The neurologist had seen Priscilla for the last time on a Monday. The following Saturday morning, New Student Outreach (NSO) for Grad IV would begin at MSU’s Graduate Resource Fair, where our chapter would have a booth. On Friday, Priscilla and I went to get copies made of some handouts for the fair. Since we had some time in the car, she decided to try to reach a friend of ours who was on the medical school faculty at the University of Michigan, to find out whether he could recommend a particular neurologist we should see there. His specialty had him over at the hospital and difficult to reach much of the time, but when Priscilla called his cell phone he actually answered.
She briefed him on her situation and, with her permission, he looked up her records. He discovered that her referral appointment was eight months in the future. “I’ll be dead by then,” she responded. “Tell me more about your symptoms,” he urged.
Over the next fifteen minutes, as we drove to the copy shop and then sat in its parking lot, he basically gave her a consult over the phone. When he learned that the muscle weakness had begun in her legs but was now rapidly spreading to her upper body, he considered it possible enough that this might be “ascending paralysis,” a complication of a certain auto-immune disorder that could be fatal in a short time, that he told us to clear out our schedules and get to the University of Michigan emergency room as soon as possible.
We were both shaken by his advice but agreed we should follow it. We decided, however, that “as soon as possible” would have to mean after that weekend’s NSO activities. We’d agreed to host a follow-up social on Saturday evening for students we met at the Graduate Resource Fair. This kind of hospitality outreach was what Priscilla lived for, and if she were going to die anyway, she was prepared to die while hosting students if necessary!
After an opening NSO weekend that got us “off to one of the best starts we’d ever had” (as I put it in my journal), we checked Priscilla into the University of Michigan hospital, less than a week after her neurologist had referred her. During the three days she was there, they repeated the blood tests, studied the MRI images we’d brought with us, and gave Priscilla a series of examinations. Finally a faculty neurologist, the head of the team that had been working with her, brought in their report.
“We don’t have a diagnosis for you,” he began. “We know you have something, but we’re looking at a basically healthy central nervous system. People in your situation tend to do well over the long term. This may all go away as mysteriously as it came.”
He said he’d understand if Priscilla felt frustrated; they sure did. “We get the 1% of patients nobody else can diagnose. You’re in the 1% that we can’t diagnose. And that’s frustrating.” Then off they went, leaving us as perplexed as ever. While Priscilla was still with them they would do a somatosensory evoked potential (SEP) test, which might at least give them a general idea of what category her disease fell into. They would also repeat the spinal MRI because they could do this at a much higher resolution than the “outside hospital” had been able to do. But both of these tests showed nothing unusual.
Priscilla was referred to an even more specialized neurological diseases clinic operated by the university, with a first appointment in two months. When she was discharged she wrote, in large letters on the white board of her room, an upbeat thank-you note to everyone who had helped her. Though she was weakened by days of tests and nights of broken sleep, she refused a wheelchair and insisted on walking out the same way she’d come in, under her own power (with a walker).
On the drive home she realized that we’d be able to make it back in time for the next NSO event, a prayer walk around the Michigan State campus. We had a quick supper and then went to the rendezvous point from which teams were being sent out on different routes to “pray on site with insight” (as Graham Kendrick describes prayer walking). In our case it was a “prayer drive.” But the hospital visit hadn’t caused us to miss even one minute of NSO.
So would Priscilla’s symptoms really go away as mysteriously as they’d come? During her first evening in the hospital, while she was still in the ER waiting for a room to open up, I was encouraged to go to the cafeteria and get some supper for myself, because “it could be a while.” (They’d already fed her, as a patient.) I sat at a small table by the windows at the deserted far end of the cafeteria so I could get cell phone reception and text out an update to a group of friends we’d asked to pray. On the table next to mine was a complete copy of that day’s edition of the Detroit Free Press. The news and sports sections had been tucked inside; the lifestyle section was displayed on the outside. Its lead article was on adjusting to widowhood.
Was it just a coincidence that this was waiting for me, at that time and in that place? Or was it a warning not to entertain any false hopes, with some practical counsel for the more distant future? I read through the article several times.