Sunday, November 22, 2009

What it's like being married to me

OK, this is a blog that’s long overdue. Overdue, but appropriate on this day, a few days in front of a day of thanks, a day set apart to say “thank you” to God for his provision in our lives.

How many times has my wife had to endure hearing questions from those of you not privy to an inside look at my life? Too many.

The questions come in some variation of this theme: “Oh, Dr. Kraus, how do you do it all?” Surgeon, novelist, missionary, father, husband. I usually mumble something about grace. The answer is true, but perhaps not specific enough.

The grace I’m referring to (undeserved divine favor) comes to me predominately through one source: my wife, Kris. While I ignore life’s daily details, functioning as the visionary of our wedded duo, Kris plods on, suffering the blunt end of my decisions, the one who has to be sure everything continues to work.

And she’s done it for twenty-six years. Mostly behind the scenes. Without credit. While my few fans step up with smiles and ask, “How do you do it all?”

It’s not easy being married to me.

Not easy is the polite way to say it.

She knew I was on my way into medicine when we met and married. That part wasn’t an unpleasant surprise. But for anyone, expectations are a given.

What would you expect from a life with a physician as a spouse? Security? A comfortable income? The right schools, the right church, a nice house in the country or the suburbs? None of that would be out of the ordinary for a modern physician.

But I’ll admit, I’m not one for following the status quo. Not as a physician. Not as a Christian (and admittedly, I think that status quo Christianity paves the road to hell).

So imagine the vague anxiety my wife must have felt when I announced my first life-altering decision in our young marriage: I want to be a surgeon.

That meant at least five years of residency hell. Back in those days, no one limited your hours. And the military style obedience and dedication weren’t so family friendly. We were one of the couples who survived the torture, looking forward to a better life beyond.

And we had it, for a while. Until just after we’d built my wife’s dream house, the doctor-country house. And then I announced another visionary stressor: I think we should take the family to Africa for a year.

My wife buckled under, sold the dream house, and made it happen. Moving a family of three boys to Africa isn’t easy. There is adjustment. Different friends, a different school.

But one year wasn’t enough. After a year, we moved again, this time back to America to a smaller house in town. Not a “doctor-house.” My wife adjusted down her expectations. Again.

Then we returned to Africa for three years. A chance to make a real difference. And my wife adjusted and made it happen. Three and out, she hoped. But now, after two years back in our modest house in America, we’re talking about a return to Africa. Another three years.

My wife is holding on, hoping it will be the last time that need grips my heart and passion fuels a vision for great things. I look ahead to impacting an unreached people group. Kris looks at three more years of bad roads, inconvenience, personal risk, and a living situation far from American-doctor luxury.

No she’s not selfish. She’s normal. She likes America. Who doesn’t?

And yes, she will go along with the dreams God has birthed in my heart. But she will ask him, “how long?” and “why us?”

Consider the orientation of the wonderful woman I married on a Nebraska hog farm in 1983. She grew up in a little close-knit community wanting little more than to live in the same house for twenty years. OK, maybe forty. She yearns for stability and sameness. Instead, she got me.

She wanted to make a home place, a retreat for kids and eventually grandkids. Instead, we’ve moved a dozen times in twenty-six years, including back and forth to Africa twice.

I’ve had crazy ideas. I think I’ll write a novel. Or a dozen. Whatever made me think I could spend the hours necessary to do that?

Because Kris takes care of everything that I ignore. Including herself.

I write. She cooks, cleans, shuttles kids to school, and finds time to study herself, in pursuit of a nursing degree.

I see patients, do surgery. She makes sure someone pays the bills, gets the cars inspected, makes appointments with our accountant and keeps the financial records.

I accept yet another opportunity to speak or travel on a short-term medical mission. She makes all the travel arrangements and watches over everything at home while I’m gone. I don’t worry about a thing.

I get the credit for giving an inspiring talk about grace. Kris does all the behind the scene stuff, gets no credit and looks at my busy life wondering where’s the grace he’s talking about?

Well for me, I know it’s a struggle to practice everything I preach. Speaking, writing and doing surgery crowds out personal devotion and private worship. My audience doesn’t see the inconsistency. My wife does. And she calls my number on it.

Good for her. I don’t like it, but I need it.

And that’s why I’m telling you about her during thanksgiving week. She is God’s biggest blessing to me. He knew I needed a woman to manage everything I don’t. I think she often wonders why God would put two so different individuals together in a union of marriage. Well, if we were both like me, we’d have exploded long ago.

I need her. Badly. She’s unappreciated, often ignored. And far too often, I haven’t given her the credit she deserves.

I want everyone to know. She’s amazing. She’s underrated on the radar screen of publicity. I get the credit for work I do standing on her shoulders.

I’ve talked before about how people put others up on pedestals. Missionary. Published novelist. Surgeon. People hear the titles and prop me up with their own ideas of importance. But I tell them that it’s all grace. The only pedestal I want to stand on is a pedestal of grace.

Most of the time, for me, that pedestal of grace is spelled “K-r-i-s.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

April Release: The Six-Liter Club

I was sitting in a Sunday morning service listening to my pastor, Phil Smuland tell a story. Ever notice how everyone perks up when preachers do that? (OK, digressing early...) Anyway, he told a fascinating story about a missionary family living in the Congo during the Simba rebellion in 1964 (Simbas were revolting against the new government that had obtained freedom from Belgium not so long before). For several months, many Christian missionaries had been gathered under guard in Stanleyville. As the UN forces arrived to free them, nearby Simbas conducted a house-to-house slaughter of westerners who had remained in their homes. As the story goes, a Christian missionary man went out his front door and looked to the north up the street and saw the Simbas going door to door killing everyone. He looked to the south and witnessed the same horror. Knowing they would be at his home in minutes, he knew he had little time to act. Quickly, he took several live chickens and slaughtered them, spraying the blood around the entrance to the house and kitchen. He then took his family and hid under the house. When the Simbas arrived, they saw evidence that the slaughter had already touched that home and passed over to the next house.

Wow. What a powerful picture of the passover.

And of course, that started me thinking of a story of my own....What if I wrote a story from the viewpoint of a survivor of the Simba Rebellion, perhaps the child of martyred missionaries? What if the child wasn't told about the horror from the Congo, but has partial memories of hidden evil?

Now, over six years after hearing that story, the novel whose seed found its beginning in that sermon illustration is going to hit the shelves.

The Six-Liter Club tells the story of Camille Weller, the first black female trauma surgeon at the Medical College of Virginia. The time is 1984 and academic surgery was still dominated by white men.

OK, I can imagine you are thinking, Kraus has proven he can write from the standpoint of white male surgeons, but can he write through the eyes of a female? A black female?

First, let me remind you that fiction writers are continually getting into the heads of characters that are nothing like themselves. Fiction writers don't have to be murderers or child abductors to write convincingly from that viewpoint.

My agent asked bestselling African American female author Vanessa Miller to read the manuscript. Here's what she said: "I absolutely loved this book. And I believe other women will enjoy reading about Camille's journey also. Great job!"

She gave me this "blurb" to use for promotion:

A Story of heartbreak, love and tenacity that will have your rooting for the main character until the very last page. Unforgettable!
Vanessa Miller, Bestselling author of Forgiven and Yesterday's Promise

Coming from Vanessa, I couldn't be happier.

What is the meaning of the title? The Six-Liter Club is the club surgeons don't want to be in! You get in the club by having a patient shed six or more liters of blood during their surgery and still survive (the body has only five liters of blood, so someone has to be working pretty fast to replace all that blood!). My protagonist joins the club on the first day of her new job as trauma attending at Medical College of Virginia.

Does that guarantee that Camille Weller will be respected for her work? Far from it! She has to fight to be respected for something other than her physical attributes.

Over the years, Camille has compromised to be a part of the boys club. Now, as a young surgery attending, she discovers that as a woman she brings something special to her occupation. Maybe her gender isn't the hindrance that she always thought....

Mix in a love story and a boyfriend with a cheating heart...

Add the mystery of a hidden past that threatens to unravel Camille's cool facade with memories of horror...

Sprinkle in the controversy that raged in 1984, that is, can Camille offer breast cancer patients an operation other than removal of the breast (lumpectomy which is now known to be appropriate, but in 1984 was just being proven) and survive the criticism of her male peers that live and die by surgical dogma (breast cancer means mastectomy. Period!)

Here's the first paragraph, just a tease....

My heart beat with the exhilaration of knowing I hid in enemy territory, a woman in a men’s bathroom. Moments ago, I blew in here to make a poignant statement about this sexist university, but right now, I feel a bit short-winded, like I need to recover an ounce of the passion that has fueled my daily survival in this hospital for the greater part of the last decade. There are trite metaphors to describe what I just did. Threw down the gauntlet. Drew a line in the sand. Aunt Jeanine would have called it career suicide, but I never did give much for her opinion of my actions. Thirty seconds ago, I thought my statement was precisely what this stodgy establishment needed. But at this moment on the day I became the first woman surgeon to join the prestigious six-liter club, I cowered in a stall of the men’s bathroom, desperate to find the fire that emboldened me to barge into this inner sanctum of testosterone. I peered through a crack at the doctor’s locker room, appreciating only a small vertical slice of the room at a time. It was much like the nurses, except larger and smelling a bit like my sweat-socks after a run in the Virginia heat. I leaned forward until my forehead touched the cool surface of the metal door, tuning my ear to the voice of Dr. Bransford, my mentor and the chief of general surgery.

It is still a few months away, but I promised I'd give you a sneak look. Release date is April 6.

Or should I say "due date"? Sometimes this book-writing stuff does seem like labor!

With special appreciation for my former pastor and current friend, Phil Smuland. Thanks for the idea!


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Get to versus Have to

Last week, I was in a "creative access" country. That's mission-speak for a Muslim country with laws against evangelism or conversion.

Our involvement there began a few years ago when I visited with a director of a secular NGO and asked the dean of a small struggling medical school if he could use the help of a team of medical doctors who could give lectures, do operative cases and make rounds with the medical students. His enthusiasm was apparent. OK, I thought, that's an open door. Now for the weighty question. "I am coming from a Christian church hospital in Kenya. The type of doctors I would find would likely be Christians."

His response. "That's fine." The understanding is that we are there for medical work, not for making Christian converts. In fact, he assured me that he assumed we would be Christian. After all, most of the physicians I work with are from America. They assume that because America is a "Christian country" that anyone from there will be Christian. That's the way it works for them. They are born in a country where there is no separation of Islam from their government. By their constitution, it is illegal for a Muslim to convert to another religion. If you are born there, you are Muslim. Automatically. You have no choice.

That began what has become a wonderful relationship between a Muslim medical school and a Christian hospital. We work for a week at a time doing dozens and dozens of surgeries, giving lectures and seeing patients with the students. Over the years, we have returned to see the young medical students graduate and become interns. And our relationships with the faculty blossom.

And as we work, we are open about our lives, our families, and our faith. No, we are not seeking conversions. But we are doing what Jesus commanded. Loving. Serving. Being light in a dark place.

I love my time in this country. I truly love the people there. they are sincere, and hardworking. Their willingness to stay there in a hard situation and serve their own countrymen is admirable.

I'm impressed in particular by one of their doctors who has started a program to help women who have developed vesico-vaginal fistulas. (what is that? A condition caused by prolonged arrested labor when a baby's head is too big for delivery. In the US, that means an urgent C-section; out in the bush of this country, the woman may labor for more than a day resulting in a pinching of tissues between the mother's pelvic bones and the baby's head. This means that eventually the pinched tissue dies from the pressure, like a pressure sore on the back of an old person who can't roll around, resulting in a connection between the urinary bladder and the birth canal. This has an unfortunate result: the woman drains urine through her vagina constantly, without restraint. This means bad odor, ostracism, divorce, and financial ruin. There are thousands of these women, a huge social problem.) This particular doctor has performed nearly 400 of the corrective operations in the past year, all for free. I asked this doctor about his motivation. "Why are you doing this?" I asked.

It didn't take long for him to reply. He is seeking Allah's favor. Then, he looked at me and added, "It is the same way for you. You travel all the way over here to donate your services to our people."

With gentleness, I pointed out the error in his thinking. "You are doing this to earn Allah's favor. I am doing this out of gratitude, because I HAVE God's favor."

Maybe outwardly, it looks the same, but the motivation is miles apart (as well as the final outcome!) This conversation mirrored another one I had with a Muslim intern. We compared our faiths. Good deeds for the Muslim are "have to"; for Christians, it's "get to." The Islam religion can be summed up by the phrase "serve him." For the Christian, it is "love him." It's the radical difference between wages and grace.

The best the Muslim can hope for is that the good deeds of a lifetime outweigh the bad and that you arrive at the gates of paradise to find Allah in a good mood. If he's not, there goes a lifetime of good deeds out the window.

For the Christian, we boast only in the cross of Christ. Salvation is by grace alone and faith alone. Good works are only the evidence of heart-faith.

There are many reasons why I love making trips like this, not the least is that I'm surrounded with continuous reminders (by contrast) of God's grace!

I'm back home safely after nearly three days of travel. Next week, I promise I'll give you a sneak look at my upcoming novel, "The Six-Liter Club."

Also, if you're interested, I've joined another blog where I will contribute on occasion: visit