By Renae Bauer
Not long ago, a potential employer told Melissa Schultz, a young woman diagnosed just a few years ago with spinocerebellar ataxia type II, she was a "walking worker's comp claim." Another young woman, Stephanie Birmingham, has used a wheelchair since the age of 3 because of her condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic defect that causes bones to be deformed or to break easily.
In contrast, Norbertine Father Steve Vanden Boogard lives with disabilities that are not as apparent. On the outside, he looks healthy and strong but on the inside his body has undergone treatment for multiple myeloma (a cancer of the blood) and he is living with end-stage renal failure and combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The pain - both physically and mentally -- is indescribable.
Melissa, Stephanie and Father Steve came to the Motherhouse on March 4 to lead a discussion titled, "Learn From Me, Not Just About Me." Organized by the Sisters' Ministry Circle (which coordinates ways in which the Community can minister with persons living on the margin), the event included three persons living with disabilities and three persons who are or have been caregivers.
The two-hour event was an opportunity for panelists to share their personal stories with the Sisters and guests and to dispel myths as well as misunderstandings. In their own words, each panelist asked the audience to not define them by their disabilities beginning with the words we use. For example, the phrase "persons with disabilities" is preferred over "disabled persons."
Also, several of the panelists talked about enjoying a high quality of life or caring for people who have a joy for life. As Stephanie so beautifully stated: "People with and without disabilities can be the hands and feet of Christ."
During the question-and-answer period, several of the Sisters thanked Father Steve for his honesty about combat PTSD, specifically, his explanation of how a war often continues in a veteran's mind and body long after he or she completes a tour of duty. As a military chaplain, Father Steve served three tours in Iraq and then 15-16 months at The Guantanamo Bay detention camp. He said the book, "Tears of a Warrior," has helped him cope with PTSD. "I can actually understand what I'm going through," he said.
"There are triggers -- a sound, smell, taste or if someone drops an object or something goes bang" that can instantly put him on high alert as if he were back in Iraq. "My radar is on 24 hours a day."