The Beauty of Spirit - Kit Roberts Johnson

The Beauty of Spirit


The Beauty of Spirit

Pope John Paul II performed a miracle on a twenty-degree day in February 1981. The pontiff finished his ninth foreign trip with this last stop in Anchorage, Alaska. The whole town buzzed with excitement. He stayed in Anchorage for four-and-a-half hours. While in town, he performed an outdoor mass, rode in a dogsled, and paraded in a “Pope mobile;” which was a white pickup truck with a bullet-proof shield. He said, “Being here in Alaska, so richly endowed with the beauties of nature, one so rugged and yet so splendid, we sense the presence of God’s spirit in the manifold handiwork of creation.” I couldn’t have said it any better.

The staff and residents at Nakoyia Health Care Center, where I worked as a speech therapist, were also excited. John Paul offered to meet with handicapped people in the basement of the Holy Family Cathedral. We were invited to send any residents who had an interest in seeing him. While there, he planned to walk among the people and pray for them, put his hand on each head as he blessed them, and give each person a necklace with a cross, in remembrance of the visit. Janet attended.

Janet, a middle-aged woman, had resided at Nakoyia for several months. A car accident in the Lower 48 had left her in a coma. Her sister, who lived in Anchorage, had Janet transferred to Nakoyia so that she could watch over her. In a coma, Janet couldn’t move, open her eyes, or speak. She was fed through a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG), which is a tube that goes through the abdominal wall into the stomach. When one is in a long-term coma, this kind of feeding tube is preferable to the nasogastric feeding (NG) tube. The NG tube is passed through one nostril, down through the esophagus, and into the stomach. This is better for people who need short-term feeding, such as six to 12 weeks, although, they can be used for a longer time if needed. Janet was not on the rehab unit, so I did not know her when she was at this level of coma.

Then one day, I received a referral to evaluate her. Janet woke up. Sure enough, she recognized her sister. She nodded “yes” and “no.”  With this gesture alone, she answered questions for me. Her knowledge and memory before her accident were intact. She imitated me when I asked her to make some sounds and words. Sentences were more difficult because she had weak breath support. After all, she had been lying in bed for several months, which causes muscle wasting.

I performed a simple swallowing evaluation on her. She was definitely a candidate for both speech and swallowing therapy. What a happy event. Someone woke up!

I had been working with Janet a few months when news of the Pope’s visit was announced. By now, she ate and drank without a tube, followed two-step directions, and spoke in short sentences. Her speech remained slow, soft, and slurred, but intelligible. She had a sweet personality and an impish smile with her short-brown pixie haircut. She was agreeable and cooperative. Even so, she had reached a plateau. She spoke mainly in little phrases, slumped in her wheelchair, and was still quite physically impaired. Her energy ebbed, her face had a flat affect, and she seemed a little “down.” Then, the Pope came.

Janet’s sister arrived that morning to travel with her to see the pontiff. Nakoyia’s handicapped van transported Janet in her wheelchair, to the Catholic Cathedral in downtown Anchorage. The day passed and they returned. I had left by then, but I’d see her the next day.

There is an amazing energy in all of us. Babies, teenagers, and adults have it. Sick people and healthy people have it. It arrives with us when we are born and departs when we die.  This energy is love and nothing but love. Some people spend their whole lives learning to live in this energy of love, resurrecting their connection to it and becoming it. Then, wherever they roam, like this Pope, that love touches others.

Janet received a blessing from John Paul. The next morning, I went to her room and asked her to tell me all about it. She now sat in a comfortable chair, instead of lying in her bed. Her posture was better; she didn’t slump over to one side. Her demeanor was alert and animated, rather than dim and lethargic. Janet grinned from ear to ear. A happy and strong voice greeted me as she spoke in more complete sentences. Her words were clearer and not as slurred. She proudly showed me the golden necklace with the cross pendant hanging around her neck. The Pope had given her that necklace. It was a tangible sign of his blessing.

Let’s pretend that Janet’s symptoms were on a scale of 1-10, with 1 in a coma, and 10 normal. After she awoke, she scored a two. After she had rehab for several months, she reached five to six. After she beheld the Pope, she reached seven to eight, overnight. She’d never be able to walk again; she wouldn’t be able to care for herself by herself. She’d always require help.  But she had been transformed, and how?

Janet’s spirit blossomed. Her energy, happiness, and joy soared. Her empathy and awareness of others increased. In fact, her general awareness of who she was and where and how she lived sharpened. As a result, she became more active in general. She greeted people first, rather than having to be prompted to say something. She sympathized with others and initiated conversations. She made eye contact first, instead of having to be cued to “look at me.” Her beautiful spirit swelled with grace and dignity, and her mind and body responded. We all saw the miracle of spirit that day, and the positive effects it can have on a person. And how it can spread to others, just like the Pope. To this day, I cherish the beauty I witnessed and felt in 1981.

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