Three things to do when you feel helpless (none of which is "to curl into a fetal ball")

The sheets were white, crisp and cool against my body. I was sick of watching the t.v. Visiting hours were over. I fiddled with the familiar paper bracelet on my wrist. I was bored. And scared. And alone. It was the night before my open-heart surgery. Open-heart surgery is for 64 year-old men who have blocked arteries. Not for young 9 year-old girls. Who are alone in their hospital room. And scared. My parents had gone to the movies. They were trying to escape the harsh realities of a child born with a ventricular septal defect---a hole in her heart---who had to have it repaired by surgery. I was a blue baby, about to go into the OR at NIH the next morning. What if the surgery were unsuccessful? What if complications arose?

For me, there was no escape or distraction. All I could see were drab hospital walls and a little brown and white stuffed animal that my classmates had given me.

These memories came rushing back at me when I went to Johns Hopkins this week. Samantha Rose is ten years old and in a hospital bed, much like mine. Samantha's problem is not heart-related, but much was still the same for her: the paper bracelet on her wrist, the bland hospital food (neon mac & cheese) and a stuffed animal at her side (well, actually they were dolls from "Ever After High", but still...)


Samantha seemed in good spirits, even though she was 5 days into her week-long stay at the hospital. We played card games---"War" and "Go Fish"--sang songs, and told stories. I was happy to be with her and bring her some encouragement. I know her mom needed a dose of that, as well.

If there's one place where you feel helpless and discouraged, it's in a hospital bed (or beside one). Doctors and nurses scurry around with their charts and iPads and throw around important-sounding acronyms and you're the patient or "case", not at all in control of your destiny, let alone the next 5 minutes.

This accurately describes our day-to-day state, anyway. It's not just in a hospital where we feel out of control. It can happen at just about every turn in this sad, foolish, heart-breaking world of ours. What can I do about what's happening in the Middle East? What about a family situation that I can't fix? Can I do anything at all to improve Samantha's health? How can I possibly help anybody, when I can't get my own @^#! [stuff] together? Oh, I'm helpless all right. We all are, and at more frequent intervals than we care to admit.

When I hit the helplessness wall, or feel overwhelmed or stressed, I turn to a few tools that remind me that I will get through okay.

First, I pray. I'm not an amazing pray-er. I don't know all the right words to say. Thankfully, the Bible says that the Holy Spirit will intercede for us, with "sighs too deep for words." I just utter a name or a situation, and trust that God will be sovereign over it and bring healing, grace and peace.

Second, I remember the words of Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

Julian was ill when she said she received this message directly from the Lord to her. This quote reminds me that however bad things may become, in the end, everything will be all right. I know this is true because I've read the Bible cover to cover. I know how the story ends. As rocky as this chapter feels, there's still a happy/well ending. The quote is a prayer and a hope and a lifeline, all at once.

Third, I breathe. Seems simple, right? I'm not talking about just the usual inhaling/exhaling that happens as a matter of course. I'm talking about deep breathing that reminds the parasympathetic nervous system that I am safe. I recommend the techniques presented by author and speaker Andrew Weil. He suggests doing intentional deep breathing in the morning and at night. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 7, exhale for 8. I don't do it perfectly every day. Sometimes I just squeeze it in while showering or driving. But whenever or wherever I do it, inevitably I feel better afterward.

Today, I'm often still the child, alone and afraid, with the paper bracelet on my wrist, feeling helpless. In those moments, I look up, pray, breathe, and remember "All shall be well…."