Over the years I have learned everything happens for a reason and we must trust God. He will pull you out of the darkness and into the light.
I was born into a great family. My mom is my best friend, and I know God especially picked her to be my mother. I have three older brothers who are my rocks and have always been there for me. My dad passed away when I was 11 years old but he loved me so much. I’m also blessed to have grown up with the pastor of my church being a close family friend; he is like a second father to me.
Growing up, I was like any other crazy child. I was very active. I did gymnastics, I swam, I loved to dance and hang out with my friends and family. Being raised in a Catholic household, my faith was also very important to me.
On the very last day of kindergarten, I started feeling sick. The following month, I spent hours at the doctor’s office, trying to understand why I was vomiting constantly, had very little strength to live each day, and had gone from a healthy weight to unnaturally skinny.
My parents and I were sent to Johns Hopkins Hospital, and after a long day in the ER, I was diagnosed with a pilocytic astrocytoma, more commonly referred to as a brain tumor. This tumor is actually very common in children, and though advancements in technology have made it very easy to get rid of this tumor, back in 1995, the death rate caused by this tumor was extremely high.
I was 5 years old when I underwent my first brain tumor surgery. After 12 hours, my doctors came out of surgery, telling my parents the tumor was gone. I slowly recovered from the surgery and began living my life again.
Two years passed. Then one day, after a routine MRI, the tumor revealed itself once more.
It came back.
By then, I had spent enough time in the medical world that the thought of surgery did not scare me anymore. At seven years old, I had my second surgery and it was successful once again. I went to make my first communion less than three weeks after my surgery. I was truly blessed to be alive because I knew God was fighting my cancer beside me.
Six weeks after my second surgery, a MRI showed the tumor had returned for the third time—the same size it was before surgery.
Surgery was no longer an option because it would most likely kill me.
I had two options—I could either let the tumor run its course and slowly take my life or try this new medical procedure called stereo tactic radiation.
My parents and I chose to do radiation despite the risks. This type of radiation had never been performed on anyone as young as I was, but I wanted the chance to live and that was my best option. I started radiation treatments in June of 1997 and they lasted for a month. After the treatments ended in July, I appeared to be fine.
And then September came.
I started experiencing side-effects from the radiation. My eyes started to cross, I lost all facial movement on my right side, I went deaf in my right ear and I became totally numb on my right side. My blood pressure also was always fluctuating. As a result of this, my doctors put me on the highest dose of steroids possible with the idea that the steroids would help bring my blood pressure down. Unfortunately, the steroids made me hungry all the time and very moody. I went from being freakishly tiny and underweight to being overweight and difficult to live with. My life was spinning out of control. For a while it seemed that every day I woke up with a new life-threatening side-effect. At this time, my parents pulled me out of school because some days I did not have the strength for it.
I spent days in doctors’ offices but no one could figure out how to help me. I was scared and I felt alone. My faith remained very important to me but I didn’t understand why God was doing this to me.
One night, I woke up to a man standing in the corner of my bedroom. He said “come to me” and motioned towards himself. I freaked out and ran into my parent’s room, shouting, “Mom, there’s a man standing my room!” When we went back into my room, he wasn’t there. I had no idea who it was but he was dressed like a monk so I assumed he was St. Francis of Assisi because that was the only monk I knew at the time.
The next day, my pastor came over and said we should go visit the shrine of this man who is on his way to becoming a saint. When we arrived to the shrine later that week, I took one look at the statue of this man, and I realized it was the same man standing in my bedroom a couple nights earlier: it was Padre Pio.
One thing that stood out to me as I learned about Padre Pio was how he believed suffering is a crucial part of life and that it brings us closer to God. He made me realize that I needed to embrace my own personal afflictions and trust that God would take care of me.
In February of 1998, things took a turn for the worse and I was no longer able to walk or do much on my own. My favorite doctor from Johns Hopkins Hospital had recently accepted a job at Stanford Hospital in California. He asked my parents and I to fly out and see him. There, a team of his doctors did a number of tests on me. After everything that had been done, my parents were told to take me home, love me, and that I would be dead in a couple weeks.
As devastated as my parents were, they refused to believe this. After returning home from California, my parents started hiring at home therapists to come work with me. I spent hours each day doing physical, occupational, and speech therapy. I retaught myself to walk, to clearly speak and I regained a majority of my motor functions. I was determined to live and prove everyone wrong.
But wait, there is one other minor detail.
During this time, my dad was also slowly dying of ALS, although most people refer to it as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a disease that gradually eats away at your motor neurons, leaving you paralyzed and ultimately killing you. He knew he would die but I still had the chance to live. I drew a lot of inspiration from him to keep fighting.
In 2000, my family was blessed to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France with the Knights of Malta. In 1858, the Blessed Virgin appeared several times in Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous. Since then, there have been a number of miracles that have occurred and the spring is believed to have healing properties. Lourdes is truly a blessed place. Everywhere I turned I felt Mary’s presence from the shape my dad’s jacket took when it hung in the closet to the woman I could see standing on our hotel balcony while I laid in bed.
One of the most amazing parts of our journey was watching my dad’s reaction to everything. For the first time in a long time he was at peace with his life. His disease had taken a toll on him physically and mentally and he was often frustrated with life. He struggled to accept his own death but at Lourdes he found peace with God and trusted Him. A year after our pilgrimage to Lourdes, my dad passed away.
One night, a few months after our pilgrimage, I told God, “Okay God, I’ve done what I can to save my life but You have to do Your part. If You want me to live, I’ll live but if You want me to die, let me die”
It was at that point I placed complete trust in Him.
And I’ve never looked back.
So here I am, almost 18 years later, a college graduate, ready to take the world by storm.
And I love my life. I have learned that everything happens for a reason. God has a plan for us that is greater than anything we will ever imagine.
All of my childhood I had to watch my dad slowly die, unable to do anything to help him and had to deal with losing him at a young age. Now my mom is remarried and my stepdad is pretty awesome. He brings so much joy and life into my family that was never there before. If you told me years ago that my mom would remarry, I would have never believed you but it’s funny because I can’t imagine my life now if she didn’t remarry my stepdad. Everything happens for a reason. You may be in pain right now but something greater is yet to come.
We all suffer in different ways but God is always there. It is human nature to ask why but remember to always trust in Him.
Beth Puleo is a graduate of Mount St. Mary's University.