News Articles

Battle with illness teaches seminary family perseverance

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The past few months have been difficult for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate Jim Harriman and his family. But they were a marked improvement from a year earlier.

During the 2004 holiday season, Harriman’s wife Pamela was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where she underwent extensive treatment for dermatomyositis, a rare and crippling skin and muscle disease.

Though Pamela was unable to walk and largely drained of strength, Harriman and his two children — Diana, 13, and Isaac, 9 — were determined to spend that Christmas together as a family. So they loaded all of their Christmas presents in a borrowed SUV on Christmas Eve 2004 and drove to Minnesota from their home in New Albany, Ind. Arriving at Pamela’s hospital room Christmas afternoon, the family opened presents together around a small Christmas tree placed in the room by a nurse.

The Harriman family was at home for the past Christmas season, though Pamela still is weak and in need of constant medical care. The family was buoyed by the improvement in Pamela’s health and reflected on the lessons God taught them about suffering during the previous year.

“I am convinced after having gone through this that God is much more interested in our spiritual welfare than He is our physical welfare,” said Harriman, who graduated from Southern in December with a doctor of philosophy degree in Old Testament.

“We’ve prayed for healing,” he said. “We’ve prayed earnestly. I have family members that have prayed earnestly. And no healing has come the way we would like to see it.

“It’s not that God is not interested in our physical bodies. But He’s far more interested in our spiritual welfare because these bodies are going to decay anyway someday, but our spirit will live forever.”

The Harrimans’ difficulties began in the spring of 2004 when an otherwise healthy Pamela developed a rash on the bridge of her nose. When she saw a dermatologist, he diagnosed her with dermatomyositis, a form of muscular dystrophy. Pamela grew gradually weaker from the disease until, months later, she lost the ability to function without assistance.

Just when the Harrimans thought Pamela’s condition could not get any worse, doctors found a tumor on her heart the size of a large marble. Because the tumor created a high risk for Pamela to have a stroke, doctors were forced to remove it surgically.

The day of Pamela’s surgery, Southern Seminary students and faculty offered the Harriman family prayers and support, he said.

“What a day that was, just waiting in the waiting room for four hours,” Harriman said. “Friends and family were there. In fact, people from the school came after the surgery and were just a tremendous comfort.”

The surgery successfully fixed Pamela’s heart difficulties, but increasing weakness drove the Harrimans to pursue more aggressive treatments for her muscle disease, including her stay at the Mayo Clinic.

Pamela returned home from the Mayo Clinic on New Year’s Eve 2004, but she continued to require constant care from her husband.

Caring for Pamela was difficult at times for Harriman as he attempted to balance doctoral studies with work and family obligations. But God used the experience to teach him servanthood, Harriman said.

“I’m learning how to be a servant,” he said. “There are still edges that need polishing because I’ve found that servanthood does not come naturally. Servanthood is a choice. And every morning when you wake up, you have to say to yourself, ‘Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church.’”

One of the most rewarding aspects of the Harrimans’ struggles is being able to show others that Christianity still works in the midst of suffering, he said.

“People are watching, and it’s like they want to see it work. This is not just some flaky religion we hold on to,” he said, noting that Jesus Christ upholds His children in trials.

“We’re not exempt from suffering,” Harriman said. “If we say we are exempt from suffering as Christians, then you’ve got a lot of explaining to do about the martyrs of the faith, the whippings on Paul’s back, those who were sawn in two, destitute…. I’m convinced that the world is more ready to listen to you once you’ve suffered than if you’re living the good life with no suffering at all.”

Harriman added that the difficulties have reminded him about the brevity of human life and the need to be good stewards of our time on earth.

“I look at life differently now,” he said. “We’re just passing through.”