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Medical crisis yielded faith that now propels their witness

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–He put his screaming, crying 2-year-old daughter on a plane and went to face the dying woman to whom he had promised his life and love through sickness and health.
It was a few days after Thanksgiving 1989 and Debbi lie on a hospital bed in ICU, her body still, save the air pumped in and out of her lungs. She was dying from Wegener’s disease, a condition in which elevated antibody counts fight healthy cells. Bleeding was so thick in her lungs that doctors couldn’t determine the source.
Taking massive doses of chemotherapy was her only chance for survival, but the baby inside her could die.
David Wheeler, then a doctoral student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, signed the papers giving permission to administer chemotherapy to his wife, knowing the signature might result in the death of their unborn child.
He placed his hand on his wife’s stomach and felt the baby kick and struggle as the medicine pumped through Debbi’s veins.
“I was 28 years old. This was not the way life was supposed to go. I controlled my life,” Wheeler recounted in a Sept. 1 chapel message to Southwestern students challenging them to discover faith, not fear, in the truly defining moments of life.
Numerous professors walked the hospital corridors with him, Wheeler recounted. “These men aren’t just professors. They’re first and foremost ministers,” he said.
After the diagnosis Wheeler remembered calling evangelism professor Roy Fish, who instructed him to “just lay it in God’s hands.” Wheeler went home and lay on his daughter’s bed where he wept alone until God met him.
“We began to clean out the junk and ungodly attitudes and break down the walls of false pride and arrogance. Surrendering to God’s desire was like the sensation of falling off a building and, as you are about to hit the ground, being caught. Whether Debbi and the baby lived or died, I knew it was all about obedience.”
Wheeler returned to the hospital to learn that a blood clot was now threatening Debbi’s lungs. The anesthesiologist said Debbi was the most unstable patient she had ever worked on.
While Debbi was in surgery, which began with a 45-minute struggle to get her off one respirator and on to another, Wheeler and literally thousands of other people across America prayed. He later met a woman with a prayer ministry in North Carolina who, after Wheeler related the incident, realized Debbi was the unnamed young mother God had laid on her heart one night in December a few years before.
Debbi survived the surgery, but the next afternoon she miscarried. An “angel” nurse with neonatal experience noticed the tiny infant, still alive, in Debbi’s bedpan. They named the one-pound, 15-ounce girl Kara, Greek for “God’s most gracious gift.”
Three weeks later, Wheeler wheeled Debbi out of the hospital. A few months later around Valentine’s Day, they took home their five-pound baby girl.
Today the Wheeler family serves Christ in Indiana. Wheeler is director of evangelism and prayer of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana. Debbi is “the greatest example of godliness I’ve ever known,” Wheeler said of his wife who, despite waking up almost daily in severe pain, volunteers at GA camps, cares for neighborhood kids and serves those around her to bring them to Christ. “She doesn’t complain.”
Neither does Kara. Cerebral palsy doesn’t slow down the 8-year-old, who makes the A-B honor roll, kicks soccer goals (by accident) and recently tripled her softball hitting average for a trip to Toys-R-Us. “She has a spirit that glows,” said Wheeler.
Her older sister, Dana, continues to be one of Kara’s main avenues of support. According to Kara, she’s the best big sister around.
The key to the family’s witness despite near tragedy: “Remember that ministry is not about you but Jesus,” Wheeler said. “God is sufficient for any need you will ever have.
“We don’t know when life will end, so don’t ignore your family,” added Wheeler, who, as he had looked at his wife breathing on artificial respiration, thought about all the promises he made to her when they married and how selfish he’d been.
“Knowing that life is short will also develop a much greater passion for the thousands who don’t know Christ. We should always see people from God’s perspective. The truth is, we are wasting way too much time on things that don’t matter,” he said.
“Don’t be like we were,” Debbi warned as she addressed seminary student wives. “We were like hardened pottery that had to be broken into pieces and put back together. What God really desires is for us to be pliable clay that may be molded in his image.”
Wheeler admitted before tragedy struck he had egotistical plans for a big church pastorate with a high salary and lots of pats on the back. That changed. “We’re often conditioned to believe that if we do A and B, they will automatically equal C. It doesn’t always work out that way,” he said.
Wheeler learned God’s plan is such that only he can be glorified. Citing “simple principles” learned from Joshua, Wheeler urged the seminary community to trust God’s promises. “God told Joshua, ‘Don’t fear, for as I was with Moses, so shall I be with you. Every place your foot treads is yours.’ Does God promise us anything different?
“Joshua trusted God’s plan. The Father said, ‘Blow horns, march, and walls will fall.’ Yeah right — we want Desert Jericho where we storm in with fighter jets and bomb out walls. Yet God works in ways that give glory to him alone,” said Wheeler, who reminded seminarians God’s plan might not include the First Baptist Church of a county seat town, a TV ministry or a mega-church. “What if God calls you to inner-city Gary, Ind., one of the leading crime districts of the United States? If you fight God with your plan over his will, you’ll lose.”
Wheeler also spoke of trusting God’s power and provision. “The walls fell down flat. That message came alive to me in 1989,” he said. “It took trust for the walls of Jericho to fall. What walls need to fall in your life so God can mold you into what he wants you to be?”

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  • Cindy Kerr