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Listen and Examine: The Scars of Life

Listen and Examine: The Scars of Life

“A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4 NIV).

I wanted to cry with him, but he wasn't crying. It was senseless to cry for him, because he didn't appear sad. He was very matter-of-fact after having spent over four decades in prison. Now at age 58, he could breathe air on the other side of the bars, cement, and barricades. He didn’t have to ask permission to come and go. Gone were the mealtime schedules imposed on him. He could dress in whatever fashion he could afford. The only limitations now were the societal norms of how ex-cons are treated and the expectations of family and friends who were still around and willing to welcome him home. These were fewer than he expected.
Both of his parents had died during his incarceration for murder. Yes, it was murder. He did not try to assert his innocence. I was sitting in a room alone with a confessed, convicted, and formally incarcerated murderer.

I would not have believed it possible 25 years ago to have this conversation face-to-face in a private clinical setting. But I felt totally at ease. He described the event to me as though it were happening in the moment. He had been angry, grabbed the gun, and shot his victim several times.

I usually ask routine questions about allergies to medications, previous surgeries, ongoing medical illnesses, or family history of illnesses. I have never thought to ask: “By the way, have you killed anybody?” I have learned over the years to never ask why they are or were incarcerated. If they want to, they will tell you. He told me. It was relayed as easily as he told me about having his appendix removed. “It's just what happened,” he said.

He missed almost half a century for something that “just happened.” A lot had changed. He was just happy to be free. He did not want to miss anything else.

As I examined him, I could see the scar from his surgery. As I listened to him, I could hear the scars from his life. Both had healed. Both were still tender to examination. But he did not wince. He did not cry.

In the half hour we were together, I could not begin to properly assess the depth or impact of the scars in his life. It would be pretentious of me to try to display emotions commensurate with what I assumed he was feeling. I still have my appendix, and I’ve never murdered anyone. I have never been incarcerated. I have always had liberty to come and go as I please. So, I just listened and examined. I did what I was called to do—listen, examine, and order the appropriate tests. After that, I scheduled him for the next office visit to discuss results of the tests and order any additional imaging studies deemed necessary.

Wounds are interesting things. Physical wounds heal and are constantly remodeled throughout life. Wounds can become large scars even from what appears to be trivial trauma. A pimple can cause a hypertrophic scar or keloid. Yet a gunshot wound or stabbing may leave an almost unnoticeable, small blemish. It may be the result of the instrument or the intent which caused the scar or the individual body’s genetically determined defense mechanisms.

Multiple trauma to the same site can delay and prevent healing. So, it is important not to probe scars and to recognize when we should only look to discover what is necessary. I have learned that there is a time for weeping. This was not that time. This was a time to rejoice with him in his newly found freedom and not relive his past four decades. This was a time for laughing and dancing.

Romans 12:15 (KJV) says, “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” At Miriam Medical Clinics—a medical and social outreach to people like my patient in inner-city Philadelphia—this is what we do. We meet people right where they are—even when it’s messy—because Jesus is right there in the mess too.

Action Step

GO: Do you want to join in the sometimes messy work of helping people, many of whom don’t “have it all together”? Miriam Medical Clinics, an outreach of WGM Out of Nazareth, has need for a variety of medical and other volunteers. Click here to learn more.

Michael Johnson, Missionary to Miriam Medical Clinics
The Call (March 2018)

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