full of courage and determination. But some stories stand out. I would like to tell you one of them.
Looking around the room at the assembled group, I noticed this particular woman in the wheelchair for several reasons. She was very attentive to the talk, engaged, smiling, nodding her head. What was being said obviously had meaning for her. I noticed her also because she was in a power chair, one with an electric motor operated by a joystick, and she had braces on both arms and legs, which is unusual for a stroke patient.
Although my personal experience is stroke and most of those who come to listen to me are either stroke survivors or their family members, there are many accidents and diseases that cause people to be disabled. Other things draw people to the talks I give. Stroke is just one of the ways that our ability to move can be impaired.
As I gazed at this woman I tried to imagine what had brought her to the talk and then she told her story as we all listened. She has Guillain-Barré syndrome, an auto-immune disorder. According to the National Institute of Health website:
"Guillain-Barré syndrome is a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. Guillain-Barré syndrome can be a devastating disorder because of its sudden and unexpected onset. Most people reach the stage of greatest weakness within the first 2 weeks after symptoms appear, and by the third week of the illness 90 percent of all patients are at their weakest. The recovery period may be as little as a few weeks or as long as a few years."
The other people I have met with this rare disorder suffered only one episode and have rehabilitated from it reasonably well, regaining the majority of their function. This woman has a chronic case. It keeps coming back. Chronic cases are rare.
Does she give up? Is she bitter and depressed? Absolutely not! When I saw her she was cheerful, encouraging to all the patients and family members around her, and eager to go through rehabilitation one more time to regain as much function as she possibly could. Why? Why isn't she bitter and discouraged? What drives this woman?
She has a purpose outside of herself that involves loving other people. This woman teaches performance skills to high school aged kids. She loves her students. She told us that she wanted to get back to her kids and their performances as quickly as she could. She teaches her kids to be comfortable in front of audiences, singing, dancing and storytelling, as she reported with delight, and she does all this from her power chair and has done so for years.
I was in awe. I still am. The memory of her face and her story rings in my heart. I have a sixteen-year-old grandson. I know how powerfully he is affected by examples of courage and tenacity and love. I know how these stories shape his sense of purpose and morality.
As I think about the power of the gift this woman gives the teens she teaches my heart fills with wonder. Faced with an almost incomprehensible and certainly devastating illness this woman takes her life and her journey and turns it into a gift to the people around her. The teens who interact with her are being taught, simply by being with her, that it is possible to make a life no matter what you are given to deal with. Is there a more priceless gift to give a teen than this? It's hard to imagine.
She had a choice. She could have given up. She could have stayed in a corner and stewed on how "unfair" her life is compared to others. She could have set an example to all those around her of despair and anger. Instead she chose life and love. This is a love story in the deepest sense of the word.