by Deb Seminary
When Brenda Whitman was first asked to speak to a group about her journey, they asked her to talk about being fearless. “It’s a challenging word, because it implies no fear,” she said. “I couldn’t think of myself as fearless, but I really felt that God wanted me to do it. I’m a teacher, and I learn by teaching, so it was God saying, ‘I want you to be fearless, and this is part of how you will learn to be that way’.”
Whitman’s battle was with blepharospasms, which is a neurological condition. It is a chronic blinking of the eyelids, to the point where it can scratch the cornea. Blepharospasms come with dry eyes and light sensitivity and can ultimately cause a functional blindness. The blinking can become so severe an affected person can’t keep their eyes open.
She talked about those first few months: “While visiting at Christmas, my mother-in-law said I must be tired because I was blinking so much,” said Whitman. “I didn’t realize what was happening. At first my doctors thought it was allergies. But, it kept getting progressively worse, and I was losing more function all of the time. Finally, after six months and as many doctors, a neurologist told me I was having blepharospasms and the treatment is Botox injections around the eyes. I thought, ‘everything is going to be just fine.’
“The treatment turned out to be more challenging than I thought, figuring out the correct dose and the placement of the injections. We finally found a physician at Mayo who could help me. By that time the spasms were in other parts of my face as well. We traveled to Mayo for the treatments every ten weeks for several years. Many times my husband Charlie would drive me and other times friends or family would take me.”
Whitman eventually had to stop driving because she was afraid she would hurt someone. “Fortunately our youngest daughter had just turned 15 and would drive me when she could. If I went for a walk, I would have to hang on to Charlie or my neighbor. When I went out by myself I fell a few times. I had such light sensitivity that I would have all of the drapes closed at home. In church council meetings we would sit in the dark to help me out. I couldn’t read, bike or watch TV. All of the things I liked to do, I couldn’t do anymore. I became so dependent that I felt like a liability to Charlie.”
Whitman was able to continue to teach nursing, even though disability papers sat on her desk for a time. When her face became “frozen” from the botox treatments she would tell her students to listen to her voice and heart and not try to read her facial expressions.
After a while she became so discouraged she realized she needed to get mental health assistance. “Sometimes people think, ‘I should be stronger, I shouldn’t need help’,” she said. “As I tell this story, I really encourage people to think holistically – body, mind and spirit. If you aren’t getting the help you need, you have to keep looking and be your own advocate or find someone who knows the system to help you. Don’t give up.”
As the Botox treatments became more refined and improved her functioning and she was better able to manage, Whitman realized she had been given quite a number of blessings throughout her journey. “I had so many people praying for me. I had safe people to talk to. I would get cards and support in all kinds of beautiful ways. One time I was going to take a class for people going blind, and a friend called and told me ‘Brenda, I feel like God wants me to tell you that you will not go blind.’ Another time someone from Teen Challenge called, inviting me to their banquet. I said I couldn’t come but supported their program and he asked if he could pray for me. He asked God to give my disease to him! It was an unbelievable prayer.”
Other blessings included receiving the Crystal Apple Award for excellence in post-secondary education from her student’s nominations. She was asked to speak at the Joy Breakfast, which filled a desire to do more Christian Women’s events. “Charlie and I grew much closer,” she said. “We always had a good marriage, but we had been so independent – each doing our own thing, now I needed him and he was really there for me.
“Even our dogs became important to me. Before this happened I really didn’t pay much attention to them. I started gardening and getting into flowers. I learned that people really don’t care about how you look or what you are wearing – when you can’t see very well, you make some interesting mismatches! I learned I didn’t have to hold on so tightly to money. I started laughing more.
“Ultimately, it was as if each of the desires of my heart happened as a result of this hard journey. I learned some important lessons. So a major health crisis ended up being a blessing. It’s about the journey and what we learn along the way. It’s about trusting God to use it for our good so we don’t have to be fearful.”
Brenda’s interest in flowers and turned into a hobby/business. Here are just a few examples of her creations. You may contact Brenda at bwhitman.midco.net if you would like her to speak at an event or help with flowers, decorating or event planning.