There is light for the valley of the shadow. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" (Ps. 23:4).
The doctor or nurse who can make these words come to life in the experience of the patient is the one who makes an art of the healing profession. Unfortunately there are doctors and nurses whose fear of death is so acute that they can be of little help to the patient who is entering the valley of the shadow. Such should work in a branch of the profession where encounters with the dread enemy are few.
If there is ever a time in the patient's life when he feels the need of a doctor whom he can trust, it is when life appears to be slipping from his grasp. How tragic when the doctor's own fear of death will lead him to tell the patient a deliberate falsehood, in what he considers an attempt to spare the feelings of one who must shortly face death.
In most cases the patient is not deceived, but he is deprived of the assurance that the one looking after him is a person of integrity, just when he most needs the ministry of one who is trustworthy.
How to Approach a Dying Person
You ask, "Should a patient be told that his case is hopeless? Why destroy the patient's hope?" Here is where faith is needed on the part of the doctor. The one who is a person of faith will say in effect, "I have done all for you that human help can offer. I cannot promise you healing. I recommend you to the care of the Great Physician. It is important for you to know the seriousness of your condition, but I would have you know that no case is hopeless while the Great Physician lives."
Still talking to the patient you may say, "There is one condition which the divine Healer requires if He is to take charge of your case. He wants your complete submission to His will. Only as you are prepared to say to Him, 'Thy will be done,' are you making it possible for Him to work His will. He knows what is best for you. He knows the future, and in His infinite wisdom He might foresee a way to save you greater suffering. 'The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come' (Isa. 57:1).
"The Word of God does not promise to extend this mortal life for all of God's children. That is for Him to decide in each individual case, but He does ask you to recognize how dearly He loves you, and trust Him accordingly."
God's Word abounds in assurances of His love. Why not test their power to heal? "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee" (Isa. 49:15). "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee" (Isa. 43:2). "For I the Lord thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee" (Isa. 41:13). "I have loved thee with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee" (Jer. 31:3).
Results of Deceiving
Consider briefly what results may come from failure to deal truthfully with a patient whose days are numbered. His doctor knows that humanly speaking his chances for recovery are practically nil, but tells him, "Of course you will recover."
If he believes his doctor, he may delay two very important things: his preparation to meet his Maker in the judgment, and his arrangement of his business affairs in such a way that those who are dependent upon him for livelihood will not suffer needlessly. In the one case he may lose his eternal life, and in the other, his loved ones may suffer actual want for many years, when with the proper warning he could have provided a greater degree of financial security for them. Both are possibilities in any given case.
Rarely has a patient with a lingering illness slipped through the gates of death without some idea of its nearness, but if the idea comes too late to be of benefit, how is he going to feel toward the doctor who has attempted to hold him in a false security? His faith in all mankind may be sadly shaken. Even the feeble faith in God which he might have held could be turned to bitterness. How sad to close one's life under such a cloud.
Then we consider the one who has been given warning of the possible outcome of his case. He is almost certain to ponder the question, "What must I do to be saved?" As he searches his soul for the answer, those who are caring for him may daily bring him help from the Word of God. God's promises in the setting of his desperate need are truly a balm to his troubled spirit. "Which promises?" you may ask. "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled" (Matt. 5:6). Appropriate, is it not? And how much more so to the hungering, thirsting one? The shepherd's psalm and other promises should be made easily available to such patients. The sweet assurances found in such passages are as the voice of God speaking to the soul of the troubled one. One who had much experience in soul winning wrote:
The physician who has received wisdom from above, who knows that Christ is his personal Saviour, because he has himself been led to the Refuge, knows how to deal with the trembling, guilty, sin-sick souls who turn to him for help. . . . He can tell the story of the Redeemer's love. He can speak from experience of the power of repentance and faith. As he stands by the bedside of the sufferer, striving to speak words that will bring to him help and comfort, the Lord works with him and through him. As the mind of the afflicted one is fastened on the mighty Healer, the peace of Christ fills his heart; and the spiritual health that comes to him is used as the helping hand of God in restoring the health of the body.
Precious are the opportunities that the physician has of awakening in the hearts of those with whom he is brought in contact a sense of their great need of Christ. He is to bring from the treasure house of the heart things new and old, speaking the words of comfort and instruction that are longed for. Constantly he is to sow the seeds of truth, not presenting doctrinal subjects, but speaking of the love of the sin-pardoning Saviour. Not only should he give instruction from the word of God, line upon line, precept upon precept; he is to moisten this instruction with his tears and make it strong with his prayers, that souls may be saved from death.
In their earnest, feverish anxiety to avert the peril of the body, physicians are in danger of forgetting the peril of the soul. Physicians, be on your guard, for at the judgment seat of Christ you must meet those at whose deathbed you now stand. —Counsels on Health, pp. 351, 352.
Never, never should the physician feel that he may prevaricate. It is not always safe and best to lay before the invalid the full extent of his danger. The truth may not all be spoken on all occasions, but never speak a lie. If it is important for the good of the invalid not to alarm him lest such a course might prove fatal, do not lie to him.—Medical Ministry, p. 38.
The patient who knows his danger, as he makes the preparation needful for his life to close, may be encouraged to take hold of God's promises and pray in faith for his own recovery. To carefully teach the patient the science of prayer will certainly yield comfort and security, greater happiness, and in some cases, healing. Give the patient a false hope? Not if properly done. Faith will always say, "Thy will be done."
A patient may have his mind turned from himself and his troubles to think of ways in which he can give comfort and help to the ones who love him. Besides being a check on his self-pity, the helpful attitude he develops by thinking of others may actually make his own pain easier to bear. What greater service can one perform for his loved ones than to demonstrate that there is light for the valley of the shadow?
For the doctor or nurse who desires adventures in faith there can be no greater challenge than is found in helping a patient to face death without fear.
"And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever" (Dan. 12:3).