These were some of the descriptions I saw for the book: “I’ve Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon’s Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know.”
Brain surgeon W. Lee Warren, MD, served in the U.S. Air Force and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences during the Iraq War. He wrote about his traumatic experiences, “No Where to Hide,” that was on the 2015 U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff’s Recommended Reading List.
I felt I should mention this first because that was the book he was writing when he started wrestling with the question that provided the thesis for “I’ve Seen the End of You.” A man of science and a man of faith, Warren’s wrestling match eventually pitted his spiritual life and beliefs up against his intellectual beliefs, which he concerned fact. He had so much knowledge and training. Multiple experiences treating people diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). He knew the outcome was always death. And yet he would pray with patients before going into surgery and for them during the treatment phase.
But he knew where GBM was concerned it was over. Once he had the results in front of him, he would look at the MRI of his patients and think: “I’ve seen the end of you.”
He started to feel like a doubting Thomas, or like the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9 who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Warren didn’t believe his prayers would be answered in the way he hoped because God’s answer was going to be “no” every time. And then the question for this book:
“How do I handle telling a patient to have faith when I don’t.”
“I felt stuck in a crossfire between my faith – God can heal our disease – and my knowledge – This disease is 100 percent fatal,” he said. “How could I navigate this in an ethical way? How could I handle myself as a Christian who’s also a scientist? A scientist who believes that medicine doesn’t provide all the answers to life?” (24)
His wife Lisa encouraged him to reach out to his “faith guru,” Philip Yancey. Yancey had written books like “Where is God When it Hurts?” and “The Jesus I Never Knew.” Warren sent him an email, thinking he’d never hear from him, but Yancey responded. Just not in the way Warren expected. He said to write through the question because people would be interested to hear that answer, especially from a doctor. “Research, question, and write,” Yancey said.
The resulting book was broken into three parts. In the first part, Warren wrote about his family life, his time in Iraq, as he also told the stories of certain patients who faced down GBM. Those stories were the hook for me, making the book “unputdownable” at times. (Plus, the library only allowed me to have it for 21 days. I didn’t want it taken away from me before I finished it.)
Each patient’s story provided Warren with that research. He talked often about Pastor Jon, the hospital chaplain, who I thought of as his spiritual coach and “heart” doctor. I will not soon forget the patients: Samuel; Mrs. Knopf, whose first years of life were lived in a Nazi concentration camp; Joey Wallace; Mr. Andrews and his persistent wife; Eli; Rupert Chang, who was “more Moses than Thomas” (165); and Teresa. Warren presented their cases with as much detail needed to where I could almost hear and see them. I felt like I knew them. Several were also people of great faith that shone in their responses to GBM.
Warren spoke to the reader like a friend when discussing complex medical terms and procedures — brain surgery, GBM, radiation, chemotherapy, new drug and treatment trials for GBM. He shared how the spine and spinal surgery made neurosurgeons feel like rock stars because they were often problems with answers that led to healing and relief for the sufferer.
He would pray before he performed surgery. He gave this eloquent explanation that stayed with me:
“Once I’ve got the head secured, I always place my hands on the scalp for a second and looked down at the patient. It’s my moment of silence, of acknowledging that the thing I’m about to do is bigger than I am. The place I’m going is holy, and the job I’m doing is sacred and dangerous and beautiful and delicately violent. I don’t want to cross into that world without reminding myself there are things I can’t control in there. I need help” (16-17).
Part one ended with a personal, devastating tragedy that left him with so many questions no one could answer — even today. He and his family mourned the tragic, incomprehensible death of son, Mitch. That’s when his “furnace of suffering” began (See Isaiah 48:10 NLT). He likened what he saw when he looked into the faces of hurting and broken people around him to “The Sixth Sense.” He suddenly saw dead people. These weren’t people who were just physically dying. These were people were the walking dead. They were dead in their souls. He saw himself in them and realized something had to change.
“I realized that what I’d originally asked Philip Yancey was the wrong question. I’d asked, ‘How can I pray for my patients when I already know how God is going to answer?’ But the real question is ‘How can I help people (including myself) hold on to their faith when life is hard, no matter how God answers their prayers?’” (215)
I mentally cheered with Warren when I read of the spiritual triumphs he and his patients experienced. Having followed along with the author on this journey, I could see where meeting the people who crossed paths with him caused him to ask more questions and change his heart and mind in the process. These questions ultimately provided clearer direction. Warren said his “patients [were] better off embracing hope instead of accepting defeat” (237).
“Knowing the answers isn’t my work,” he said. “Raging against God for putting us into a world full of pain doesn’t make the pain stop. My work had to be about learning how to live—and help other people live – in a painful world but still somehow be able to have faith” (148).
I can’t count how many times my husband Dave asked me: Why are you reading this book? It IS a tear-jerker. I’m not going to lie. I knew that going into the request for this electronic copy from my library. The stories often gutted me. But the journey was worth it. Reading this book was soul-stirring. I found the answers to the question posed satisfying, faith-stretching and strengthening.
For more information about the author, go to Dr. Lee Warren | Brain Surgeon, Author and Podcaster (wleewarrenmd.com).