“If I’m still alive on Christmas Eve, I would like your promise that I can go home for Christmas,” the frail young woman whispered to her doctor.
It was a cold day in December and the news Dr. John MacDougall had just delivered seemed colder still. Yet the devout young mother of a one-year-old child courageously received his diagnosis that she was near death. He made the promise easily, certain that she would not be alive at Christmas.
Eleanor had probably been pretty before tuberculosis came into her life. Her husband had no way of knowing that when he returned from World War II a short time before, he had brought a mild case of tuberculosis with him. His case was detected and treated, but not before his wife caught it. For Eleanor the war was just beginning, and she wasn’t able to put up much of a fight.
By the time she became Dr. MacDougall’s patient, Eleanor weighed only 87 pounds. Her right lung had a growing tubercular cavity in it. Her temperature stayed between 101 and 103. Her body was toxic.
The doctor decided to try a then-experimental procedure in which needles were injected into the peritoneal cavity to force in air and push the diaphragm up against the lung. If the treatment succeeded it would force the TB cavity shut. The procedure nearly killed her, but she was alive on Christmas Eve, and the doctor allowed her to go home for Christmas.
She went home only after promising not to hold her child and to wear a surgical mask around anyone but her husband who was now immune to the disease. She smiled brightly while being put in an ambulance for her trip home.
After returning to the hospital late Christmas Day, she grew steadily worse. Toward the end of February, new complications set in. She became nauseous. Another doctor suggested she might be pregnant. It seemed unlikely she had conceived in her weakened condition, but a pregnancy test confirmed it.
Even at that time, legally and medically, an abortion was an option because the pregnancy seemed to imperil a life already in jeopardy. However, Eleanor, her husband, and the doctors were against abortion. They were Christians. And the doctors were sure she could not survive the surgery.
Eleanor was fed intravenously as she fought to sustain two lives in a body that was too weak to sustain one. But then the unimaginable began to happen. By late March her temperature was down. She began to eat and gain weight. The growth of the TB cavity had stopped. An X-ray showed why. The diaphragm was pushing up against the lower lobe of the lung to make room for the growing child. By pressing the sides of the hole together, the child was saving the mother.
The baby was born healthy. And the mother was healed, the TB cavity closed. Eleanor went home for good within a few months of the birth. Dr. MacDougall received Christmas cards from her for many years. Cards that always reminded him of a Christmas miracle.
The child saved the mother. But it was not the first time. For on the very first Christmas, a Child was born whose coming saved His mother—and all who come to Him.
When the angel told Mary that she would bear the Messiah, Jesus, and He would save his people from their sins, Mary replied: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. . . . the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name” (Luke 1:46-49 NIV).
The Mighty One has done great things for Mary. And Eleanor. And us.