by Barbara Harper
One September morning almost 25 years ago, my left hand felt like I had slept on it wrong. Soon I became aware that the numbish feeling was increasing, both in intensity and area. Within three hours, my left arm, both legs, and my lower torso were numb, I couldn’t walk on my own, and I was having trouble using the restroom.
Eight days in the hospital and multitudes of tests and blood draws later, the diagnosis came back: transverse myelitis (TM). I had never heard of it.
As I soon learned, transverse myelitis occurs when a virus attacks the spine and the body launches an autoimmune attack against the virus as well as the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves. Symptoms vary depending on the site of the attack. Some have very minimal symptoms; some experience chronic pain or are paralyzed or dependent on a ventilator.
I felt fortunate that my condition was somewhere in the middle. My neurologist told me I should be back to normal within a year with physical therapy. Whatever I didn’t regain, he said, I’d be used to by then. I didn’t see how I’d ever get used to my symptoms.
Recovery usually zigzags rather than ascending in a continuous upward slant. In my lowest moments, when symptoms flared up, when I had to cancel plans because I didn’t have any energy, when I couldn’t keep up with basic household functions, when any exertion required hours of recovery, when weird nerve signals made my body seem foreign, I despaired. I often told the Lord I could serve Him much better without these limitations and asked Him to remove them.
Thankfully, over time, I progressed from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane to wobbly self-propulsion. I still had numb areas and weird nerve signals, but I could take care of my family again. Maintaining balance remains my biggest challenge.
Years ago, the Back to the Bible ministry used to send out email devotions by Elisabeth Elliot. Many of us regarded Elisabeth as our mentor from afar through her books, newsletters, and radio broadcasts. She had been a missionary to Ecuador with her husband, Jim, who was murdered by the people he was trying to reach. Her second husband died of cancer. She was familiar with suffering. In one of these devotionals, she wrote about her brother, whom she regarded as a better writer than herself. Instead of lamenting her perceived lack in comparison, she concluded that limitations, “in the sovereignty of God,” are “gifts. For it is with the equipment that I have been given that I am to glorify God. It is this job, not that one, that He gave me.”
That went straight to my heart. I didn’t need to lament about what I couldn’t do for God any more. I needed to determine what He wanted me to do with what He had given me now.
We got our first computer a month after my TM attack. TM was the first subject I searched for. I joined an online group of TM patients and caregivers. Their support and information proved invaluable to me.
Sharing how I depended on God for help and grace came naturally to me in this context. I didn’t use the group as a “bully pulpit,” but I couldn’t help but share His grace. Witnessing had always been a problem for me face-to-face. How kind of God to give me this avenue with people whom I never would have met if not for TM.
In addition, God taught me several things through TM about suffering, compassion for others, ways to minister to others, dealing with fear and anxiety.
In another email devotional from Elisabeth, taken from her book, A Lamp for My Feet, she wrote:
God … sets limitations to the scope of our work. It is always tempting to measure ourselves by one another, but this easily leads to boasting or despair. It is our business to find the sphere of service allotted to us, and do all that He has appointed us to do within that sphere, not “commending ourselves.”
Paul said, “We will keep to the limits God has apportioned us” (2 Cor 10:13 RSV). Jesus did that–willing to become a helpless, newborn baby, to be a growing child, an adolescent, a man, each stage bounded by its peculiar strictures, yet each offering adequate scope in which to glorify his Father.
Amy Carmichael was a missionary to India in the early 1900s. She spent the last twenty years of her life as an invalid. She received tracts from well people to sick people which she felt missed the mark. She wrote Rose from Brier out of her own experience to people who were suffering. One quote from that book says:
No soldier on service is ever ‘laid aside’; he is only given another commission, sometimes just to suffer (we are not yet told the use of that), sometimes, when pain and weakness lessen a little, to fight among the unseen forces of the field. Never, never is he shelved as of no further use to his Beloved Captain. To feel so, even for a moment, is to be terribly weakened and disappointed…[T]he soldier must let his Captain say where, and for what, He needs him most, and he must not cloud his mind with questions. A wise master never wastes his servant’s time, or a commander his soldier’s—there is great comfort in remembering that.
So let us settle it once and for all and find heart’s ease in doing so. There is no discharge in our warfare …That dreary word ‘laid aside’ is never for us; we are soldiers of the King of kings. Soldiers are not shelved.
As I age and face new limitations, these truths comfort me. God is not done with me. My ministry may be different, but He still has something for me to do.
 Elisabeth Elliot, A Lamp for My Feet (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1987)
 Amy Carmichael, Rose From Brier (Pennsylvania: Christian Literature Crusade, 1933), 34-35.
Barbara Harper lives in the Knoxville area with her beloved husband of 40 years. She has three grown sons, one daughter-in-law, and an adorable grandson. She enjoys reading, writing, card-making, and Lindt Lindor milk chocolate truffles. She has been blogging for 13 years about family, books, funny or interesting observations, and things God has been teaching her at Stray Thoughts (https://barbaraleeharper.com/).
Barbara, I did not realize you have been dealing with TM for almost 25 years. Sending virtual hugs to you, dear friend.
God does indeed have something for you to do. You speak to us here in the faith community every week with kindness, compassion, and insight. I have learned so much from reading your posts. You make me think and that’s a very good thing.
Blessings to you.
Thanks so much, Laurie. Your words touch my heart.
I’m glad to find you here, Barbara! You always leave words of wisdom, everywhere you write. I appreciate the encouragement that we don’t have to be limited by what we see as limitations. God knows what boundaries we can work with. As I age, I do discover new limitations, but maybe I need to come up with a better word for them. 🙂
Thank you, Lisa! Understanding that God has allowed even for our limitations helps me accept them. I’ve tried to learn to ask “What now?” instead of “Why not?”