Living with Death

Every day, Mark Doyle fights a battle for
body, mind and spirit

by Kimberly Felton

The question lingers; the answer is slow in coming.

Who would you be without this disease?

Mark Doyle, biology professor, has had 37 surgeries in less than five years. He’s died twice. Various times doctors sent him home with his abdomen still open. He’s operated on his own bowels.

“I’m qualified,” he assures me. “I have a degree for this.”

I look at him skeptically. After just enough pause, he adds, “On rats. Rats are close to humans.”

Doyle had just finished his 7:40 a.m. biology lecture. Levi’s and a nubby fleece vest hang on his thin frame. His disheveled salt-and-pepper hair reflecting the early hour, he’s the classic informal Pacific Northwest professor. Brilliant, and perhaps a bit scattered.

Doyle, an electrophysiologist with a PhD in physiology/pharmacology from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, discovered in the course of his studies “a heretical bit of neuroscience that became seminal.” His experiments — including delicate brain surgery on rats — determined that scientists can know which neurons in the brain are connected to which body systems: heart or gastrointestinal, for example.

“I didn’t know what God wanted me to be, but I was a productive scientist,” says Doyle. “Yet I could not justify hours at the microscope. What was that doing for God’s kingdom?”

Then George Fox University offered him a position in 2000. “When we started the nursing program, he was a key figure,” says Dwight Kimberly, Doyle’s colleague and mentor.

Doyle’s mix of neuroscience, physiology and pharmacology benefited the students’ learning. His sympathetic relational skills enlarged their souls.

At last, life fit together perfectly for Doyle. “I said, ‘God you’re using my skills, and this is fantastic.’

“And bam; I was in ICU, and now I can’t give a good lecture.” 

Finding God in the pain

Doyle holds a stint that used to be in his heart.

Doyle holds a stint that used to be in his heart.

Before the disease, when students hung out with him in his lab, his office, his home or one of his seven boats (“Boats are cheap here,” he says), they called him “Mother.” They’d stop by his office, cry, unload.

His eyes are gentle when he shrugs and quietly says, “So I’d pray with them.”

Because of Doyle, “they’d believe in themselves, that they could do what they were called to do,” says Kimberly. “Some of us have some of those gifts, but not at the level Mark has. When you have someone like Mark in your department, you recruit lots of kids into your program because they feel instantly loved.”

When Doyle first got sick and was in the hospital four months straight, “we’d talk several times a week about why people suffer and how this would make him a better teacher,” says Kimberly. “Very spiritual conversation. But that conversation gets old when you’re not getting any better.

“He felt God had prepared him for this moment in life — teaching in the nursing program the very things he’s good at. It was lined up perfectly, and then it was taken away,” says Kimberly. “We’ve wrestled with and talked about it and talked about it. And there is no answer.”

Doyle’s wife, Beth, admits to the void the ongoing tragedy has opened in her. A nurse practitioner, she served on medical mission trips. Mark taught students who would make a difference in the world. Now Mark’s health allows for very little teaching, and Beth is afraid to travel while he is so ill.

“We were doing so much for God,” she says. “Why? Why put us in a situation where we can’t do anything?”

On May 5, 2005, Doyle attended the Fox graduation — and then went into the hospital with a perforated bowel. He did not leave the hospital for four months.

Surgeons removed the torn part of the bowel and sewed him back together. But one surgery led to the next as inflammation reached a dangerous level — as healthy parts of the bowel died, and as his bowels “glued together into one big blob.”

Doyle is a train wreck of cause and effect — one fix always leading to another problem. His medical records, Beth swears, would be 10 feet high if stacked tightly together. She gave up on keeping copies at home.

“Mark shouldn’t be alive. That’s the truth,” says Kimberly. “One time I was in the hospital with him and watched him turn gray . . . he was having a pulmonary embolism right in front of me.”

The blood clot took a direct route to Doyle’s lungs, the result of months of bed rest.

When Doyle awoke in the intensive care unit, he saw Beth laughing — the first time in months. He knew that somehow, everything would be OK. Bob Gibson was there, a doctor Beth had traveled with to northern Uganda on a medical mission. Now they were planning a trip to Sudan.

“Dwight Kimberly was at my foot, supporting both of us as a very good friend,” Doyle says, “and Dwight’s son Brent was a resident in the cardiac critical care unit and was putting the IV tube into me.”

Kimberly called it a “holy moment.” Who but God could have made this mix of people happen at this moment?

Doyle calls it a turning point, “when I saw that God’s hand was in it.”

He’s polished that stone of remembrance, turning it over and over in his mind the past five years. He maintained a white-knuckled faith, holding onto the bits and pieces of God he saw, as his illness got progressively worse.

On death’s door

This pain is a ministry Doyle doesn't understand.In September 2005, Doyle finally went home — on hospice. But he did not die.

In May 2006, Doyle landed in the hospital for another four-month stay. And again in 2007.

June 2008 was a last-ditch effort to give Doyle a normal life — or at least save his life. Students, colleagues and friends raised the $12,000 needed to medivac Doyle to California to see a specialist.

Following surgery, the specialist “paralyzed my butt,” Doyle says. “The most invariable hell I could have ever imagined. Drugs block your ability to move.”

With Vaseline and tape over his eyes, he could barely see Beth and could move nothing other than the muscles above his eyes.

“I couldn’t stand it; I just wanted to move my leg,” Doyle says. He signaled S-O-S to Beth with eye twitches. Their time together on boats served them well. Beth interpreted his Morse code, and “started asking 20 questions.”

“Do you need water? Does something hurt?” She asked until she figured it out: “Just move my leg.”

Then Doyle’s heart stopped. His brain was without oxygen for approximately 10 minutes while they worked to resuscitate him.

“L.A. was hell,” Beth says. “But the long and short of it, Mark ended up with a gut intact for the first time in four years; he can eat.” 

By this time, though, he was a different Mark Doyle.

Living with a new Mark

Doyle paralyzed in a Los Angeles hospital

While in Los Angeles for an operation, doctors paralyzed Doyle. He was so weak and immobile that he had to point to a chart to alert people to his needs.

Years of potent painkillers and prolonged lack of oxygen will change a person.

“His brain chemistry is different than the Mark I knew five years ago,” Kimberly says. “Mark will forget the simplest thing — but remembers the most complex things.”

When Doyle landed in the hospital in 2005, George Fox’s president, David Brandt, told him his position would wait for him.

“It’s part of our responsibility to take care of our own family,” says Kimberly. “Kinda like marrying a spouse, and they get sick; you don’t just run away. But if he was just a rehab project for us, I don’t think we’d do it.”

Professor Kathy Weiss took over Doyle’s classes with the intent of handing them back when Doyle recovered. “Well, he never recovered,” says Kimberly. “The overriding understanding was that we would do whatever was best for the kids.”

Doyle was told they would find another way to integrate him. “The conversation was awkward, but it had integrity all the way through,” Kimberly says. “Mark loves the kids, and he had no problem with that.”

In fall 2009, Doyle eased back into Fox by co-teaching advanced physiology with Kimberly.

Knowing who he used to be, Doyle is perpetually disappointed with himself. “OK brain, think,” he says, pausing to remember the sequence of a 3-foot-long chemistry equation he’s writing on the white board.

Twice during a class period, he pauses to lean against the podium or flatten a hand against the white board, exhaling sharply against the pain. “This isn’t a good day,” he confesses to the class. “I’m feeling quite sick.”

The truth is, Doyle never feels well. He is in constant pain, sometimes excruciating. “Mark has gone through several cycles of depression and torture,” Kimberly says, and pauses before reiterating, “Frankly, torture.”

He ages weekly. His spine weakened and bent, he walks with a stoop. “I feel 90,” he says. “I can’t get up when it’s cold. The neurons that need energy, I can’t get them going in the morning.” He is only 43.

Despite his physical struggles, “the students see his brilliance,” says Kimberly. Doyle rewired polygraphs to make electrodes for the students to use for ECGs. He built a Langindorf device, which keeps a heart beating outside of the body, from scratch.

And he keeps them entertained with stories (and photos) of his ongoing engineering . . . now with his own body.

“His intestine was hanging outside his body, and was inside-out,” Kimberly said, retelling the story. “He decided he would put a shunt in. He got a rubber tube that was 18 inches long, jammed it up one end of his intestine, and shoved the other end of the tube down the other end of his intestine, so the intestinal fluids would not leak out and he wouldn’t lose what he was absorbing.

“The tube got sucked down one time and he had to dig for it, so he put a little rope on it and tied it to his belt.

“He’s always tinkering.”

However his body has been affected, he has never lost his nurturing sense with students. “That’s not a rehab project; that’s real ministry,” says Kimberly. “He loves students. He would do anything for anybody. He’s got a beautiful core.”

Living the questions

I may never know God's will for my life, and I ask daily. If I hurt, I know it's in God's hands.'Music is Doyle’s retreat from the questions. Writing it, playing it on his antique guitar, is his prayer language. For him, it is a gift of the Spirit, helping him cope with what doesn’t make sense.

“We have to embrace mystery,” Doyle says, shaking his head. “I don’t understand it. God is a heck of a lot greater than I am. My suffering is something he cares about, but what is more important to him is that I love him, and I do. And I want his will for my life.

“I may never know God’s will for my life, and I ask daily. If I hurt, I know it’s in God’s hands. And I get angry, I swear, I want to commit suicide . . . but he wants me to love him, and I do.”

This pain is a ministry Doyle doesn’t understand.

Who would you be without this disease?

“I don’t know,” he finally says.

“We are always changing and we can choose the things that make us who we are. So, the changes I would have made if I didn’t spend nearly five years of incontinence, daily stuffing my intestines back into my abdomen, watching my brain deteriorate from starvation, pharmacology and anoxia, watching Beth suffer, listening to my friends pray that I would die and end the ordeal, are impossible to predict.

“I know I would have prayed every day like I have for my entire adult life, that the things that break God’s heart would also break my heart. I would have prayed every day, several times a day, that the decision I am making is the decision that was God’s will and not my own.

“‘Who would you be without this disease?’ In a nutshell, I don’t know, hopefully what God wanted, glorifying him with my antics — and much, much more boring.”