Paralyzed pianist personifies determination

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 31, 2002

This past week the world witnessed heroic examples of people unwilling to surrender to negativity.

In Toronto, a frail Pope John Paul II chose stairs over elevator at his airport arrival and departure for World Youth Day, while his equally determined audience of hundreds of thousands of young people chose heat and rain over personal comfort to hear his message.

And in Pennsylvania, nine coal miners, trapped in a flooded shaft 72 metres underground, refused to say die during the three days it took their equally determined rescuers to bring them to the surface.

Meanwhile, here in Cochrane, I sipped coffee with two women who are no less heroic in their own examples of determination.

Angela Morel, a former police officer now confined to a wheelchair because of cancer, arthritis and a myriad of other ailments, sang a trio with my wife and me at lunch in her home. More about Angela next week.

The other is Colleen McArthur, a pianist who overcame paralysis to play six of her favorite hymns for my wife and me this past weekend at a private recital in her living room.

Fourteen years ago, Colleen was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. But with the support of friends and family, and especially of her husband Robert, not even the ordeal of surgery, chemotherapy, and, a year-and-a-half ago, nearly-fatal massive hemorrhaging, could dampen her will to fight on.

Last September, strong enough to travel once more, she and Robert took in a jazz festival on the West Coast. Everything seemed to be looking up.

Looking up, that is, until they stayed overnight in a motel on their way back home. When she awoke the next morning, Sept. 10, she could never have imagined what world-changing events loomed just 24 hours away. But within minutes she had a pretty good idea of what loomed ahead for herself.

She got out of bed and immediately tumbled into the wall. Her entire left side was paralyzed. During the night she had suffered a stroke.

Lying in a Calgary hospital and unable to do even the simplest things for herself – and most certainly, now, unable to play the piano – she determined then and there to rise above the cruel dependency foisted on her by the stroke.

"A stroke can affect your emotions in a big way, and frustration and feelings of inadequacy can affect you in a big way," she explained. "I work at contradicting these negative feelings with positive, encouraging thoughts.

"I need to ask God for help and direction for every task, no matter how small."

She wasted no time in putting her positive attitude to work. Within a week she made herself walk, albeit haltingly, down the hospital corridor. By November she was able once again to dust furniture and water plants at home.

But the fingers of her left hand were still uncooperative. More therapy, more exercises.

By Christmas she could butter toast and set the table.

January provided a red-letter day. With great effort, she was finally able to play single notes at the piano with her left hand.

By Valentine's Day, she could vacuum the floor without getting tangled in cord and hose. And by March, she was able to walk down the street safely to the mailbox, retrieve the letters and clutch them securely in her left hand.

By mid-spring she could fold freshly-washed clothes, dress completely, clean her eyeglasses and tie her shoes without help.

Her greatest triumph, however, brought a smile to her face during my visit this past weekend.

"I've been a piano teacher for 35 years," she told me. "Now, I have to start all over and learn again. My playing is very slow but I have learned to play six hymns."

Then this passionate pianist sat down at the keyboard once more and, using both hands, played for me a song we had both learned so long ago at the start of our life journeys:

Jesus loves me! this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak but He is strong.

In Colleen's physical weakness she has found the strength of soul to carry on – an inspiration to the rest of us to hang in there, no matter how tough the going.

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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