Serving Others Alleviates Suffering
AS TOLD BY JULIÁN ARIAS
In 1988, when I was 40 years of age, my professional future seemed secure. I was the regional director of a multinational company. With my job came a fancy car, a good salary, and a plush office in the center of Madrid, Spain. The company even hinted that they would make me their national director. Little did I realize that my life was about to change drastically.
ONE day that year, my doctor broke the news to me that I had multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease. I was devastated. Later, when I read what multiple sclerosis can do to a person, I was frightened.* It seemed as if the proverbial sword of Damocles would be hanging over me for the rest of my life. How could I take care of my wife, Milagros, and my three-year-old son, Ismael? How could we cope? While I was still groping for answers to these questions, another bitter blow came my way.
About a month after my doctor told me about my illness, my supervisor called me into his office and informed me that the company needed people with a “good image.” And someone with a degenerative disease—even in its early stages—did not project such an image. So right then and there, my boss fired me. Suddenly, my secular career was over!
In front of my family, I tried to put on a brave face, but I longed to be on my own, to think about my new circumstances, and to meditate on my future. I tried to fight a growing feeling of depression. What hurt me most was that overnight I had become useless in the eyes of my company.
Finding Strength From Weakness
Thankfully, in this dark time, I could count on several sources of strength. Some 20 years earlier, I had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. So I prayed sincerely to Jehovah about my feelings and uncertainties about the future. My wife, who shares my faith, was a tower of strength, and I had the support of some close friends whose kindness and compassion proved invaluable.—Proverbs 17:17.
Feeling a responsibility toward others also helped. I wanted to raise my son well, to teach him, play with him, and train him in the preaching work. So I could not give up. Furthermore, I was an elder in one of the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and my Christian brothers and sisters there needed my support. If I allowed my affliction to undermine my faith, what sort of example would I be to others?
Inevitably, my life changed physically and economically—in some ways for the worse but in other ways for the better. I once heard a doctor say: “A disease does not destroy a person; rather, it changes him.” And I have learned that the changes are not all negative.
First of all, my “thorn in the flesh” helped me to understand better the health problems of other people and to sympathize with them. (2 Corinthians 12:7) I understood as never before the words of Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in Jehovah with all your heart and do not lean upon your own understanding.” Above all, my new circumstances taught me what really matters in life and what gives true satisfaction and a feeling of self-worth. There was still much I could do in Jehovah’s organization. I discovered real meaning in Jesus’ words: “There is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.”—Acts 20:35.
A New Life
Soon after the diagnosis of my disease, I was invited to a seminar in Madrid where Christian volunteers were taught to develop cooperation between physicians and their Witness patients. Later, those volunteers were organized into Hospital Liaison Committees. For me, that seminar came at exactly the right time. I discovered a better career, one that would bring me far more satisfaction than any commercial job.
We learned at the seminar that the newly formed Hospital Liaison Committees were to visit hospitals, interview doctors, and make presentations to health workers, all with the purpose of cultivating cooperation and preventing confrontations. The committees help fellow Witnesses to find doctors who are willing to perform medical procedures without the use of blood. Of course, as a layman, I had a lot to learn about medical terms, medical ethics, and hospital organization. Still, after that seminar I went home a new man, armed with a new challenge that excited me.
Hospital Visits—A Source of Satisfaction
Even though my disease was slowly and inexorably crippling me, my responsibilities as a member of a Hospital Liaison Committee grew. I had been given a disability pension, so I had time available to make hospital visits. Despite occasional disappointments, these visits proved to be easier and more rewarding than I expected. Although I am now confined to a wheelchair, this has not been a major impediment. A fellow committee member always accompanies me. Furthermore, doctors are used to talking to people in wheelchairs, and sometimes they seem to listen with greater respect when they observe the effort I make to visit them.
Over the last ten years, I have visited hundreds of doctors. Some were willing to help us almost from the outset. Dr. Juan Duarte—a heart surgeon in Madrid who takes pride in respecting a patient’s conscience—immediately offered his services. Since then, he has performed more than 200 operations without the use of blood on Witness patients from many parts of Spain. Over the years more and more doctors have begun performing bloodless surgery. Our regular visits played some part, but the progress was also due to medical advances and the fine results achieved in bloodless surgery. And we are convinced that Jehovah has blessed our efforts.
I have been especially encouraged by the response of some heart surgeons who specialize in treating children. For two years we visited one team of two surgeons and their anesthesiologists. We supplied them with medical literature that explained what other doctors are doing in this field. Our efforts were rewarded in 1999 during the Medical Conference on Infantile Cardiovascular Surgery. The two surgeons—ably directed by a cooperative surgeon from England—performed an extremely difficult operation on a Witness baby whose aortic valve required modification.* I rejoiced with the parents when one of the surgeons emerged from the operating room to announce that the operation had been a success and the family’s conscience had been respected. Now these two doctors routinely accept Witness patients from all over Spain.
What I find truly gratifying about such cases is the realization that I can help my Christian brothers. Usually, when they contact a Hospital Liaison Committee, it is one of the most difficult times in their life. They face an operation, and the doctors in a local hospital are unwilling or unable to treat them without blood. However, when the brothers learn that there are cooperative surgeons in all medical fields here in Madrid, they are greatly relieved. I have seen the expression on a brother’s face change from concern to serenity, just by our presence at his side in the hospital.
The World of Judges and Medical Ethics
In recent years, members of Hospital Liaison Committees have also made visits on judges. During those visits, we give them a publication called Family Care and Medical Management for Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was especially prepared to inform such officials of our position on the use of blood and the availability of nonblood medical alternatives. There was a great need for these visits, since at one time it was not uncommon in Spain for judges to authorize doctors to give a transfusion against the wishes of the patient.
Judges’ chambers are impressive places, and on my first visit, I felt very small traveling along the hallways in my wheelchair. To make matters worse, we had a slight accident, and I toppled out of the chair onto my knees. A few judges and lawyers who saw my predicament kindly came to my aid, but I felt foolish in front of them.
Although the judges were unsure of our reasons for visiting them, most treated us kindly. The first judge I visited had already been pondering our position, and he said he would like to talk to us at length. On our following visit, he personally wheeled me into his chambers and listened intently. The fine results from this initial visit encouraged my companions and me to overcome our fears, and we soon saw further good results.
During that same year, we left a copy of Family Care with another judge, who received us kindly and promised to read the information. I gave him my telephone number in case he needed to contact us in an emergency. Two weeks later he phoned to say that a local surgeon had asked him to authorize a transfusion to be given to a Witness who needed surgery. The judge told us that he wanted us to help him find a solution that would respect the desire of the Witness to avoid blood. We had no great difficulty in finding another hospital, where the surgeons successfully performed the operation without blood. The judge was delighted when he heard the outcome, and he assured us that he would look for similar solutions in the future.
During my hospital visits, the question of medical ethics often arose, since we wanted doctors to take into account the rights and conscience of the patient. One cooperative hospital in Madrid invited me to participate in a course they were offering on ethics. This course enabled me to present our Bible-based viewpoint to many specialists in this field. It also helped me to comprehend the many difficult decisions doctors have to make.
One of the teachers of the course, Professor Diego Gracia, regularly organizes a prestigious master’s course in ethics for Spanish doctors and has become a firm supporter of our right to informed consent in the matter of blood transfusions.* Our regular contact with him led to an invitation for some representatives of the Spain branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses to explain our stand to Professor Gracia’s postgraduate students, some of whom are regarded as the best doctors in the country.
Facing Up to Reality
Of course, this satisfying work in behalf of fellow believers has not solved all my personal problems. My disease advances relentlessly. Fortunately, however, my mind is alert. Thanks to my wife and my son, who never complain, I can still handle my responsibilities. Without their help and support, this would be impossible. I cannot even button my trousers or put on an overcoat. I especially enjoy preaching every Saturday with my son, Ismael, who wheels me around so that I can talk to different householders. And I can still care for my duties as a congregation elder.
I have had some traumatic moments during the last 12 years or so. Sometimes, seeing how my disability affects my family has caused me more pain than the actual illness. I know that they suffer, albeit in silence. Not long ago, in the space of one year, my mother-in-law and my father died. During that same year, I found myself unable to get around without a wheelchair. My father, who was living in our home, died of another degenerative disease. Milagros, who looked after him, felt as if she was witnessing what will happen to me in the future.
On the positive side, though, our family is united as we face the difficulties together. I have exchanged an executive’s chair for a wheelchair, but my life is actually better now because it is fully devoted to serving others. Giving can alleviate suffering, and Jehovah does keep his promise to strengthen us in time of need. Like Paul, I can truly say: “For all things I have the strength by virtue of him who imparts power to me.”—Philippians 4:13.
Multiple sclerosis is a disorder of the central nervous system. It often causes a progressive deterioration in balance, use of limbs, and sometimes sight, speech, or comprehension.
This operation is known as the Ross procedure.
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A Wife’s Viewpoint
For a wife, living with a mate who suffers from multiple sclerosis is difficult—mentally, emotionally, and physically. I have to be reasonable in what I plan to do and willing to disregard unnecessary anxiety about the future. (Matthew 6:34) Nevertheless, living with suffering can bring out the best in a person. Our marriage is stronger than before, and my relationship with Jehovah is closer. The life stories of others in similarly stressful circumstances have also strengthened me greatly. I share the satisfaction that Julián feels as a result of his valuable service in behalf of the brothers, and I have found that Jehovah never fails us, even though each day may bring a new challenge.
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A Son’s Viewpoint
In my father’s endurance and positive spirit, I find an excellent example, and I feel useful when I wheel him around. I know that I can’t always do what I would like to do. I am now a teenager, but when I get older, I would like to serve as a member of a Hospital Liaison Committee. I know from the promises of the Bible that suffering is temporary and that many brothers and sisters suffer more than we do.
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My wife is a source of strength to me
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Conversing with heart surgeon Dr. Juan Duarte
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My son and I enjoy working together in the ministry