sweet fuzzy head, I was grieved to think that he could be hurt. I booked a consultation with a pediatric dermatologist to determine if Ty's mark could be treated with lasers.
By the time we were able to see the doctor, Ty's left arm was nearly twice the size of his right; his hand was puffy and swollen, and scabs dotted his shoulder. The ulcerating hemangioma, as it was officially diagnosed, was outgrowing its blood supply and needed to be lasered 10 to 20 times over the course of the next two years. However, no one told me that in the meantime, those scabs could get irritated and break open; last night was terrifying shock!
So this afternoon I find myself sitting in the waiting room of a top Atlanta dermatologist. The office looks like it was designed to be slick and contemporary - in 1988. It's painted dark green and black, with chrome accents and frosted glass. Since Dr. K is the only one willing to treat Ty without anesthesia, I've been forced to take my son to see a cosmetic dermatologist. I guess that's why most of the patients in the waiting room look surprised to see me; their eyebrows are pinned high on their faces, but their foreheads don't move. One taut-faced lady keeps telling me how pretty I am, and how blessed I am to be young. I guess she doesn't notice the giant zit forming between my eyes. I refrain from asking her age; her wrinkled hands give away the secret she's obviously paying so much to keep.
Ty is happy and cooing away in his carrier. He loves the one-on-one time with me, probably because his sisters usually consume the bulk of my attention. A pretty, clear-skinned nurse comes out walk us back. The work "Botox" is emblazoned in rhinestones across the front of her black T-shirt. (She probably got it as a gift from the pharmaceutical rep I see chatting with the front office staff.) She escorts us into a tiny room packed with equipment. The only place to sit is a black leather examination chair. I'm informed that the doctor will be in shortly, and without having ever made eye contact, she shuts the thick black door.
I'm feeling claustrophobic. The room is hot, and I can hear the equipment humming loudly. The only decor in the room is a large butterfly collection; the assortment of dead insects are held in place by long stick pins and hung for display in a rectangular plastic box. I'm feeling queasy, but Ty seems captivated by the pretty colors.
Dr. K and another pretty nurse breeze into the room. They don't have much to say to me. Ty smiles at them while the doctor tests his laser and decides to ratchet it up. ("He seems like a tough little guy.") The nurse hands me a pair of protective goggles and tells me to keep Ty as still as possible. There aren't any goggles small enough for him, so I sit in the black leather chair and hold his face against my chest. He doesn't mind snuggling up to me until the nurse takes hold of his tender arm. Then Dr. K presses the laser to his skin and begins zapping small portions. The procedure isn't supposed to hurt much, but Ty is screaming.
The flashes of light coming from the laser are blinding, even through my goggles. I close my eyes and press Ty close, but I catch the scent of something burning; I glance up to see puffs of smoke rising from my son's arm. I feel faint, but I know I need to be still and keep breathing. Though the session only lasts about seven minutes, it feels like thirty.
Finally, Dr. K is satisfied; he removes his goggles, shuts down the machine, and, backing out the door, reminds me to call him if there are any problems. His nurse follows. With both of them gone, I focus on my wailing child. I've got a bottle ready, so I walk back out to the waiting room and give him the meal I've delayed for this purpose. He's sucking frantically, anxious to find comfort. I'm anxious, too, so I cuddle him close and try to sooth us both. His arm is spotted with small, cigarette-sized bruises. They look like burns. I've been assured that this is all normal and that his arm will look better in a few weeks. But looking at his arm makes me feel light-headed again. I pack him up and head for the car before the tears I feel pressing against the back of my eyes spill out in front of this room full of strangers.
I'm back in my car and facing a long drive home, but Ty is calm and I've finally managed to stop shaking. A familiar verse from the Book of James is drifting through my head: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."
I know that what Ty and I faced in Dr. K's office today isn't the kind of trial that the Scriptures are referring to here. James was reassuring a persecuted people that the trials they were enduring would result in a mature and complete faith. I live in freedom - free of the persecution he is referencing. And yet I find comfort in this verse, because it reminds me that we are blessed by our perseverance. Though we are in the midst of a trial, God is blessing us. We are blessed because the tumor is on Ty's arm and not his face; we are blessed to have access to the technology that can repair it; and we are blessed to have the insurance to cover Ty's numerous and expensive treatments.
As I thank God for these many blessings, I am reminded of another favorite passage - this one from the Book of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me...to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning." Again, this Scripture is referring to something far greater than the medical procedure we faced today. But as I reflect on this verse, God is allowing me to imagine the pain and ugliness of Ty's tumor being burned away by the laser, and replaced with the beauty and wholeness of a healed arm.
As a believer, it's sometimes difficult to accept the transforming power of pain. But the truth for all of us is that our faith does not exempt us from trials, and so we face many - emotional and spiritual trials such as bitterness and depression, which assault our minds; physical trials such as pain and illness, which assault our bodies; even corporate trials such as the persecution of believers, which assaults the Body of Christ in nations around the world. But our Great Physician allows these trials to burn away that which is ugly and to reveal the beauty beneath, all the while holding us close to Himself. He is Healer and He is Father, and He will bring forth beauty from the ashes even as He cradles us in His arms.