Bert de Vries has always loved the sea. But now he is sailing into uncharted waters.
With a terminal diagnosis of ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis- commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Bert is headed into a storm of suffering. Accompanying him on the journey is his wife, Christine, his friend, Roy Moore, and many other close friends in their tight-knit community of Fort Lauderdale. They all know that inevitably Bert must go where they cannot follow. But for as long they can, Bert’s loved ones will make sure he has a way to get there...on his own terms...in his own graceful way.
As the son of a missionary physician, Bert de Vries’ life seemed set on a steady course. With a foundation of faith, a mind for medicine, and a steady hand, Bert was destined to become a talented surgeon. One of his teachers even remarked that Bert had one of the most gifted sets of hands that he’d ever had the opportunity to train.
In time, Bert became one of the world’s leading cancer surgeons, president of the medical staff of one of New York City’s biggest hospitals, and a board member of a prominent corporation that oversaw 400 physicians taking care of New York City’s poor and indigent.
But this kind of success didn’t come without a spiritual price. Bert explains, “The career that I had certainly came with worldly rewards, and I enjoyed them. I was working to a higher and higher level, so I could get the bigger boat, and the faster car. All the while I thought I was doing God’s work, never fully realizing the treadmill that I was on.”
Life sailed along smoothly until Bert developed a tremor in his right hand. He explains, “When the symptoms started, I hid them from everybody. One of my talents is my intellect and my gift as a surgeon, so rather than admit what was going wrong, I was able to show off and do surgery with my left hand.”
Eventually, Bert’s condition deteriorated to the point where he was no longer able to perform surgeries. His career as a surgeon was over, and he was forced to seek a diagnosis. His fears were confirmed when he received the news that he had ALS. Ironically, Bert’s pastor was preaching on the book of Job during this time, and extraordinary things started to happen in his faith. Bert says, “Christine and I were walking out of church one day, smiling and almost skipping, if that’s possible. We looked at each other and said, ‘Thank God for ALS.’ That was a real transcendent moment for us.”
As the months passed, Bert’s muscles weakened to the point that he couldn’t get around on his own without a wheelchair. He was unable to continue his practice, and the income that had supported the lavish lifestyle of him and his wife was gone. Christine hadn’t worked for many years and now was his full- time care giver. They were forced to dramatically change their lifestyle to live within their means.
Christine had no way of transporting Bert in his wheelchair, so they began to look for an economical, no-frills van that could transport him. Already feeling like he was placing a large burden on Christine, Bert struggled with the idea of seeing her lug him in and out of a van like a piece of luggage. They simply couldn’t afford a van equipped with an automatic lift and features to easily allow loading and unloading of him in his wheelchair.
But God had other plans. Businessman Roy Moore heard Bert give his testimony at an event sponsored by a local ministry where they live in Fort Lauderdale, the National Christian Foundation of South Florida. Soon after, Roy stepped in with a generous offer to purchase a top-of-the-line, specially equipped van that would allow Bert to easily maneuver in and out in his wheelchair. With more expensive features, this van would give Bert much more freedom and independence when traveling, and considerably reduce the physical burden on Christine.
Roy explains, “I was thinking about buying a boat at the time. When I heard Bert speak, it was like God said, ‘There’s your boat.’ I knew Bert enjoyed being out on the ocean, so I felt like he needed a land boat. I didn’t want it to be something he could get by with. I wanted it to be a true blessing and a real testimony.”
Bert and Christine were not prepared for such an extravagant gift. Bert admits that his old prideful nature got the best of him at first. He says, “I knew that I needed it, but it was really hard to accept. We were already planning on buying a standard van.”
That’s when Bert’s close friend and mentor, Stephan Tchividjian, President of NCF South Florida, told him something he will never forget: “You can’t stand in the way of someone called by God to do something. Relax and be humble in accepting a gift that you don’t think you need or deserve. When you accept this gift, you will then be freed to give generously in new ways to others.”
Christine adds, “When Roy offered this special van, the change in Bert’s outlook was so positive. It’s hard to accept such an amazing, gracious, large gift. It moved me so deeply. After two weeks of choking back tears as I watched my husband in a wheelchair for the first time, I found myself saying, ‘God, I can’t believe how much you love me. You called a servant who answered our deepest need so quickly and graciously. We don’t deserve a van this nice for any reason at all. But God, you’ve shown us how much you love us, because you’re going to give us something so magnificent.’ ”
As an added blessing, the National Christian Foundation (NCF) helped Roy facilitate the gift through their partner ministry, Helping Hands. A solution was developed that allowed the gift to qualify for a tax deduction and provided a way for the van to eventually be passed on to another ALS patient. Christine says, “What a blessing to think how many people are going to be blessed by this. We have made so many friends with ALS who say they can’t go anywhere. I’m so grateful NCF helped us find a way to make this gift bigger than us and that the van will continue to bless many for years to come.”
The Anchor Of Faith
With each passing day, Bert pushes deeper into his challenging voyage with ALS. Those around him can see that his faith grows deeper still, taking him to a place of peace that few of us can understand. “This disease has taken me from a place where I knew God and knew He was in control of my life to the place where I need God and have given up control of my life,” says Bert. “I have no more special gifts or skills to offer. If the chief purpose of man is to glorify God, at this point, that’s all I have left.” Bert’s testimony lives on, and he takes comfort in the strength of Christ when we are weak, as the Apostle Paul wrote in the following verse: 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
By: Sheila Dolinger
Based in Atlanta, GA, Sheila Dolinger is a communications consultant and contributing writer for the National Christian Foundation (NCF), the world’s largest grant-making ministry for Christian givers. For more information, visit www.nationalchristian.com.