Faith and Disability: Healing Beyond the Physical
October 19, 2018
by Laurie Bittmann
The intersection of faith and disability is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I was born with a condition called Spina Bifida. This is a birth defect that occurs during fetal development, shortly after conception where the spinal cord does not form correctly. The impact of Spina Bifida varies from person to person, and ranges from almost no symptoms in the mildest of cases, to profound disability in the most severe form. I fall in the middle of this range. Some of the common symptoms that people with Spina Bifida face may include numbness and weakness, paralysis, challenges with toileting, kidney damage, skin breakdown, and orthopedic problems. It is a lifelong condition with no cure, though there are treatments for many of the symptoms that lead to an increase in quality and quantity of life.
Most of the time, Spina Bifida is diagnosed before birth or shortly thereafter. I was misdiagnosed for years, despite the fact that I had overt signs of this condition that were apparent from birth. At first, my body was able to compensate, but by the time I was 9 years old, the damage became increasingly evident. My legs started to become paralyzed. I could no longer run, walk, play, or even write with ease. My parents did not rest until they found a doctor who believed them in their concerns and a diagnosis was made. Shortly thereafter, I was scheduled for surgery.
Though I came to faith later in life, I can look back and see that God was speaking to me in terms of my diagnosis. Before I went into the hospital, my teacher had me tell my class about my upcoming surgery. One of my classmates asked me how long I was going to be in the hospital for, and how long I would be out of school. Unbeknownst to me, my doctors and parents were not expecting that I would return to school that year. However, “something” spoke to me, and I informed my class that I would be in the hospital for 2 weeks and home for an additional 2 weeks before returning to school. I could practically see my teacher thinking, “This kid has no idea what she is in for.” But lo and behold, I spent two weeks in the hospital and two weeks recovering at home before rejoining my class and finishing out the school year. To this day, I truly believe that it was God speaking to me in those moments, and that He was telling me that I was going to be okay.
One might think that being misdiagnosed for 9 years would lead to feelings of anger or regret. In some ways, yes, this might be justifiable. But instead I see God’s protection over me. Had I been diagnosed at birth, I likely would have had surgery shortly thereafter. Maybe that surgery would have prevented further deterioration of my condition – or perhaps, surgery could have led to severe nerve damage and complete paralysis. During the 9 years between my birth and diagnosis, medical technology advanced quite a bit. As a result, I was the first patient at the hospital where my surgery was performed to use a new technology that measured nerve impulses during surgery. On more than one occasion, the alarms sounded to alert my surgeon that he was dangerously close to causing permanent damage and he was able to back off, therefore preserving nerve function.
Living with a permanent disability has also shaped my view of healing. The Bible is full of examples of Jesus healing the sick, the lame, the blind, and we are called to pray for one another in faith. But I ask you, what does it mean to be healed? Over the years, I have had many well intentioned people pray for my physical healing. Yet, I still have Spina Bifida and I still have to deal daily with the negative effects of this condition. For years, I struggled with the fact that God had not healed my physical symptoms, and this took a toll on my faith. Was I not praying hard enough or long enough? Was I doing it wrong? Over time, I have learned that healing is so much more than just a release from physical symptoms. Yes, sometimes healing does happen in the physical form (which is awesome and amazing when it does happen), but that is not the only way in which healing can occur. Healing can be richer, deeper, and more encompassing, than just the physical.
For me, healing is not a cure, but instead, it takes the form of being okay in my own body and knowing that despite the challenges that I face, I live a full and meaning filled life. For me, healing is being in connection with God, and being able to go to him not only on the harder days, but also in my celebrations of life. Living with Spina Bifida has given me passion, empathy, and drive in life to work in the medical field, with others who have disabilities or serious medical conditions. For me, healing is recognizing that life is a gift, and it is my intention to use the life that God has blessed me with to the best of my ability. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalms 73:26)
A college professor once asked me, “Laurie, if you could go back and choose to be born without Spina Bifida, would you do it?” I didn’t even have to think about it. “No.” She seemed surprised by my answer and asked me to explain. For all of the challenges that arise from living with a permanent disability, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Living with Spina Bifida has shaped the way in which I view the world and allows me to see God’s beauty, in all of His creation – even if it not as one envisions it would be.
Laurie Bittmann is a member of the Reservoir community. She’ll join Steve Watson for part of his sermon on 10/21 to talk more about her thoughts on faith and disability.