Measles Encephalitis: A Story of Self-Healing
Although I feel that my life has been affected by many events, even small ones, one specific event had a major effect on the direction my life took at the time. This event occurred when I came down with measles encephalitis at the age of six. I’ll never forget that time in my life and the things I learned about myself and my ability to heal my own tiny body despite what the doctors believed. Self-healing became my choice and my mission.
The onset of the illness happened suddenly. I turned from an active six-year-old to a helpless baby overnight. It was the summer of 1957. We were living in Lewistown, Montana, where my dad was a Presbyterian minister. Mom was at home with three children, aged seven to four. That summer, measles was going around. These were the days before the vaccine, so several kids fell ill, including us.
One day that summer, Mom asked me to run upstairs and fetch something off her dresser. I pranced up the stairs, and once I arrived in the master bedroom, my legs gave out from under me. I couldn’t stand or walk no matter how hard I tried. I managed to drag myself to the stairs and descend on my bottom. Mom thought I was teasing, but then it became clear. I wasn’t able to walk.
The next thing I recall is being carried around up and down the stairs for bed, baths, or the bathroom. I can’t remember the complete time line, but I soon lost my ability to reach my arms out the full extent. I couldn’t feed myself or swallow well, so I was fed baby food. I lost my ability to speak.
It must have been hard to keep carrying me, so I was left on the living room couch. The living room became my bedroom, my dining room, and my playroom, except I couldn’t play with anyone. All I could do was sleep or daydream while the family went on with their lives around me. There was no television, either. It felt like an eternity laying there and trying to ask for things, but my words were just slurred utterances, like baby babble. Because no one could understand me, I felt abandoned on the couch and at everyone’s mercy. My siblings were young (I was the middle child), so I’m not sure if they understood what was happening. They were probably sick with measles too but lucky enough to be able to walk, talk, and eat. I’m sure they felt helpless, scared, and confused.
Mom was a doctor’s daughter, so maybe he told her to do this. She made a tent of blankets and put me inside with a steamer. The steam helped break up the mucous enough for me to spit it out. Maybe this saved my life. At the time, I just complied because I had no strength to protest being helpless and having to spit up phlegm into a bucket inside a make-shift tent of blankets, a lonely cell.
Throughout this dark period in my young life, I felt frustrated, vulnerable, scared, and lonely. No one knew what was wrong at this point, and I wondered if this was my end of days.
Finally after a few days, my parents came rushing home and swept me up to take me to the hospital in Miles City, where my paternal grandfather was dying. My dad had been busy, I think, picking his dad up in Michigan and driving him to a hospital closer to us. That is why he wasn’t around when I fell ill. And mom had two other young kids to care for. In any case, when I couldn’t walk and was losing more and more motor and speech functions, they had to get me to a hospital. They had learned that the diagnosis was measles encephalitis. The measles virus had infected my brain, causing my problems. As a gift so that I wouldn’t be scared, they presented me with a cute little plastic red purse.
That night, once we arrived to the hospital in Miles City, I got to see my grandpa maybe for the last time. These were precious moments since he was so important to me. After visiting with my grandfather, the next thing I remember is waking up from a coma (I was told it lasted 30 days but maybe that was the complete time frame for the illness) surrounded by doctors and nurses. I felt what I thought were a thousand needles sticking into my legs.
A doctor said, “Say ‘The bear went over the mountain.’ ”
I must have looked confused, so he repeated. “Say ‘The bear went over the mountain.’ ”
I said, “The bear went over the mountain.”
There were loud cheers.
“She’ll be OK!” he said.
But I wasn’t 100% OK. I still couldn’t walk. My legs felt like lead extensions. Again, I felt helpless and frustrated. Mom stayed with me as much as she could while I was in the hospital, but Dad, an only child, was still tending to his father. I was able to ask for things and eat, thankfully. Still, I felt helpless and vulnerable. Strangers would come in to my room uninvited and discuss how cute I looked. I felt scared being left alone in a room for strangers to find me and stare at me. The hospital was also very noisy at night and felt cold. The nurses were nice, except for one, who was having a bad day and plopped me on the toilet angrily. She left me there a long time. Mom was furious when she found out.
Finally, I was able to return home but in a wheelchair. The doctors said I would never walk again, and there was nothing like physical therapy back then. I felt mixed emotions. Being in the wheelchair gave me a lot of attention in the hospital, and once I arrived home, there were friends of my parents there with many gifts. I even received a darling tea set, something I had wanted.
Though I loved the toys, these huge, tall people loomed over me as they fussed over my sweet helpless self. I felt diminished, ready to be stepped on or tripped over at any time. Their sympathy mixed with my feeling of helplessness made a dark emotional stew for me. I could have easily gotten spoiled. As a minister’s daughter, I would have been lavished with attention at church. Another benefit I realized was that I was off the hook for doing chores. I no longer was expected to help clean and do dishes. On the other hand, once the attention calmed down, the living room again became my prison, where I sat alone since all my siblings and friends had legs and could play outside. Again I watched life go on around me outside the picture window in the living room.
Also, I didn’t feel safe. Mom and Dad had to drive to Michigan to close up Dad’s family home. While they were gone there was news of a child molester trying to kidnap kids. As a result, Mrs. Bunker, our baby sitter, kept a gun. I thought about how I couldn’t run from anything because I was anchored to that wheelchair. The entire experience left me feeling anxious.
No matter how much attention and gifts I received, I came to realize that being paralyzed in a wheelchair was not the life for me. No one came to play. School was in session, and other kids had lives. Life was pretty boring and lonely. I knew that I just had to regain my independence regardless of the doctor’s prognosis.
I’m not sure how long it took, maybe a few days while my parents were away, but I taught myself how to walk again. I used my arms to push myself up so that I could slide off the wheelchair and drag my little body to a chair or the couch, where I would strain to pull myself up. Although it was difficult at first, I became stronger. I learned how to crawl and eventually stand. Once I could stand, I was able to walk like a miniature Frankenstein from one piece of furniture to another until I was walking more smoothly. When Mom and Dad arrived home from a pretty depressing trip, their little girl was able to run up to them!
This life experience taught me a great deal. The greatest realization was that I could change my destiny. I had every reason to remain in the wheelchair because of the attention, sympathy, and love that not only I received but my parents, who had that poor little “crippled” girl. The attention could not offset the loneliness, the feelings of being diminutive and helpless, and the boredom. I think these feelings precipitated my decision to try to walk again.
I thought a lot about my choice. Let’s face it, it is easy to think fatalistically and accept an outcome without debating it. After all, the doctor told me I was destined to use that chair for the rest of my life. However, in all the time I had to think, it seemed unfair for me to have to live that way. People tried to convince me with the toys, dolls, and tea sets, that this condition had amenities. I was so delighted to be the princess! And yet, my heart was crying out to be whole. That is why I made a different choice and threw myself off that chair.
I have often contemplated that major life event. According the Encephalitis Society, 1 in 3 in 1,000 children with measles will develop encephalitis, only 85 to 90 percent of those children will survive, and 25 percent will suffer permanent neurological damage. I learned how badly my life could have gone several years later when we were living in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Mom and I helped give physical therapy to a young boy who didn’t survive measles encephalitis like I did. He was left with permanent neurological damage and paralysis and loss of speech. We would move his arms and legs back and forth, a method his mom called “pattern practice”. He would never regain full function due to the extensive neurological damage.
While I was volunteering to help this boy, I suffered some survivor’s guilt, not understanding why I was able to recover and he wasn’t. Maybe I had a milder case. Maybe encephalitis resolves itself in some cases. Maybe I was spared because Dad was facing so much loss. His mother had died exactly one year earlier, and he was losing his father. I’ll never know the answers. However, I do know that I saw my situation involved a choice. I could have chosen to remain in the wheelchair. No one expected that to change, not the doctor, not my parents, not society. My thinking, my belief, was that I could walk, and so I set out to do that.
Later in life, I had a couple of cancer scares, culminating in two surgeries within two weeks of each other. One was a total hysterectomy and the other a partial thyroidectomy. During the hysterectomy, the surgeon found my appendix was 8 inches long and ready to burst. Why was I so sick? This crisis led me to seek Reiki treatments. My first session was an amazing calling, so I set off to get training and am now a Usui Shiki Ryoho Reiki Master/Teacher. I also have completed 2 levels of Karuna Reiki training.
Everything I have experienced in the healing profession takes me back to the small girl struggling to walk. I see how attached we can get to illness and pain. Pain can seem a great comforter and even a teacher, but actually it is no real friend. Healing involves letting go of pain and illness, and it can be challenging work. I’m still healing myself from the past surgeries. The organs may be missing, but their energy is still present and the source of that illness needs to heal.
Also, life events can be stressful, and it is so easy to stuff that pain into the body somewhere, where it can conspire to sabotage the health. It is generally known that stress is related to all illnesses. Lately, I have been fortunate to receive body work of various kinds, which is releasing a great deal of disharmony in my body. I’ve been taken back to many painful times in my life as this pain rises and dissolves into the Light. I don’t expect an instant cure. Those who do may feel discouraged. Basically, I’m nurturing myself, recognizing the pain, and asking that it be transmuted to the Light instead of hiding in my biology. Healing involves getting rid of all that no longer serves you, and only you can decide to purge Pain. Ultimately, no one can fix you but you.
Healing promotes changes, which can make life difficult for some. Illness can become a third-party in a relationship. Some people need someone to be sick, or possibly someone needs to be sick to feel loved. If the ill person heals, what is the role of their partner then? This dynamic may not always be the case, but part of healing involves facing changes, which can be difficult if the illness seems insurmountable. For me as a small child, facing a life without walking seemed impossible. I had to weigh the benefits of being sick with those of being well and then make a choice to face trying to walk or even failing in my attempts. Moreover, people are taught there are no choices. The doctor proclaims an outcome. Therefore, that’s truth. Mom’s dad was a doctor, and his word was law. Why would she expect me to walk again? I was never encouraged to try because of the false belief that it would be impossible.
What heals us? We heal us. Even if we have good doctors, good surgeons, and good medication, it is our responsibility to participate in the healing process. It is so easy to be passive because pain can beat us down or maybe because the illness has benefits, as I indicated earlier. How many times do you hear of cancer disappearing or other miraculous cases of healing? There are cases such as these. Why?
According to Joseph Murphy in his book, the Power of Your Subconscious Mind, healing stems from positive thinking. We can bathe in holy springs, eat peach seeds, take pilgrimages, and pray, but nothing will heal us unless we want to heal. Our conscious mind may tell us we have no chance to heal, so we don’t. Our subconscious follows our thinking and our conditioning. Murphy states,“You are living in a psychological prison if your own making and you are bound by your beliefs, opinions, training, and environmental influences. Like most people, you are a creature of habit. You are conditioned to react the way you do.”
This conditioning promotes the false belief that there is no hope, that there is a defined outcome, and that there is a template to follow without questioning. What I learned is that I had more power than I was led to believe I had. I had a choice to create a life with more misery or a life of wholeness and good health. As I think and feel, so am I.
Metapsychiatry, as taught by Thomas Hora, likewise teaches among other things that discordant thoughts cause personal problems. Healing comes from seeing the good in life and seeking harmony with it. Healing can result from nonmedical means if we believe in healing. Our minds influence the subconscious, and it’s the subconscious that directs the healing. Energy follows our thoughts. Good thought lead to harmony. Bad thoughts lead to disharmony.
Healing is multi-dimensional, and it involves seeking medical care in addition to holding positive thoughts. I am not encouraging anyone to give up chemo or fail to seek medical care. I also think it could be dangerous to fail to get medical care for yourself or a child just because of the belief positive thinking alone will heal. Let’s face it; some illnesses are fatal unless treated. I think having medical care is very important, but I think we should consider our personal responsibility to co-create our good health.
Experience has taught me to be proactive with my health. I get all my annual check-ups, vaccinations, bone scans, colonoscopies, and mammograms. If I had failed to visit my OBGYN regularly, I would have died more than once since I was a DES baby, another story of healing. When I felt depressed, I sought counseling and even psychiatric help. No one is going to make those phone calls for appointments but me. I couldn’t wish away ovarian cancer or a bad hip. I needed help. So don’t think I am throwing out doctors all together. What I am saying is to be an advocate for your own health. Work with the doctors, but ask questions and keep up with your care.
I am an advocate for my good health because I have learned there is a lot more to healing than taking meds. Healing is not fully resolved with medicine. Medicine is often just a band aid masking the pain. Because we no longer have pain or symptoms, we get on with our lives, having been led to believe this is enough. Also, is so much easier to expect medication than serious care. I know some people who want antibiotics when they only have colds. I can’t help but think about the rising abuse of prescription medication, especially opiates. All we are doing is masking the pain and resolving nothing.
Our natural state is to be whole, not sick. That is what that small seven-year-old girl taught me long ago. What does it mean to be whole?
We go to see so many specialists these days that we forget to treat the whole person. Indeed, we are physical, biological entities, and making mechanical changes to the physical body can ease pain or resolve physical problems with organs and joints. However, we are also emotional, mental, and spiritual beings. In order to heal, we need to heal all those bodies: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Illness and physical dysfunctions are opportunities to heal at all levels.
In 2011, I learned I needed a total hip replacement and maybe back surgery because my back was collapsing due to inactivity from the hip pain. Before undergoing the hip replacement, I underwent rigorous physical therapy for my back. Everything went well with the physical healing. Still, I took the healing deeper and searched for the mental, emotional, and spiritual factors that needed to be addressed for me to return to feeling whole again. This form of contemplation can be a deep study that can take time, maybe years. It requires patience and a commitment to self. It takes love.
Now there is this argument: What if we really want to heal, but we don’t? Have we failed? Are we unworthy? If we don’t heal, we can’t beat ourselves up with guilt and despair. I think many of these cases of poor health may involve insurmountable physical limitations. Again, if the physical body doesn’t heal, that doesn’t mean that the afflicted person did anything wrong or didn’t want to heal. Our society holds fast to the false belief that healing involves merely physical relief or resolution of pain and illness.
There are still ways to heal or even to get around the physical limitations. Some people born without arms learn to use their toes to paint beautiful art. Many people with physical limitations compete in the Special Olympics. Why? They overcome physical obstacles because the spirit, mind, and emotions can still heal. They change their thinking, and so they change their lives. People can co-create good health in more than one way and in more than one dimension, not just the physical one. We heal beliefs.
Now, as a Reiki master, I take to heart the adage, “Physician, Heal thyself!” What does this mean? It means that my clients are the true healers; I am but a tool. The people who come to me for Reiki are doing their own work of healing. They are their own physicians, not me.
Every moment presents a choice for wellness. People can heal themselves. It may take a while, since it involves personal responsibility and patience, but the tenacity will yield results. Most important is the love you have for yourself. If you give yourself the love and attention that your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies require, you can heal to the best of your ability. Heal your thinking; heal your life. Return to wholeness.
Copyright© 2018/02/06 Barbara Harris Leonhard @extraordinarysunshineweaver.wordpress.com