The Rev. Scott Schmieding sat in an examination room at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where a surgeon had just examined a malignant tumor in the
center of his tongue.
The tumor was spreading rapidly, the doctor told him. Surgeons would have to remove most, if not all, of the preacher's tongue, and he might never be able to swallow on his own. His speech would likely be unintelligible.
In that moment, Schmieding was not afraid of death or the physical ordeal that he faced. He knew heaven awaited him if he were to die. But he wondered about his calling if he survived. How could he spread the word of God if he couldn't speak?
"I was most fearful that I would never again be able to verbally communicate with my family," Schmieding recalled.
Sitting in the examination room about 13 years ago, he asked God to either make
him whole or take him to heaven. Ultimately, God would do neither.
Schmieding survived the cancer, but he lost his entire tongue. In the years
that followed, he retrained himself to speak using a special retainer and a muscle from his abdomen that surgeons transplanted into his mouth.
On Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the
official end of the Easter season commemorating a dramatic scene in Scripture when the Holy Spirit empowers Jesus' disciples to begin spreading the Gospel: "Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."
For that reference to "speaking in tongues," Schmieding comes equipped with a joke: "I definitely know a person can be filled with the spirit and yet not be
able to speak in tongues, since I don't have one," he said.
Two months ago, Schmieding took on a new ministry, as the congregation at Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Charles welcomed the preacher from Baton Rouge, La.
Though his speech is difficult to follow at times, the church believed Schmieding was the best qualified to lead its flock. The awkwardness of his speech has, in fact, brought more power to his words, parishioners say.
Jana Leppien, who was on the Immanuel selection committee, recalled how one person put it best: "If someone is willing to work that hard to speak, after going through what he went through, I'm going to work twice as hard to listen."
These days, Leppien said, the church is pretty quiet with Schmieding around. "People are listening more. His message is phenomenal."
Schmieding left his hometown of Beatrice, Neb., to attend a Lutheran college, where he studied vocal music, then moved to St. Louis to attend Concordia Seminary. He was 27 in 1992 when he was ordained and called to Trinity Lutheran Church in Baton Rouge as associate pastor. His daughter was born there in 1995.
Schmieding had never smoked or chewed tobacco and he had no family history of
cancer. But in 1997, he noticed a sore in the back of his tongue. In an 11-hour
operation, surgeons in Houston sliced open Schmieding's neck from ear to ear and removed his tongue through his throat. Then, they reconstructed the cavity in his mouth with a muscle from his abdomen. Schmieding likes to tell people his former six-pack abs are now only a five-pack.
During his rehabilitation, he suffered from blisters in his mouth from intense
radiation, making his speech therapy sessions agony. He calls it "the most painful part of the entire ordeal."
For eight months, he had to breathe through a hole in his neck, and he ate through a feeding tube. Doctors told Schmieding they feared he would choke to death if he tried to swallow food, and that the feeding tube might be permanent.
The loss of his tongue meant Schmieding permanently lost almost all of his sense of taste. Radiation treatments to his head eliminated the ability to produce saliva. When he did learn to swallow, it was with the help of gravity to push both solids and liquids — with a quick toss of the head backwards — to the back of his throat.
He had to learn how to replace the sounds of consonants in his speech — making the "T" sound, for instance, by shooting air at his retainer, which acts like a megaphone and replicates the traditional sound of the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth.
Having survived surgery and radiation, Schmieding was determined to return to parish life. His first public act as a pastor after his ordeal was to give a sermon at his former church in Baton Rouge and celebrate the baptism of his newborn son.
Despite his zeal, Schmieding did have some misgivings. He confided to his speech therapist: What if parishioners could only understand half of what he said during a sermon?
Her reply? "Isn't that true with most pastors?" he recalled, laughing Schmieding says now that he never asked why he was struck with tongue cancer, but for what purpose. In the 13 years since his diagnosis, he said, he found the answer.
"I have become an expert at adversity," he said, noting that he also lived
through five major hurricanes in Louisiana. "I know what people are feeling when they face trials and tragedy."
Schmieding said he believes strongly in Paul's words in his letter to the Romans that "we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us."
That sense of hope and triumph over adversity has made Schmieding a sought-after public speaker on integrating what he calls "the faith factor" into the healing process to doctors' groups, hospitals and cancer survivor
He consistently relies on one of his favorite verses, from Paul's second letter
to the Corinthians, which has a particular relevance to his own life. In the verse, Paul recounts God's words to him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
Schmieding believes strongly that he's been able to reach more people without a
tongue than he would have had he not had cancer.
"The history of the Bible is the story of God using imperfect people for his
perfect purposes," he said. "I'm just one in a very long line of imperfect
people being used by God."