Misdiagnosed Appendicitis: The Colton Burpo Story

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Heaven Is For Real" by Todd Burpo. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why did Colton visit Heaven? What is the beginning of the Colton Burpo story? What was Colton’s death-experience?

In Pastor Todd Burpo’s book Heaven Is for Real, he shares the events that happened to his son, Colton, that led to his visit to Heaven. Colton wasn’t even four-years-old when he fell seriously ill. The doctors didn’t think he was going to survive. This is Colton Burpo’s story of misdiagnosed appendicitis.

Keep reading for the Colton Burpo story.

The Colton Burpo Story

You may have heard of the story Heaven Is for Real, where a young child visits heaven. But do you know the full Colton Burpo story? These are the events that led to Colton’s divine experience.

The months leading up to February 2003 had been difficult for Nebraskan pastor and father-of-two Todd Burpo. He’d experienced a number of health issues, including a badly broken leg, kidney stones, and a breast cancer scare. While unwell, he’d been unable to continue his work as a garage door installer, leaving the Burpo family’s finances precarious. 

Todd thought a family trip would be just the thing to lift everyone’s spirits. So when, in late February, he was invited to Greeley, Colorado for a church board meeting, he decided to bring his wife, Sonja, and kids, Cassie (aged 6) and Colton (aged 3 years, 10 months), along too. This was the beginning of Colton Burpo’s story.

Colton Becomes Sick

Todd left for Colorado first, expecting the rest of his family to join him in a few days. However, on February 27th, just before Sonja and the kids were due to set off, Colton got sick with stomach pains, a fever, and chills. A local doctor diagnosed him with stomach flu. Todd worried that the trip might be off, but, by the next day, Colton had seemingly recovered. Sonja called Todd to let him know that she and the kids were on their way to Colorado.

The beginning of the trip passed without incident. The family visited an insect zoo, and Colton seemed to be his usual rambunctious self. But, on the evening of March 1st, Colton’s illness returned. He began to vomit frequently and complained of pain in his abdomen. 

At first, the family continued to believe that Colton’s illness was something contagious like stomach flu, since Cassie had become unwell too. However, while Cassie quickly recovered from her sickness, Colton steadily got worse. He couldn’t stop vomiting and was clearly in considerable pain. A family friend of the Burpos suggested that Colton may be suffering from appendicitis.

A Mystery Illness?

On March 3rd, the Burpos decided to return to their hometown of Imperial, Nebraska, to check Colton into the local hospital. Once they arrived, it quickly became apparent that Colton was very unwell: An X-ray revealed masses in his abdomen. The doctor wasn’t sure what was causing the masses, but, based on evidence from Colton’s blood tests, he didn’t believe it was appendicitis.

Over the next 24 hours, doctors ran test after test on Colton, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. Meanwhile, Colton’s condition declined further and further as he failed to respond to any treatment. 

Eventually, the Burpos became frustrated with the doctors’ lack of progress. On March 5th, they decided to transfer Colton to Great Plains Regional Medical Center in North Platte, Nebraska, hoping to receive better treatment there. 

Colton’s Misdiagnosed Appendicitis

Shortly after the Burpos arrived at Great Plains, a CT scan confirmed that Colton did have misdiagnosed appendicitis after all. Even worse, his misdiagnosed appendix had ruptured, leaving toxins leaking into his body. Colton required emergency surgery to remove the toxins and save his life.

Before Colton went into surgery, Todd asked the lead doctor for a prognosis. The doctor didn’t give any assurances that Colton would survive, merely saying that the medical team would know more about his condition when they began the surgery. (Later, Todd learned that none of the medical staff had expected Colton to live.) 

While the Burpos waited for news on Colton’s surgery, Sonja sat in the hospital waiting room, calling friends and family to update them on her son’s condition. Meanwhile, Todd found a quiet room in which he could be alone with his feelings. He felt guilty: Was Colton going to die because his parents had been too slow to seek adequate medical care for him? Was the end of the Colton Burpo story? Shouldn’t Todd have realized that Colton was suffering from appendicitis sooner?

In addition, Todd felt extremely angry at God. Why was God testing him—a pastor, no less—again, after all of the trials and tribulations of the past few months? Was God really going to allow his son to die? 

After an agonizing hours-long wait, the Burpos eventually learned that Colton had made it through the surgery. However, he was still very sick: Infection remained in many of his internal organs. For some days after the surgery, Colton continued to vomit regularly. Twice a day, he had pus pumped from his body.

Colton Burpo Has Another Surgery

As the days passed, Colton’s condition improved little by little. On March 13th, it seemed like he was finally well enough to be discharged. Todd and Sonja began to prepare to return home. However, at the last minute, the doctors discovered that Colton had developed new areas of infection in his abdomen. Not only would he have to remain in hospital, but he would have to undergo surgery again.

At first, it appeared that the second surgery had been successful. However, it soon became clear that Colton’s bowels had stopped functioning: He couldn’t pass any gas or feces. Days dragged on with no change in his condition, and Colton’s constipation became increasingly painful. 

By March 17th, the doctors at Great Plains believed that there was nothing more they could do for Colton. They suggested transferring him to a specialist children’s hospital in Denver. However, before the transfer could take place, a freak snowstorm hit North Platte. This trapped the Burpos in the hospital, with no hope of a transfer taking place that day.

A Miraculous Recovery

Back in Imperial, Todd’s congregation came together to pray. They—along with Todd, from afar—asked God to either make the snowstorm pass, thus making the transfer possible, or make Colton’s constipation pass, thus making the transfer unnecessary. (Todd couldn’t help but wonder if a congregation had ever prayed for a bowel movement before.) 

Within an hour, Colton’s condition miraculously began to improve. He was suddenly able to pass gas again, and by that evening, his constipation had cleared. The next day, he was practically back to his usual self: He was full of energy and playing with his toys as if nothing was wrong. 

The doctors were astounded by Colton’s sudden improvement and skeptical of whether it would last. However, after monitoring Colton for another day-and-a-half, they became confident that he had recovered: CT scans revealed no further obstructions in his abdomen. On March 19th, 16 days after Colton was first admitted to hospital, the Burpos were finally able to return home.

This experience was the beginning of the Colton Burpo story, Heaven Is for Real.

Misdiagnosed Appendicitis: The Colton Burpo Story

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Todd Burpo's "Heaven Is For Real" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Heaven Is For Real summary:

  • Why 4-year-old Colton Burpo believed he had visited Heaven
  • What Burpo saw during his time in Heaven, including proof it was real
  • How the experience strengthened the faith of the Burpo family

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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