In this story from June 1981, the Touched by an Angel star shares how her faith guided her through a serious health crisis.
by Della Reese — Posted on Jun 25, 2014
It came just like a thief in the night. I was taping the Johnny Carson Tonight Show at NBC studios in Burbank, California, that October evening in 1979. I had often hosted this show before and felt right at home as I walked out on the stage to sing my second song that night, “Little Boy Lost.”
The studio audience of some 500 people who had applauded me so generously quieted down, my accompanist played the first plaintive notes on a bass fiddle. I drew in a deep breath, threw my head back, sang four bars and then I struck a flat note.
The studio and the audience revolved around me, my left knee gave way under my sequined gown, and I crumpled to the floor. Bandleader Doc Severinsen rushed up with a doctor and a nurse who happened to be in the audience.
All I could do as they carried me to the ambulance was ask: “Lord, help me. God, help me.”
And then everything faded away.
I awoke the next morning to look into the anguished face of my 20-year-old daughter.
“Where am I, Dumpsey?” I asked.
“In the hospital.” She leaned down and kissed me. “Oh, Mommy, I was so worried about you.”
“Don’t fret, child,” I said, trying to smile. “God will take care of me.” I glanced at my 30-year-old adopted son –a psychiatrist–standing next to Dumpsey.
“What’s wrong with me, Jim?”
“They believe you have an aneurysm,” he said. “But they’re going to transfer you to Midway Hospital for tests to find out more about it.”
The tests were bad enough, but the grim look on the doctor’s face when he came to report was worse.
“You have an aneurysm that has ruptured,” he said, explaining that an artery in the right portion of my brain had ballooned and burst. “But we’re afraid there may be something else,” he added.
After I underwent another series of excruciating explorations, the doctor returned looking even more serious. He told me that two other aneurysms had formed on the left side of my brain, near the optic nerve.
In time, with blood surging against the weakened arterial walls, these too would rupture, which could mean the end for me.
“Your only hope now is an operation,” he said. “But, I must warn you about it. In operations like this–when the optic nerve is so closely involved–seven percent of the patients have ended up blind.” He paused and looked at me seriously. “Or worse.”
“What do you mean ‘worse’?” I demanded. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Crippled, or with the loss of mental faculties.”
After he left the room, I did a lot of thinking. No matter what he said, I realized I had a choice in the matter.
I remembered what Mama had said about choices when I was about rive years old.
Mama and Papa raised us five sisters and a brother in a Detroit slum. But Mama wouldn’t allow the outside to touch us inside.
She always made it clear that Jesus Christ was her personal choice. She showed it by living His way every day.
“Pray to Him and expect His help,” she told us. “He will not let you down when you need Him.”
Her way of life was our best example. Praying and believing were a part of living in our house. There were no set times, just a part of everyday living. And so, early in life, I had made my own choice.
As I grew into my teens and saw the fancy ladies in doorways, the careening police cars, and people nodding on dope, I was so grateful that I had made the right one. For it was my faith in Jesus and his guidance that kept me from that kind of life.
So I continued believing and praying, and I was blessed. The Lord had given me a voice and I had started using it in the church choir at age six. I grew up singing, and for three summers I sang with Mahalia Jackson in her gospel choir.
But I thought music was just for fun, and when I entered Wayne University, I planned to major in psychiatry. However, in my freshman year Mama died of a cerebral hemorrhage; there was just not enough money for my schooling–I had to drop out.
So now I was on my own. I did everything from working a switchboard to driving a taxi. But the thing that never left me was my love for singing.
Alone in my cab one night, I switched on the radio. As I listened to some beautiful singing, I knew that was where my heart was.
But in those days I also knew that gospel singers hardly earned travel money, and popular singers had to entertain in places like hotels, theaters and nightclubs, which I felt would compromise my religious beliefs.
I got to talking about it with my preacher, the Reverend E.A. Rundless of the New Liberty Baptist Church. He leaned forward in his chair and said, “Della, it’s not so much what you do as how you feel inside when you do it. If you feel that you can do a good job for the Lord, why not try?”
I decided to take his advice. If I sang in a club, I’d be sure to include a song about Jesus. It sure wouldn’t hurt the audience to hear it.
So I started out at age 19 in a combination bowling alley and club, and went on from there. I worked a gospel song into each act, and the people seemed to love it. During my one year at college I had organized a gospel group called the Meditation Singers.
Ten years later, I was established enough to bring them to Las Vegas to perform with me, and my career continued to blossom.
Now as I lay in the hospital bed, I realized I had another choice: listen to the doom-talking doctor, or call upon my friend Jesus, who promised that anything we ask in his name would be granted.
First thing I did was tell my family to keep that gloomy doctor out of my room.
Then, for almost two weeks, while they made further studies and gave me medicine to help keep the blood from breaking through the arteries, I kept repeating over and over: “By the power in the name of Jesus Christ I am healed. By the power in the name of Jesus Christ I am healed.”
And I believed that He would heal me. God had already saved me from the streets. He had answered my prayers for music, for everything. I knew he wouldn’t let me down now.
Then my right eye began to blur; I would see two Dumpseys standing by my bed. The doctor said it was the aneurysms pressing on my optic nerve. An immediate operation was essential.
In the meantime my good friend, the Reverend Johnnie Coleman, came from Chicago and we prayed together. She laid hands on me and I knew then that all would be taken care of.
But there were only two brain surgeons in the world who could do the complicated surgery, one in Ontario, Canada, and the other in Zurich, Switzerland. Because quick action was needed, I was flown to Ontario, where I met Dr. Charles Drake.
I felt good about him. In his 50s, be was soft-spoken, kindly and, best of all, lighthearted.
We laughed and joked as he examined me. Then, when it was over, he sat down and looked straight into my eyes. “You know, Della. I can’t do this surgery all by myself. I will do it with God’s help.”
I leaned back and relaxed. I was so grateful for this man who did not use eight-syllable words, who knew where his help came from.
Within the hour, I was in the operating room where he opened my cranium and began working on the aneurysm.
Dr. Drake had recently designed a new type of surgical clip to protect the optic nerve during neurosurgery on aneurysms. He had sent it to Japan for various modifications and it had been returned to the hospital from Tokyo on the day I arrived. Until now, he had never tried it out.
As Dr. Drake worked on me, he looked at the clip resting on his instrument table and was faced with a choice. Should he use it? His first reaction was: No, it has not been tested yet. But he was overcome with a second thought: Use it.
So he obeyed what I believe was God’s directive. He used the clip. After five hours of surgery, my shaved scalp was stitched ear to ear and I was returned to my room.
When I awoke, I felt good. Feeling the surgical cap covering my head, I just had to look into a mirror. I had got out of bed to get one when I heard a cry behind me. It was a nurse who had just stepped into the room.
“Oh, Miss Reese,” she exclaimed, “you’re supposed to stay flat and be elevated by only thirty degrees a day. Otherwise you’ll suffer terrible migraine headaches.”
“Well, honey,” I smiled, “I just didn’t know about that. And neither does God,” I added as I got back in bed.
A second operation to complete the aneurysm repairs followed, and it went well, too.
Some people claim that in this life fate rolls over us like some giant steamroller no matter how much we pray. Well, I hate to think of what might have happened if I hadn’t prayed, if I hadn’t chosen to believe.
Would the other aneurysms have held off from bursting? Would Dr. Drake have decided to use his new surgical clip? Would I have healed as miraculously fast as I did?
When I ask myself those questions, I just remember what I learned as a little girl. Jesus makes all the difference. If you pray to him, and expect his help, you will be given it.
I know. Because I was.
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