(Editor’s note: Below is a transcript of the Morning Manna address delivered by Gretchen Sidell of Pekin First UMC. Gretchen was stricken meningococcal meningitis as a teen. What attendees heard was a voice box activated by her “speaking” by moving and blinking her eyes as she read her prepared remarks.)
By Gretchen Sidell
Hello! My name is Gretchen Sidell. I am so honored to be here sharing my story about my relationship with God. Thank you for inviting me.
God has been good to me and I want to spread his glory.
I was baptized at the First United Methodist Church in Pekin. I grew up going to that church on Sundays, but not really knowing the Bible. I attended Sunday School, but scripture was always a mystery to me. I didn’t know anything about Bible Studies. Unfortunately, at that time, I didn’t think I was getting anything out of Sunday School and church. I was happy just to help in the nursery. I had always liked working with kids.
When I was in junior high, I didn’t feel like I wanted to go through confirmation at First UMC. I wanted a change. Like any immature teenager, I wanted to go to the church that my best friend attended. Sometimes I think God can use our immature decisions for our benefit. My motive was to go to church with my best friend, but god was still able to reach me through my immaturity.
It was at that church that I first started to grow in my faith. This was a very small church with a very small Sunday School class. I was comfortable there because the only other people in the class were three of my close friends, and I absolutely loved the Sunday School teacher and the youth director. But my time at this church was cut short. The minister retired and everyone parted ways.
I was lost. I thought that Christianity was something I could pursue when I was old after I had lived my life the way I wanted. Then, when I was 15 years old, about two weeks into summer vacation after my freshman year of high school, my whole life was flipped upside down. I contracted meningococcal meningitis.
The day of June 13, 1999, started like any other day. I felt good. I talked on the phone, watched TV and visited with family. Then that afternoon I started getting a headache. This didn’t alarm me. I got headaches all the time. I took some Ibuprofen, but it didn’t even faze my pain. My mom rubbed my head. I laid on the bed with the lights off. I tried to distract myself with a phone call to my best friend. Nothing was helping! The pain as unbearable. I didn’t know what to think. I had never heard of meningococcal meningitis.
Defeated, I approached my mom. She asked me if I wanted to go to the emergency room. I would have never guessed what would come next.
I don’t know how I got through that night or the next 5 ½ months, but looking back, I can see God was with me the whole time. Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” My memories of the Pekin emergency room are hazy, but I remember my Aunt Pat working there as a nurse that night. Just having her there was comforting. The last thing I remember about being at the Pekin ER was being covered by a warm blanket and falling asleep.
I was then transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit at St. Francis Hospital. I was in and out of consciousness. When I would open my eyes, there was a nurse who kept telling me to stay with her and asking me to squeeze her hand or wiggle my toes. I was trying! I even thought I WAS doing those things. Then I would black out again. I don’t know who this nurse was, but her encouragement kept me coming back. After a few times of opening my eyes, everything faded to black.
Eventually, I woke up. I opened my eyes and looked around the hospital room. My first thought was I’m going to be late. I had been volunteering to help with a summer program that my global studies teacher Mr. McCabe’s wife was running at a grade school in Peoria. I thought someone needs to call Mr. McCabe to tell him I’m going to be late. He already knew. I couldn’t move, but I looked to my left and I saw my mom’s face. Her red nose and eyes told me she had been crying. Then I looked to my right and saw my granny with the same telltale signs of grief. I wanted to give them hugs but I couldn’t move. I just felt so exhausted. I thought I was just too tired to move.
Somehow, I was at peace. I don’t know how I wasn’t panicking. I remember panicking over much less stressful situations. This peaceful feeling had to be an act of God. Numbers 6: 24-26 tells us, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
I was beginning to slowly learn what had happened while I was unconscious. I learned that I was in the hospital. I had a drain in my head from where they put a hole in my skull to relieve pressure off of my brain. There were more questions. I had a stroke due to a bacterial infection in my brain, meningococcal meningitis. However, I still wasn’t told I was paralyzed.
In the beginning, I wasn’t always “all there.” I think God was protecting me with denial. I thought pretty soon I’m going to go home and go back to my life. Ummmm, no. This was going to be a long process.
Then one day when the Sunday School teacher came to visit, she prayed with me and asked God to life the paralysis from my body. I thought, paralysis? Who said anything about paralysis? Was that why I couldn’t move? Was I really paralyzed?
After a couple of months in the pediatric ICU where I had made lots of new friends with my nurses, I learned I would be going to a rehabilitation hospital in Chicago, RIC. This was a trial I will never forget. Thank God my mom stayed with me. It was kind of funny how alone we felt in such a big place. This experience was not the best seven weeks of my life. There were too many close calls. It was frightening.
One incident was when my trach (tube) fell out and I couldn’t breathe! I coded. Everyone came running to my room. Somehow the respiratory therapist got it back in, but my mom and I were pretty shaken up.
After seven weeks, we were begging to go back home. Or our temporary home, St. Francis. We spent another two months at St. Francis, but I was so happy to see those familiar faces. Like Nicole, my speech therapist who had taught me how to mouth words, my doctor, many nurses and respiratory therapists.
After the couple of months at St. Francis, I was ready to go home. We were lucky. God had blessed us with a home that needed minimal renovation to make it accessible. Going home was not like I had imagined. I thought I would just walk in, run up the steps and got to my room, but as it was I rolled into the basement through the garage. That was when I saw my new room in the basement equipped with a hospital bed, ventilator and oxygen. I was disappointed but at least I was home.
For the first few years of my disability, I didn’t really deal with my emotions. I focused on getting through each day’s routine – getting up, going to school, sleeping, doing homework along with all my medical obligations. I was focused on finishing high school. All of my friends from high school were moving on. Their visits were becoming fewer and farther between. They all had the experiences that every girl dreams about – after-school activities, prom, dating and eventually, going off to college. I couldn’t blame them but this made me dive deeper into depression.
I felt so helpless and alone. I wanted answers. Why me? Why now? Why was I the only one who got this highly contagious disease? Why couldn’t it have waited until I was old? It just wasn’t fair! I was angry!
In Isaiah 41:10, it says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” I kept going back to church, but my heart wasn’t always in it. I kept praying for some change in my life. God finally answered me one day at church.
I had been feeling guilty about not having gone through confirmation and for never really reading the Bible. I realized that I didn’t even know God. I mentioned to our assistant pastor that I would like to do Bible study, but I couldn’t make it to church for the Tuesday morning study group. This is where God stepped in. Judy (Doyle) connected me with my Bible study partner and mentor, Pam.
We started studying the Bible at my house. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. God was slowly changing my life. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always steady. I recognized that God loved me, and he accepted me the way I was with all of my flaws and disadvantages.
Eventually, I started to love myself. I still wanted a purpose. Why am I still here? Jeremiah 29:11 told me, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Through Scripture and the love and support of other Christians, I started to believe that I am valuable. I could encourage others. I could glorify God!
I appreciate the story of the blind man in John 9: 1-3. The disciples assumed that the man’s blindness was cause by sin, either his or his parents’. I love the way that Jesus responded that neither sinned. This happened so that God’s work could be displayed in the blind man’s life. Maybe God kept me here for the same reason, and he wanted Pam in my life to guide me through scripture so I would find my purpose.
Over the past year, I have been sharing my story. Now I am at peace. Now I am happy.
I still struggle with things, but I have hope for the future. I celebrate the little things. I am thankful for each day I have. Ever since I was a teenager, I dreamed of doing something big. I wanted to change lives and help others.
I like Psalm 40 and think of it as “My Psalm.” It is the one I relate to best. It says, “I waited patiently for the Lord. He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire. He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.”
OK, so this is MY version of Psalm 40: 1-3: “I waited not so patiently on the Lord. He knew I was grieving and desperate for help. He pulled me out of depression and frustration. He gave me some good examples of Christians and made me strive to become one myself. He changed my whole attitude, my outlook on life. I hope people see me and put their trust in the Lord.”