Select Page

St. Gerardus Majella

I do not make a very good blogger as one of the rules is to actually write.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across my medical record from an accident I had when I was four years old. The neurosurgeon who saved my life has passed away, and I knew him not well, other than as a patient as a young boy, and one more time, as a young man. I wish I could visit with him now. I remember sending for the records in Feb. of 2002, and receiving them in the mail on a busy day in which I glanced through them and tossed them in a safe place. A place so safe that I lost them for the next ten years.

When I read them this time, from front to back in the quiet of my office, I then realized what a gift these past 46 years have been.

I read all of the 25 pages, 46 years after this man, whose name begins with Christ, gave me life. Hence, the title for my June contribution to NWTC newsletter, What’s Cooking, was initially the same as my post, St. Gerard, but, I changed it to The Circle of Willis, thinking that there may be some objection from a secular college. It was difficult for me to write of it in less than 800 words. There is so much more to recollect, to feel, to share; nonetheless, here it is.


St. Gerard

My life began when I was four years old with the weight of St. Gerard filling my hand, pushing it to the linen sheet as hooded and masked people wheeled me into the operating theater with whispered assurances that all would be well, the familiar still forms of my mother and father disappearing behind the pneumatic hiss of double doors closing on one world and opening on another. That was my most poignant memory of my life that came after the day I lay on the street, four months earlier, my life leaking out of me. The neurosurgeon told my parents then that the prognosis was poor, that I had suffered a severe open brain injury from which a full recovery would be difficult to realize; but that he would do his best; that it was in God’s hands.

In the hours that followed my first operation, mother and father waited in the chapel, praying, and years later my father told me that it was only when he told God that it was okay if He took me home that he knew I would be okay. Shortly after that, Dr. Christoferson walked into the chapel with a tired, cautious smile and said that I would live, but that I may still have a significant neurological deficit. He told them that after he removed the depressed bone chips and debrided the devitalized brain tissue, when he ligated the bleeding vessel in the right side of my brain, he saw new vessels grow before his eyes, feeding the brain that had been cut off. He told them that it was a miracle.

I didn’t recognize St. Gerard when my father placed him in my hand in November of 1966. I only knew that the two-and-quarter-inch metal figurine was somehow connected to God, going to church on Sundays, and the prayer that started with “Our Father who art in heaven.” It felt heavy cool and warm all at the same time, and I kept it near, in a safe place for years after where it remained only as a memory until one day when I found it again, this time an adult, approaching the point of having barely more life in front of me than lay behind me when first I held it in my hand.

For decades, in the rare and occasional glimpses of the statue in the bottom of a safe box or in the back of a dresser drawer, I hadn’t picked it up and held it close to read the faint inscription inscribed on the base, assuming instead that it was St. Francis of Assisi because Make Me a Channel of your Peace was my father’s favorite gospel song, and because St. Francis was the only other saint I knew of outside of the Apostles. I remembered that the lettering started with a “G” and that there was an “M” and that it didn’t look anything like “St. Francis,” but I figured it must Latin, and after all, it looked like St. Francis, except that he wasn’t holding a lamb.

The years of the miniature Saint’s sequestration coincided with my years of immersion in science during which I learned about the chemistry and biology of life, and the Circle of Willis. Dr. Carlson, who was my neuro-anatomy professor in medical school sketched it out on the board in chalk, and I copied it down in red ink in my notes because red was for arteries, blue for veins, and green for nerves. He told us how, if the Circle of Willis was good, you could tie off a main artery to the brain on one side, and the arteries from the other side would fill the parts of the brain cut off from artery that was tied off because the two arteries going to the frontal lobes and the main one going to the posterior occipital lobes were connected by communicating branches that formed a generous circle in the deepest part of the brain.

So then I began to think that maybe it wasn’t a miracle. Maybe all these years of being told it was a miracle that I was alive was not true and the only reason was because I had a good Circle of Willis. Then, ten years later I sent for the medical record from The Neuropsychiatric Institute in Moorhead, MN, and ten years after that I actually read it from front to back; and, as a surgeon, having the benefit of a unique perspective on the biology of life, bearing witness on a daily basis to something that is so obviously more than the sum of its parts, I decided that it was a miracle.

St. Gerardus Majellus is what the inscription says. He is the patron saint of children, and he is with me now at work, a daily reminder of the man, whose name starts with Christ, who gave me my life in May of 1965.

The above isn’t what exactly what was submitted to NWTC. I did remove a few religious references.