At age 14, nothing was wrong. Barbara Cummiskey would reach for the gymnastics ring and, like it was supposed to, her hand would close on it. At age 15, the hand began to take on a life of its own. Sometimes it would not grasp the ring, and Barbara fell, as she remembers it, “from the rafters to the floor.” But to the adolescent, much of the body seems to veer out of control. The face grows acne like a perverse and independent garden. A strange, willful sexuality is alarmingly born. Barbara decided the falling was part of growing up, the teen-ager’s normal awkwardness.

Still, it was bothersome. At Campus Life meetings, Barbara was a championship Bible quizzer. Leaders asked questions about the Bible, and on jumping from a chair, quizzers would switch on a light, qualifying the quickest jumper to answer the question. Barbara still knew many of the answers, but as she shot from her chair she often ended up lying on the floor. She stumbled down stairs. From time to time, her vision blurred. Then the left hand clenched into an involuntary half-fist. By age 19, her doctors were all too sure. Barbara Cummiskey had the “young person’s disease”: multiple sclerosis (MS).

MS is an unpredictable ailment. It is a degenerative disease that attacks the central nervous system, hardening tissues in the brain and/or spinal cord. It can result in paralysis of different degrees. It can mean an early death. But it may mean only periods of disablement or discomfort, and no effect on the life span.

Barbara’s choice was no different than any other MS victim’s. She could only wait to see what the disease did each week, each month, and cope with it as best she could. She was frequently bedridden. She learned to type with one hand. From 1972 to 1974 she was healthy enough to attend college as a handicapped student. Sometimes she could walk without a cane.

The Ravages Of Ms

Leaving college, Barbara managed a job as a secretary. But by 1977, her diaphragm was paralyzing. Breathing was already a problem, then she developed a chronic lung disease unrelated to MS. Her weaknesses caused constant pneumonia and asthma. A year later, one lung collapsed and the other labored at half its potential.

MS struck the bowels next, confirming Barbara’s case as the rare severe MS that attacks the body’s organs. An ileostomy for the bowel and catheter for the bladder were necessary. In 1972, breathing was so difficult doctors did a tracheotomy—cutting a hole in Barbara’s neck so a respirator could be attached. Her vision worsened to the point of technical blindness. She was absolutely confined to bed, and she spent nearly as much time in the hospital as out. There were several surgeries, and three times Barbara had respiratory and cardiac arrest. Her brain received inadequate oxygen and she was sometimes mentally confused—it was as if not only her body but her mind was reeling out of control.

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The most dreadful pain was an unceasing ache in the middle of Barbara’s chest. She felt like desperately pounding her chest, just as child bangs his head against a wall to knock out a headache. The long, attractive blonde hair was still there. But the green eyes were useless (a patch covered one), the legs spindly and dangling, the arms and hands turned in on themselves, and frequently the twisted body was connected to machines. As if fate were adding a final grotesque stroke, tumors unrelated to MS grew on her hands and feet. Barbara was admitted as an outpatient at a nearby hospice. She and her family were preparing for her to die. Barbara Cummiskey was 31.

Twenty-two years before, at nine, she had said to Jesus: “My life is yours. Take it.” In her late teens, watching friends bound effortlessly into life, a sick Barbara questioned God. Although she never turned away completely, church and God became unimportant. But by her mid-twenties, that changed. About the only thing Barbara could do was pray, and she prayed not only for herself, but for others. She talked, out loud and unself-consciously, to God. A nurse would walk into her hospital room, and Barbara would be talking to God as if he were a physical visitor. She remembers those simple, childlike conversations as some of the best times of her life. She was physically wrecked, but spiritually whole.

A Healing

So came June 7, 1981. Days before, a local religious radio station mentioned Barbara’s plight, and suggested it for prayer. Nearly 450 cards and letters flooded her. On this summer day, a Sunday, Barbara sat in bed as two women from her church read cards to her. Barbara (but not the other two women) heard a voice over her shoulder. It was not a booming voice, but a calm one, and it said, “My child, get up and walk.” Barbara assumed it was God, at last answering in kind after all those hours of her audible address. She told the two women she was going to walk, and that they should go alert her family. Since Barbara had not walked in two years, the women were confused. But they left the room.

Barbara could not wait for her parents. She says she “jumped” out of bed. Elated, she started down the hall, where her mother met her. Barbara’s legs, atrophied from lack of exercise, now had muscle tone and firmness. Her mother’s first words were a shout: “Calves! You have calves!”

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Her father, when Barbara met him downstairs, could summon no words. He grabbed his daughter and danced around the living room with her. After waltzing with her father, Barbara did ballet steps—standing on her toes, leaping, and laughing. A friend, who is an occupational therapist, was also at the home. “You know,” she told Barbara, “you just wrecked everything I learned in school.”

MS is an incurable disease. Barbara Cummiskey, her doctors admit, should never have gotten well. But not only did the MS leave (conclusive spinal taps show no trace). Barbara’s caved-in lung, dormant for years, should have been no good. It was completely healthy and functioning. The chronic lung disease, also “incurable,” was gone. So were the hand and feet tumors. Even if the woman somehow recovered from MS, there should have been permanent nerve damage. There was none. Fortunately, the surgeon performing Barbara’s ileostomy had not removed the entire bowel. Now the bowel was functioning, so the ileostomy was reversed. Likewise the trachaeostomy. Health was entirely restored, instaneously.

Today Barbara is training to be a surgeon’s assistant. A man she trains under was one of her doctors. He delights in introducing her to classes. “Here is a woman who used to lay under my knife. I said she would not live. I said she would never walk. Now she hands me the knife. You can see how good my predictions are.”


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