No Man Is an Island Unto Himself

By Karen Thompson

Testimony of a Continent That Cared
A Consuming Fire

“No man is an island unto himself.”

No doubt, you’ve probably heard that quote a number of times. It’s oft-quoted and been around for a very long time. In fact, 446 years long. It was written by a poet named John Donne, born in London, England in the year 1572. The quote came from his Meditation #17, “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.”

When Donne wrote meditation #17, he was sick and near death. He was so sick, he couldn’t take care of himself. His friends were tending to his needs. As he lie in bed, he heard the church bells tolling, signifying a funeral was at hand. He wondered, “Perchance, he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.”

Upon hearing the church bell tolling for a funeral, he wondered if the person for whom the bell was tolling was aware that it was tolling for him. He began to connect it to himself. Am I sicker than I think I am? Is the bell tolling for me? He then began to reflect on the larger issue of humankind, how we’re all connected to one another—how whatever happens to any one person affects the rest of humankind in some way. He compared the universality of humankind to that of a continent. He said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

He thought of humankind as a whole. Each of us is part of the whole; every person’s death diminishes both you and me because we are part of the whole. Therefore, Donne mused, when the bell tolls to signify a funeral is at hand, there is no need to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you!

What Donne was saying is that whatever happens to one of us, happens to all of us. When people understand and embrace this truth, it affects how they treat one another, how they respond when they see a fellow man in crisis. What a difference the world would be if every person reacted to another man’s crisis as if it were his own.

Ted and Deb in Crisis

This very sentiment was beautifully demonstrated in a powerful way when a community rallied around a man named Ted and his wife, Deb. The crisis began when Ted was diagnosed with a cancer called multiple myeloma. If that wasn’t bad enough to hear, they were informed there was no cure for it. They quickly realized—Ted had just been given a death sentence. Devastation set in.

Though filled with fear and anxiety, neither of them were willing to give up. For the sake of their three children, they determined to stay calm and focus on looking for alternative cures. They heard about a clinic in Houston, Texas, that was conducting an FDA clinical trial for a new medicine to fight cancer. They were hopeful when Ted was accepted to be part of the trial.

As anyone who has been through a medical crisis will tell you, it takes focus and commitment to fight a serious illness. It consumes your life and disrupts the entire family. Three times a week, Ted had to go to the hospital for blood and urine tests. It soon became an arduous ritual. Once the disease kicked in, it was overwhelming. At one point, Ted became so weak and could no longer walk and lost function in his hands. On her own, Deb assisted her ailing husband into the van in order to get him to the hospital for his tests. As the disease progressed, these thrice-weekly visits to the hospital were difficult and time consuming. The trips were painful for Ted to endure. This would be their ritual for three years.

Not only did Ted have to deal with the effects of the cancer, but there were insidious side effects from the medicine. Due to the dosage of the medicine being too high, he began to hallucinate, seeing fish on the ceiling and witches over his bed. Alas, their hope was shattered when at the end of those three long years, they learned the medicine wasn’t a cure. It simply held the disease at bay.

The Community

In the beginning, Ted and Deb told no one about their battle. But when the neighbors and their friends observed Ted having difficulty walking, they realized something was seriously wrong. When they learned of the battle they were up against, these loving and caring people rallied around them and organized ways to help take up their burden upon themselves.

A friend next door saw a way she could help ease the weight of responsibility on Deb who was single handedly taking care of her bedridden husband and children. She organized a dinner club where people could sign up to prepare and bring dinners during the week for the family. This act of caring helped ease Deb’s load. But it helped in another very significant way as well. Ted’s care made it impossible to socialize, and as a result, they had become isolated. These dinner drop-offs provided an opportunity for Ted and Deb to socialize with the person that came by with the dinner. The dinner club did this for three years!

Then there were those who saw a way to help ease the financial burden. A Basketball Association, a group in which Ted belonged, organized a fundraiser basketball tournament with all the proceeds going toward his medical bills. The Basketball Association did this multiple times.

Jenni, Ted and Deb’s daughter, a 17-year-old senior at the time, belonged to a soccer team. Unbeknownst to her, the soccer team surprised her by organizing a fundraiser spaghetti dinner. All the proceeds went to her father’s medical bills.

There were others who sent money in the mail anonymously. Ted and Deb never did learn the identity of these generous donors and always regretted being unable to express just how much these gifts meant to them.

Other generous donors purchased plane tickets to Houston for doctor visits. And they were overwhelmed by two of their neighbors’ very generous gift of taking care of the maintenance of their cars—for three years!

People from all over reached out to offer their emotional support. Not a day went by that there wasn’t a card, letter, or phone call from someone expressing encouraging and comforting words. Be it large or small, people offered their help in so many different ways, be it sitting with Ted or picking up the kids from school.

Practically every area of their lives was covered by someone wanting to help and were willing to sacrifice time or money or both to help this couple in their darkest hour.

The spiritual support was most valued. People spread the word to their churches to pray for a man named Ted. Many churches put Ted’s name in their bulletin requesting prayer for healing. Some churches actually took time to pray for him during the service! Deb’s stepmother in Arizona had a prayer group that lifted up Ted in prayer, asking God to send His healing power. Once a missionary in Cameroon, Africa, she contacted the priests there to request prayer for Ted. One of the Cameroon priests had transferred to the Vatican, so they sent a message to him and those at the Vatican lifted up Ted in prayer.

A Consuming Fire

Ultimately, the experimental medicine didn’t work. It slowed the cancer but it wasn’t a cure. The time came when Ted had to be hospitalized. The kidneys weren’t working, resulting in Ted gaining 40 pounds of water weight. His skin became so tight that he was unable to bend his legs. One by one, systems were failing… enlarged heart … feet black from lack of circulation … thyroid and adrenal glands not working. His body was shutting down. He had to be put on oxygen.

The doctor entered the room and had the talk with Deb. He tried to prepare her for what was coming. “Ted has only a day or two left,” he said. Her husband had reached his end.

Now the focus shifted on helping to ease Ted’s pain until he passed. By this time, the discomfort was overwhelming, especially in his feet. Rubbing his feet was the only thing that eased the constant pain. Sometimes he would call Deb in the middle of the night, pleading for her to come to the hospital to rub his feet. When a friend heard about Ted’s need, she organized a foot-rubbing schedule. Volunteers, some didn’t even know Ted, began showing up just for the purpose of rubbing a dying man’s aching feet.

But then something extraordinary happened!

Ted dreamed a dream. A terrifying dream. It happened when two volunteers were rubbing Ted’s feet while he slept. They noticed he had become restless. In fact, he was so fitful that he began thrashing about in bed. What they didn’t know was that Ted was dreaming he was on fire. In his dream, he saw his feet on fire but was helpless to stop it. The fire then slowly began to move up toward his calves, then his knees, and onto his thighs. In his dream, Ted was thrown into a panic because as the fire advanced up his body, that part of his body was no longer there. He looked down and saw he had no feet, no calves, no knees. And now his thighs were on fire. His body was disappearing! The fire kept raging and continued to burn his arms and chest. Finally, the fire began to burn his head. It was at that moment when Ted woke up. He yanked off his oxygen mask and screamed! The volunteers asked, “Are you okay, Ted? Do you need help?” Confused, Ted responded, “I was just dreaming.” He put his oxygen mask back on and went back to sleep.

The next day Ted would come to realize his dream about the consuming fire wasn’t actually a nightmare. It was a fire sent by God! He would learn what it was all about when they took another blood test. Remarkably, it came back clear of cancer markers! The jubilant nurses came in with the good news: “The cancer is gone!” The nurses all agreed that they had witnessed a miracle.

That’s when Ted told Deb about the strange dream he had about being on fire. A thunderstruck Deb was in shock. After all, it was just the day before that the doctor told her to prepare for her husband’s death. And now they are saying he was cancer free! It was a miracle, indeed. It was God in the fire. He had healed her husband!

This happy ending happened because a community acted like the continent John Donne described: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

When the community heard the bell tolling, they didn’t ask for whom the bell tolled. It tolled for them!

— *********************—

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The beautiful water-color painting is courtesy of Gail Vass. She is an award winning artist and a signature member of the Minnesota Water Color Society. She is a Christian who loves God and desires to use her painting to bring glory to Him. If you would like to see more of her paintings, visit her web site at


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