Our church and first home in Pittsburgh

“What’s with the rocks?”

“Do you have a few minutes? Pick a rock, and I’ll tell you a story.”

Rock #3 gold: Miracles

[Note: TPN is Total Parenteral Nutrition–feeding directly into the bloodstream with elemental nutrients, completely bypassing the digestive system.]

Just after midnight Friday night March 26th (or rather, the first minutes of March 27th 2004), Karis’s cell phone and mine rang simultaneously. She was on campus; I was staying with friends. Nerves taut, I listened to Karis say YES to a chance for transplant. We were told we had to arrive at the hospital in Pittsburgh by 4:00 a.m.

The only way to travel from South Bend to Pittsburgh within four hours in the middle of the night was by private jet. When we arrived, bag and baggage, at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Karis was whisked away to a series of exams and blood tests—it seemed they sucked out about a pint of her blood while our things were locked into a storage room. Right at 5:00 a.m. as the nurses put Karis on a stretcher to take her to the operating room, the phone rang: the surgery was cancelled! The team “harvesting” the donor intestine in New Orleans was not satisfied with the condition of the organ.

Wow. Whiplash. The nurses gave Karis medications to reverse the immunosuppressants she had received, and then began organizing her discharge. Could I give them an address so they could set up delivery of Karis’s TPN?

An address . . .? We literally did not know a single person in Pittsburgh. I called the Ronald McDonald House: full. Each of the Family Houses: full. Home health would not deliver to a hotel. I had no idea what to do.

Karis, sensibly, having been up all night, went to sleep. I went to prayer and racking my brain for ideas. The nurse kept coming in to remind me insurance would not pay for Karis to stay in the hospital for no reason—she needed an address! It was Saturday and the home health care agency only worked until noon. She had to get Karis’s order in quickly to give them time to concoct her TPN. (Since Karis’s intestine wasn’t functioning, TPN is the way Karis was nourished—it’s elemental nutrition given straight into the blood.)

At some point that anxious morning as I begged God for a solution, I remembered an e-mail I had received several months before from someone in Pittsburgh saying she understood that my daughter and I might need a place to stay for a weekend. If I could give her a date, she would let me know whether her guest space might be available. I had written back thanking her but saying we could not predict when a transplant call might come, and we were actually looking for a place for six months. Hearing nothing more from her, I almost trashed her e-mail (I’m a compulsive deleter). With my finger poised over “delete” I thought, hmm, this is a friend of a friend of my sister Shari’s. Perhaps we’ll meet her some time. So I filed the e-mail under “Pittsburgh” and forgot about it—until this moment. What was the woman’s name? Carol something Italian-sounding?

I asked at the nurse’s station for help with retrieving my laptop from the storage room and connected to the hospital’s wifi. Yep, there was the e-mail! The woman’s name was indeed Carol, Carol Finelli Brown. She mentioned in the email her husband’s name was Battle. I went back to the nurses’ station to ask for a phone book. The unit clerk raised her eyebrows as I opened to the B’s—yes, there it was! Brown, Battle. “I think I may have found something,” I told the clerk. “I’ll let you know.”

Carol answered the phone, and claimed no recollection of our e-mail exchange. After listening to our plight she said, “Well, I have no idea who you are. I’ll have to discuss this with my husband. I’ll call you back.”

No other ideas came to me in the hours that passed before my phone rang. This time it was Battle, who plunged into giving me directions to their house. Ignorant of Pittsburgh, I absorbed nothing of what he said. When he stopped talking, I said, “If I can find a taxi, would you be able to explain all that to the driver?” “Oh—you don’t have a car? Then I’ll have to call you back.”

A nurse came in to say this was the last chance to order Karis’s TPN. Frustrated, I shook my head. No, I still didn’t have an address to give her.

A couple of hours later my phone rang again; Carol this time. “You’ve caught us on a very busy day. But I’ve figured out a plan. I am scheduled to read Scripture at our church’s Saturday evening service. Then, instead of listening to the sermon, I will duck out and go to the hospital to pick you up. Meet me with your things at the hospital entrance at 5:45.” Click. I didn’t know what Carol looked like or what car she would be driving, but I presumed she would recognize me, a half-dazed woman with a pile of luggage on the sidewalk outside the hospital.

Returning to the nurses’ station I pointed to the Browns’ address in the phone book. The unit clerk looked at me like I was crazy. “Do you know this person?” “Well, not exactly . . .” “What did you do, just open the phone book, close your eyes, and point? Is this a joke? Here, give me that.” She took the phone book and called the Browns’ number. “I have a woman here who thinks she is going to sleep at your house. Do you know her?” (Eyes roll.) “I see. And are you willing for home health to deliver TPN and medications for her daughter to your address?” (Eyes roll again.)

Since it was too late to order TPN that day, the nurses invented something to tell the insurance company about why Karis would stay in the hospital overnight, but exhorted me to pick her up bright and early the next morning. I said goodbye to Karis, gathered as many things from storage as would fit on a hospital cart, and took the elevator down to meet Carol.

Instead of taking me to her home, Carol drove back to her church, where an after-service dinner was in progress. She took me around the tables introducing me to dozens of people, then sat me down with a plate of food. She chattered with friends; I could hardly keep my face out of my plate. At some point she noticed. “Oh, are you tired?” She whisked me home and tucked me in to her third-floor guest bed under a huge fluffy white comforter. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

When I woke the next morning, I saw a note from Carol. “Here are car keys to the BMW. Pick up your daughter and then meet us at church. We’ll be sitting toward the front on the right side. You’ll need to get gas.”

I had no idea how to get back to the hospital, or from there to the church. And I was afraid to drive their BMW! I searched around until I found a phone book, which thankfully had a map of sorts. With help from a gas station attendant, I found the hospital, discharged Karis, collected the rest of her things, found the church, figured out how to park there, and located the sanctuary where the service was in progress. Karis and I tiptoed down the right side aisle all the way to the front and slid in beside Carol.

The service, it seemed, had been designed specifically for Karis and me. Every song and prayer, a sermon about trusting God in times of uncertainty . . . soon both Karis and I were weeping. Afterward Battle (whom we met for the first time through tears) and Carol, handing us Kleenex, said “We have people we need to talk to. Wait for us here.”

As Karis and I tried to compose ourselves one of the pastors approached us. “I couldn’t help noticing that the service, um . . . moved you,” she said. “May I pray for you?” Karis later told me the pastor prayed things for her that she had not told a single person were longings of her heart. When the pastor moved on, Karis said to me, “Mama, I don’t know where we’re going to live in Pittsburgh. But I think we’ve found our home.”

Yes. That church is home for us to this day.

Battle had a meeting, so Carol drove us home to the fluffy white comforter for naps. Finally, at supper that evening, we started getting to know each other: Carol, a radio announcer who left home each morning at 4:30 a.m., and Battle, an entrepreneur; both long-time active members of Church of the Ascension. Battle regaled us with stories about his mission work in Mongolia before we tucked in under the white comforter once more.

Monday morning at 6:30 my phone rang. I knew Carol had left for work hours before, but I could hear Battle downstairs. I ran down two flights calling “Battle! Battle!” just as he opened the front door to catch his bus for work. “Battle, Ronald McDonald House is on the phone telling me they now have space for us. Could l borrow your car to take Karis and our things over there?”

Battle looked at me quizzically and said “What does Ronald McDonald House have that we don’t have? Can’t talk now—gotta run or I’ll miss my bus. DON’T GO ANYWHERE—we’ll talk tonight!” And he was gone.

Puzzled, I nonetheless told the RMH person we had a place for that night, so they could go to the next person on their waiting list.

On my way back to the third floor, my phone rang again: transplant! There was another possible organ for Karis! They weren’t sure yet, so we should just sit tight, but this one looked like it might be the one.

Whiplash.

Mid-afternoon, transplant called us back instructing us to go to the hospital. I called Battle, secured permission to use his car and to leave our things in their guest room, repacked what I thought we might need for the immediate future, and drove to the hospital. Déjà vu: the same exams; drawing an unbelievable number of vials of blood from Karis’s arm . . .

At around 5:30 Battle showed up in Karis’s hospital room saying he would keep us company until she was called for surgery. He explained that he and Carol had decided we could stay in their third floor guest apartment for as long as we needed. We had no way of imagining then that this “upper room” would be our home for two and a half years!

Battle entertained Karis with a series of hilarious tales while we waited for the call from the OR. When the head surgeon walked in to tell us surgery was a go, Battle said, “Why hello, George . . .”! They had known each other for years. This was how I learned that our transplant surgeon was a committed Christian. We prayed together before Karis was whisked from the room.

Karis was anesthetized and the surgeons inserted a second central line, an arterial line, several regular IV lines, and were ready to make the first cut to remove her intestine when the phone rang in the OR. “Stop everything!! This donor intestine is flawed; we won’t be able to use it . . .”

Whiplash.

There would be two more aborted calls before the transplant actually happened five months later. With all the uncertainties of those months, and the post-transplant crises, our new church and our new home gave us stability and security we could not have experienced on our own. The church was walking distance from the hospital. Our new home was just ten minutes’ drive from the hospital and the church, and came with amazing compassion and support from our new family, Battle and Carol. Over time they hosted not just Karis and me, but Dave and our other children, and various members of our large extended family. They helped our daughter Rachel find a summer job in Pittsburgh so that she could be near us for a few weeks before returning to college. For the first time in years, at Christmas they put up a tree so that our kids could have a sense of holiday joy while their sister fought for her life in the ICU.

“God will supply all your needs” (Phil 4:19). Yes!

2 thoughts on “Our church and first home in Pittsburgh

  1. Your stories of God’s faithfulness in the midst of harrowing and uncertain circumstances remind me of the Exodus story–the story that would forever remind us of God’s glory and power.

    Liked by 1 person

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