I was born a normal healthy Jewish child on November 17, 1963, in Huntington, New York, the youngest of three daughters. And while my childhood memories include receiving presents on Hanukkah, enjoying shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and our family seder on the first two nights of Pesach, and my bat mitzvah when I was thirteen, mine was no ordinary Jewish childhood.
When I was two and a half, I began having spasms and involuntary movements throughout my body. I developed lockjaw, and my body became so contorted that I looked like a pretzel. The progression rapidly continued. Because I could no longer sit or walk, I began lying on the couch all day, every day. I was in a lot of pain.
At age four, I was diagnosed with dystonia, a condition in which the brain sends the wrong messages to the muscles. The doctors told my parents that I would need brain surgery—one operation on my left side and two on my right.
After the first surgery, my entire left side was less spastic, with better muscle control. The surgery on my right side also worked, but my speech was negatively affected because the doctor had to go through the speech center in my brain.
The dystonia also caused my facial muscles to pull my jaw way out of alignment. Only my family, teachers and close friends could understand my speech.
I had jaw reconstruction surgery when I was seventeen. Every bone in my jaw had to be broken and reset. A few days later I looked at myself in a mirror and cried as I saw a smaller, prettier face. Several speech and language pathologists worked with me for many years after my surgery, and my speech slowly but progressively improved.
If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, when I was 28, the doctors found a lump in my right breast. It was cancer. Stunned and confused, I went into my room and cried for I don’t know how long. “Why, God? Why me? Haven’t I been through enough?”
The surgery was performed on September 28, 1993. On October 1, the surgeon’s office called and said that everything had worked out perfectly. I cried as I thanked God. I had radiation therapy after the surgery, and I have been cancer free ever since!
Enough with the surgeries for a while. Let me tell you about my spiritual journey.
My father was Orthodox, my mother Reform. Mom did not keep two sets of dishes, so she compromised with Dad and did not bring anything non-kosher into our home. We went to a Conservative synagogue, South Huntington Jewish Center, because my mom refused to sit behind a mechitza (the partition dividing men and women in the Orthodox synagogue). We attended services every week, where we were blessed to have Rabbi Morris Shapiro for 21 years. He knew the Torah and the Talmud inside out.
When I was a freshman at Hofstra University, a woman named Diane was my aide. (I used a motorized wheelchair, but still needed assistance with many tasks.) All Diane ever talked about was Jesus. I was convinced that she was brainwashed. She would make statements like, “Jesus was born to a virgin” and “Jesus rose from the dead.” I asked her, “How can a virgin become pregnant?” or “How can you believe that anyone rose from the dead?” She and her Christian friends had answers for my questions, but my belief in Judaism was extremely strong.
This went on for about a year and a half. I finally decided enough was enough. I hired a different aide and cut off contact with my Christian friends. I was Jewish and I was going to remain Jewish. But I spent the next few years confused. Had I been wrong all my life? Was Jesus the Messiah?
Then in 1994, I met a man who said he was a Christian. After we had known each other for a few months, I asked him, “What kind of Christian are you? Lutheran, Presbyterian?” He replied, “Born again.”1
My friend did not beat me over the head with the Bible or try to convert me. We had great discussions about religion, and I always felt that he respected not only that I was Jewish, but that I was committed to my faith.
Through these discussions and through thinking back on my conversations with Diane and her friends, I came to believe that Jesus had died for my sins and risen from the dead. On April 29, 1995, I asked Jesus to come into my heart. Now I was born again!
I knew I could not tell my parents or anyone else in my family. They would have had a fit, to put it mildly. I knew not to even bring a New Testament into my parents’ home, where I was living. But no one could stop me from praying, and I prayed for Jesus to work out a way that I could find my own apartment so that I could worship him in the way I saw fit.
My prayer was answered, and on Monday, April 1, 1996, I moved into my own apartment!
The following Sunday was Easter Sunday. I called a couple of local churches. The pastor of the second one said he could give me a ride to church that Sunday morning. It did seem a little weird to be sitting in a church. The pastor’s message was about Jesus’ resurrection power. After the service, the person behind the welcome desk handed me a Bible that contained both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.
As I read the New Testament, I was surprised to see how Jewish Christianity really is. Growing up in a good Jewish home, I had been taught that Jesus had been Jewish, a rabbi, and that most of the early church had been Jewish. That’s where the discussion ended. I was always taught to believe that only gentiles could be Christians.
I wondered how and when I was going to tell my family. Then friends began saying things to me about Jesus in front of my parents.
On July 2, 1996, my father was driving me from my parents’ house back to my apartment. “So, Laurie, what’s going on with this Jesus stuff?” he asked. I took a deep breath, paused, and braced myself for the most difficult sentence I would ever have to speak: “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.”
Those nine words were torturous for me to have to say to him and I’m sure torturous for him to hear. My father and I had words, and I cried uncontrollably. I was hurt for myself and also for my father. He told my mother and she was just as upset.
But about a year after my father confronted me, my parents told me that although they were not pleased with what I had come to believe, they just wanted me to be happy. Since they could see that I was happy, that’s all that mattered to them.
Now back to the physical part of me.
I wanted to get better and start walking. I also wanted to be able to take care of myself without needing to rely on other people.
In 2003, my father learned of an operation in which the surgeon would put electrodes in both sides of my brain. Then he would place batteries in my upper chest area and run a wire to connect the electrodes to the batteries. We scheduled the first surgery for October 16 and the second for November 17, which happened to be my 40th birthday.
Both surgeries went well. Afterwards, they programmed the batteries to send messages to the electrodes in my brain. My brain, in turn, instead of sending the wrong signals to the muscles, now sends the correct ones.
I began to be able to do things I could never do before. I was now able to feed myself using utensils and pick up a cup. As time went on, and by tweaking the batteries, I could do more and more.
I still wanted to walk. But from a very early age my right foot was turned downward and inward. There was no way I could ever walk with my foot in that position.
The third foot surgeon I visited said, “Laurie, I don’t know if you’ll ever walk again, but if we don’t fix your foot you will certainly never walk again.” I knew he was the one I wanted.
He performed the surgery on June 2, 2005, and I went into rehab on June 7. My foot was in a cast and I was not allowed to put any weight on it. The therapists worked with me to “hop” while holding onto a walker. They also had me doing exercises to strengthen my stomach muscles.
Every two weeks I went to see the surgeon. He would remove the cast to see how my foot looked. Each time, as the swelling reduced, he would put a new cast on. I couldn’t believe what I saw the first time the cast was taken off. A flat, straight foot! I was crying!
On the eighth week, the surgeon told me, “In two weeks I want you to start taking a few steps a day with the right foot.” After 38 years of not walking, I was going to walk again!
August 10, 2005. The day had arrived. My whole family was there as well as some close friends and a few of the nurses. They stood me up on a walker with both feet on the floor. I could hardly move but somehow I did. I noticed tears in everyone’s eyes. I was all cried out already and that was fine with me.
Although I am still not able to walk without the walker, I’m continuing to believe and pray that some day I will.
Some people have told me I have missed out on what people who can walk have received from life. I bought into that lie for many years until I realized all that I had done.
I graduated from high school in 1981, Hofstra University in 1986, and Teachers College, Columbia University (graduate school) in May 1988. I have had three jobs since then. I have had my own apartment for over fifteen years. Being able to live independently has changed my life enormously.
Even more important was the courage to think independently and consider the question, “Who is Jesus?” and to decide that I, as a Jew, would follow him. He helped me to become an overachiever, so that I would not miss out on the life God has given me.
1 The Gospel of John (New Testament), chapter three