Becky is the President and Founder of Rising Star Outreach, an organization that assists in improving the lives of those suffering with leprosy in India. To see how you can help with their efforts, CLICK HERE.
Cover image: Thomas and Jolanta at the orphanage in Lithuania.
I received a phone call early one Friday morning from my dear friend, Barbara. Her opening words were startling, “How would you and John like to adopt two more kids, ages 6 and 9? And oh, one of them is paralyzed from the chest down.” Wait—what?? I have to admit she had my immediate attention!
When I realized that she was serious, I hemmed and I hawed and stammered out, “Gee, thanks for thinking of me, Barbara, but the truth is that I’m already overwhelmed with the seven children I have!” Barbara seemed so disappointed. I asked her why in the world she was trying to give away two children? Who does that??
Barbara’s explanation caught me a little off guard. She explained that one of her friends was teaching on a Fulbright Professorship in Lithuania. While there, he had done some volunteer work in a nearby orphanage. He had met two young children, a brother and a sister. The little girl was paralyzed from the chest down due to an accident at birth. He explained that the little girl desperately needed surgery to save her life, but Lithuania, who had recently broken off from the Soviet Union, was in desperate financial straits and wouldn’t be able to provide the needed surgery. Without the surgery, the little girl would die. Barbara said simply, “I told him I thought I knew of a family who might be willing to take the kids.” So, I called you.
There was a heavy silence that settled over the phone. I was struggling inside. My previous reply hadn’t been hyperbole. I truly was struggling to meet all the needs of seven children, one of whom was severely bipolar. Just getting them all out to school every day seemed like a daunting task. If they all left the house on time with a matching pair of both shoes and socks, I felt that I had already accomplished something significant that morning! If they had all their homework, why—well, that was a bonus. I couldn’t imagine taking on two more children—especially if one of them was paralyzed.
But on the other hand, neither was I willing to let a child die because I refused to be inconvenienced.
I swallowed hard and said slowly and with resignation, “Okay, we’ll take them. What do I need to do?” Barbara ‘s voice was suddenly completely animated. She was so exhilarated. She told me I needed to call Lithuania and talk to the Children’s Protection Agency. She gave me the phone number. She thanked me over and over again. Then she hung up.
John was at work, but I couldn’t reach him on the phone. The window was quickly closing in Lithuania when the government offices would be closed for the day, and thus for the weekend. So finally, with great trepidation, I called Lithuania. I caught the Director of the Children’s Protection Services just as she was leaving her office. I told her we would take the two children and asked for instructions. She had a list of things I needed to do. I thanked her and hung up.
All this time I was worried about how I would break this crazy news to my husband. I felt sick to my stomach all afternoon. When he finally came home, I greeted him at the door and said to him, “John, like, you are never going to believe what I did today!” He looked at me warily and quipped, “Now you know those are words that strike fear into my heart!” Clearly there was a history there (which I won’t go into here). Suffice it to say that, for him, being married to an impulsive woman had its challenges! I gulped and spit out, “I agreed to adopt two kids from Lithuania today. One of them is paralyzed.”
John stared at me in disbelief. “You did what?” I repeated myself slowly. He shook his head and said, “No”, “No!” “NO!!!”. “But I’ve already called Lithuania. I told them we’d take the kids. They gave me a list of what we need to do.” And I started running down the list.
Long story short, a few weeks later we boarded a plane for Vilnius, Lithuania, hardly knowing what to expect. When we got to the orphanage a bubbling gaggle of children ran up to us laughing and talking rapidly in a language that was totally foreign to us. I was completely charmed and gushed, “Oh John, look at ALL these beautiful children!” He looked back at me and held up two fingers. “Two, Becky—your limit is two!”
Then the kids parted, and we saw Thomas and Jolanta. Jolanta was in a wheelchair and Thomas was swinging on the handlebars of a swing set. Jolanta looked down shyly, but Thomas grinned and said clearly in English with both bravado and gusto, “Hi Mom and Dad!”
The next day and a half is a blur. There was a court appearance where we were grilled as to why we would possibly want these two kids. After long deliberation we were informed that the children had been conditionally awarded to us by the court.
John left that evening for home, where he would take charge of the seven natural children, along with working fulltime and being a very busy Bishop. I was required by Lithuanian law to spend one month in Lithuania while the government published the names of the children to see if there was any chance a Lithuanian family wanted them. Lacking that, they were finally permanently awarded to us.
It was a long month. I was in a country where I couldn’t speak a word of the language. That September set records as the coldest recorded in Europe. There was no heat in Lithuania as Russia had cut off all their gas supplies when they succeeded from the Soviet Union. I had come prepared for a nice September Fall, and had only light clothes in my suitcase. At nights I would put every single item in my suitcase on to wear, and I still rarely slept because I was shivering all night long.
The children were both extremely challenging. In addition to being paralyzed, due to past trauma in her life, Jolanta had become an elective mute and spoke not a word. Thomas was extremely hyperactive and flew into a violent rage at the slightest provocation. I began to wonder what in the world had I been thinking?
Finally, the day came to leave. We were required to go through Warsaw, Poland, since there was no American Embassy in Lithuania at the time. We could only get the children’s citizenship papers in Poland. So, I flew to Poland with the kids. We spent the night in a Marriott hotel and at least for a few minutes I got to speak English to the hotel workers.
That night Jolanta had apparently picked up some sort of intestinal infection and a serious case of diarrhea ensued. In spite of my best efforts, we left big, hideous yellow-brown poop stains on the white bedspread, and the white carpet. I was mortified. The next day we left for home.
We had two flights to get home. They were made particularly difficult because of the diarrhea, but that’s a story for another day. . .
Once home, the diarrhea didn’t stop. In fact, it just got worse. Jolanta was in pampers due to her paralysis. Since our older two daughters were off to college, that left me at home with five boys—meaning that I was the only one who could change her when the diarrhea struck, which it did with a vengeance six or seven times a day.
Changing her was difficult. Since she was unresponsive, I felt like I had a big doll to change, except that she was a nine-year-old fifty-five-pound girl. The poop was in prodigious amounts and was foul-smelling, due to the illness. The day after arriving home I took her to the pediatrician who immediately prescribed an antibiotic. It had no effect. It took a week to get an appointment with a pediatric gastroenterologist. In the meantime, things were not going well at home.
Jolanta was completely paralyzed from the chest down but because she had spastic movement in her legs coming from the spine, her legs would twitch and jerk uncontrollably, flipping poop all over the bed, nearby wall, and my face and/or hair, as I was trying to clean her up. This was not only obviously unpleasant, but it was also of great concern because she was Hepatitis-B positive. Pulling her shirt over her head, invariably got her hair contaminated, as well.
Jolanta had apparently had a traumatic experience with water. When I carried her to the bathtub to clean her up—seven times a day—she began to scream and wail. It was the only sound we heard out of her those first few months. Once in the tub, she thrashed wildly with her arms, wailing and sobbing. It was an emotionally draining experience.
Each day I had stacks of poopy, smelly laundry filling up my laundry room, including not only her clothes, but multiple bedspreads, sheets, towels, and wheelchair seats as well. The entire house soon reeked of the smell. The car smelled even worse.
My natural children stopped inviting their friends over to the house because of the many complaints about the smell. They insisted that I not drive any more carpools. They were embarrassed and angry.
But nothing stopped the poop! I tried every natural remedy conceivable, while waiting for the appointment with the gastroenterologist. The school refused to change her and insisted that I come to the school to clean her up every time there was an accident, which was several times a day. They insisted that I get a pager so that I could be notified immediately. My entire schedule was revolving around Jolanta’s bowels.
Finally, the day came for her gastroenterology appointment. Another antibiotic was prescribed. It was as ineffective as the previous one. About once a week, we’d go back for another appointment and emerge with another antibiotic. None of them worked. This saga went on for six agonizing weeks.
Most of this time, John was traveling with his work and I felt alone with an insolvable, insurmountable problem.
Finally, one morning as I was coming down the stairs from my bedroom, while I was still on the staircase, I could smell that now familiar stench coming from Jolanta’s room and I knew that she was sitting in another pile. Looking back, it’s hard to understand why this time it felt so overwhelming, but suddenly I felt utterly overwhelmed. I sat down on the couch, unwilling to make myself go into her bedroom and begin the emotional clean-up process.
I kept telling myself that I needed to go in and clean Jolanta up but somehow, I was unable to make myself move. “Becky what’s wrong with you? But no matter how I tried to talk myself into action I felt like I was incapable of rational motion. I wondered if this was what a nervous breakdown felt like? I sat there on the couch and big tears coursed down my face. I’m a complete failure, I thought to myself. I thought of calling John and telling him, “Well, John, your wife, who you thought could do anything, has finally been brought to her knees. And you’ll never believe what broke her. It was poop!”
On the coffee table in front of me was a photographic book of Mother Teresa and her work in India. I saw it, but pushed it angrily away, thinking bitterly, “This is all your fault!” I had been a great fan of Mother Teresa and in fact, read from her writings nearly every night after I finished reading my scriptures. Her work and writings spoke to my soul and both touched and inspired me.
Minutes kept ticking by. I was unable to bring myself to move. Finally, in desperation I opened the book in front of me. It opened to a picture of a man, his skin riddled by maggots, who was being held lovingly by Mother Teresa. The photographer had noted that some cases, such as this man, were so repugnant that no one in the Mercy home would touch them, with the exception of Mother Teresa.
The photographer noticed that she wasn’t even wearing gloves or a mask. He asked if she shouldn’t protect herself by those simple measures from the contagion that she was holding. She replied, “This man is Jesus in His distressing disguise. When I hold him, it is as if I am serving Jesus. Then indignantly she added, “I would never use gloves to touch my Savior.”
Those words hit me and went deep into my heart. Good heavens, I thought. Who is more Christlike than my little Jolanta, a child who has been abused her entire life and yet has willed herself to survive? After a pause, I suddenly KNEW, I could do this for Jesus. I could clean Jesus up if He needed me.
Immediately, the love of the Savior literally flooded over me. It felt like my heart was melting. I felt not only Jesus’s love for Jolanta, but His love for me, as well. It is probably the moment of greatest change in my life. I was able to go into Jolanta’s room and clean her up with both reverence and love. It was not difficult. It felt like an honor.
The next day, I got a call from the gastroenterologist. He said he’d had a thought that perhaps this was an anaerobic bacteria, which would explain why it couldn’t be cultured up. He prescribed an antibiotic from an entirely different class of antibiotics. This time, it worked like a miracle.
If I ever had to point to a moment in my life where I felt my heart had changed the most, this experience would without question be that moment. I feel that my life from that moment forward has been different from all the years that proceeded it. At that point in my life, I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that I could dig out the rotten flesh in a leprosy wound for a leprosy patient in India that doctors refused to touch. ( Without this service, the wound couldn’t be sterilized and treated.) Yet I later did that on many occasions. I never dreamed that I could hold a leprosy patient tenderly in my arms as they were dying. Yet, I could do that also. How? I believe it was because that day on the couch, I was blessed with a mighty change of heart. That day, I was taught in a very real way that through love, all things are possible.
I have watched several of our volunteers who have come to India over the years, go through similar changes of heart. I have watched as bitter people, become tender, through service. I have watched as rebellious teenagers have had their hearts softened. I have watched as people burdened with their own sorrows have had them lifted.
In the fifth chapter of Alma, we are taught that we all must experience a mighty change of heart as we are transformed into a true disciple of Christ. I believe that that change can be brought about, not only by faith, but also by a willingness to walk in the path that our Savior taught us through example; a path that includes unconditional love and service to our brothers and sisters. The wondrous thing about this change is how close it draws us to our Savior. And through this incredible change of heart, we begin to see the entire world differently. What a gift!
HannahFebruary 10, 2021
What a beautiful and honest story about the change of heart that the Savior offers to us.
Suzanne Turnbull AlderFebruary 10, 2021
How amazing you are Becky!