/Who says you can't go back?
Been all around the world and as a matter of fact
There's only one place left, I want to go
Who says you can't go home?/ Bon Jovi
It is commonly said that, "you can't go back home."
Well, as far as I'm concerned, that's a lie; because my week back home in NY was one of the best weeks of my new life!!! ( I know I say/write that a lot... But it's always true!)
Where do I even begin?!?!
So many stories, so many people, so much laughter and tears of happiness...so much praise to Jesus for the miracle He has done...it's going to be a hard experience to put into words, but I am going to try.
To start with, for those of you unfamiliar with NY; Garden City, my hometown, is a village in Nassau County, New York. It was founded by multi-millionaire Alexander Turney Stewart in 1869, and is located on Long Island, to the east of New York City, 18.5 miles from Manhattan. The village was originally created as an upscale community for those seeking respite from New York City.
The entire town is only 5 square miles. It is a quaint, picturesque place to raise a family and many people who live in the village have lived there for generations (my dad's parents lived in GC, my dad was born and raised in GC, as were we) The major landmarks of the town include the Garden City Hotel, St. Paul's school, 7th Street (center town shopping area), the local library and the Garden City country club.
Garden City, in a word, is beautiful. You can tell you are driving into GC from surrounding towns immediately just by the beautiful greenery, lush landscapes, large yards and old victorian and colonial style estates.
Surrounding towns refer to Garden City as 'the bubble' because they get the impression people living in GC are somewhat sheltered from the outside world inside of it. And maybe that's a little bit true; but whoever said that was a bad thing?! ;)
Last Tuesday, as I drove around GC for the first time in over 7 years, I was amazed at how much looked exactly the same as I left it!
Garden City is truly timeless... Really, as far as I could tell, not much had changed at all during the years I was sick/gone. Yes, some of the homes appear to have gotten some major renovations, and many of the 100yr old trees that used to line the streets were uprooted when hurricane Sandy blew through around this time, last year. Oh, and TCBY, a landmark on 7th street added delicious self-serve yogurt selections :) But other than that, my little sweet hometown of Garden City remained untainted; unchanged.
The first thing I wanted to do when we entered GC was drive by my childhood home! We have so many great memories in this house! Katherine, Michelle and I all came home from the hospital to this house, and my beloved dog Molly, too!
It still looks exactly the same! I could almost hear my sisters and the neighborhood kids playing on our old swing set in the backyard! Talk about a trip down memory lane!
The second thing I wanted to do was check out Roosevelt Field, one of the largest shopping malls in the US, conveniently located .8 miles from my old home! I spent most of my younger teenage years walking this mall with my friends, so it was really great to go back there!
We ate delicious, thin crust, NY pizza for lunch, and it was out of this world, amazing! There are just some things that only taste good in NY- and pizza, and bagels are among them!
That night we ate our first official NY dinner of the trip with our beloved, amazing friends Cecilia and Jimmy. The story of Cecilia and Jimmy could be another blog post on its own. They hold a most special place in our lives, and they are also parents to one of my Molly's puppies!
I got to see and hold 3 of Molly's 4 puppies over the course of my trip! They all have a piece of her in them! It's so cool to see!
The next day we took a very important trip upstate to Westchester, NY to surprise someone very special to me- Dr. Kenneth Liegner.
Dr. Liegner was my main physician in NY, who cared for me for nearly 3 years while I was rapidly declining and nothing was helping to stop the progression of my condition, which was still undiagnosed at the time. Those were some of my worst moments and it was a very dark time. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt it was this man's devotion to my case, and his persistence in sending me to see various specialists for opinions, that kept me alive long enough to make it to Mexico for my life-saving treatment. I am forever grateful to him for the big part he played in my miracle and my trip to NY wouldn't have been complete without letting him see--in person-- my miraculous recovery!
I wanted this visit to be a surprise, so my mom arranged with the ladies in his office, Veronica, Dawn and Debbie, to block out his schedule for the afternoon so I could surprise him!
As I sat in his office waiting room, I could faintly hear his familiar, reassuring voice comforting another patient in one of his treatment rooms. I had flashbacks to the many times he comforted me, promising not to give up on me until we found answers. He would always tell me, "Remember- where there is life, there is hope."
Soon the voice got closer, he looked out into the waiting room and stared right at me.
I started positioning myself to get ready to hug him... But he turned around and walked away from me!
He walked over to his front desk ladies and said, "who is the patient in my waiting room? I don't have any other patients scheduled for today."
He didn't recognize me!!!
"Ask her who she is," Veronica replied.
He then turned and saw my mom and his mouth dropped, and hung open for a few seconds! He was shocked and sooo happy! He came over and gave me a huge hug!
"You look amazing. Oh my Gosh, incredible... I can't believe it. Wow." were his words. :)
We spent the next 2 hours catching him up on all of the events of the past 4 years and sharing all of the medical details of my ordeal in Mexico with him.
Dr. Liegner couldn't say enough kind words about Dr. Cantu, and how he admires him as a physician for how he went "out of the box" to save my life.
I gave him a picture of Cerro de la silla, the mountain in Monterrey, that had the words he always told me written on it- "Where there is life; there is hope."
It was such a joyful reunion!!! And such a blessing to spend time with this incredible man in happiness and health!
On the way home, I asked mom if we could please stop to eat in my favorite childhood diner in Carle Place, which she gladly agreed to! It was just as good as I remembered it!!
The next morning we got up early to prepare for a crazy busy day of visits around town!
The morning started off at our dear friend Angel's house, where she was going to be having a rosary/prayer meeting. The ladies in her prayer group from St. Joseph's Church had prayed for my healing every week together for the past 5 years!!!
None of the ladies knew I would be joining them in prayer that morning, so as each one of them walked into Angel's house, there were lots of hugs and tears to see how amazingly their devoted prayers had been answered! It was very special!
We gave each of the ladies hand-made Mexican rosaries that were donated to us by my Mexican grandparents (Dr. Rainbow & her husband, Manuel) to hand out to my many prayer warriors in New York.
After Angel's house, we proceeded over to visit Pastor Browning at his home. The last time Pastor Browning had seen me was in the fall of 2009, when he came from NY to visit and pray over me in Mexico. When he visit, I was in one of the worst conditions I had ever been in. I had lost my vision, and couldn't see anything. I was having seizures again, and medications were not controlling them . Doctors weren't sure I'd ever see again. He came at the worst possible time, but in a spiritual realm- I know he was right on time.
Pastor Browning held bedside vigil and was an amazing support to my mom, and offered up so many prayers on my behalf.
When he saw me at his house, he was also so shocked and so incredibly happy!
I went to hug him and he hesitantly and slowly hugged me back, saying "Are you sure? Can I hug you without hurting you?"
The last time he saw me, I couldn't even tolerate a blanket touching my skin without screaming in horrific pain, so it made perfect sense he was afraid.
In response to his question, I grabbed him tight and said, "I don't know how to ever thank you."
Once inside I had the pleasure of seeing Amber, Pastor's wife, their two beautiful little daughters and also, Nathan, vicar of the church who has become a great friend and who I have mentioned before.
It was really amazing to see Pastor Browning in the role he was definitely born to play-- dad.
His two little girls, Anastasia and Cecelia (who is only 2 weeks old!) are soooo precious! I loved getting to spend some time with them!
Earlier that morning, a police escort had delivered a special letter to Pastor's house with my name on it. It was all stamped "police delivery" and looked very official.
My first thought was "ohhh no!"... See, the day before when we went to Roosevelt Field, all of the spots were taken, so we kinda made our own spot and double parked.
I was certain it was a ticket! "This is so typical of GC to track us down!" I jokingly told my mom.
However, when I opened the letter, I realized how wrong I was! It was a "Welcome Home" letter from the Mayor of Garden City, John Watras! He wrote me a personal letter welcoming me back to my hometown! It was so thoughtful of him and a gesture I never expected, but really appreciated!
After our visit with the Browning s we headed over to my mom's best friend Pat's house, where she was hosting a welcome home luncheon in honor of mom and I! It was so wonderful to see and hug all of our old neighbors and friends! I felt sorry for poor Pat, because the luncheon that was supposed to be from 1-3 ended up lasting until 8pm! It was a revolving door of friends, food, hugs and tears, and it was a wonderful welcome back! My old nurses, Miriam and Minnie stopped over to see me and were shocked by the transformation!
Finally, we ended the day back at Angel's house for dinner, where she made me my favorite thing- Salmon! :) So, I was very happy!!
The next day was Saturday and I would be speaking at church during the 5:30pm service that night. However, during the day, there were some very special people I had to meet and thank in person.
The Klatt family- Wayne, Renee, Gen and Isabel, were my little sister Michelle's surrogate family while my mom and dad were so preoccupied taking care of me. If you ask Michelle, she will tell you her time spent with the Klatt's were the happiest moments of her life during the 7 years I was sick. They provided her with a sense of normalcy and stability, that due to our situation, was non existent in our home. Gen Klatt is Michelle's best friend and after spending an afternoon with them, I can see why. After just a few hours talking and laughing it was as if I had known them forever. They are some of the nicest people in the world and I don't blame Michelle for wanting to be adopted by them! :) I would too! Haha
The Klatt's weren't only there for Michelle, but for me as well. When we found out the ketamine coma in Mexico was my last hope for survival, Wayne enlisted the help of his co-workers in Manhattan to fundraise for me, and ended up raising significant funds to help make my recovery a reality... All of that, without ever having met me. That blows my mind and really, there are no words, except to say, I am forever grateful. I love you guys!
Around 5pm we headed over toward my hometown church, Lutheran Church of the Resurrection. This was the first time I had been back in this church in over 7 years!! This is the church where I was baptized as a baby, attended pre-school as a child and made my communion and confirmation!
Rolling through the chapel, before the crowds came in, and looking up at the beautiful altar and crucifix, I truly felt at home. In the very chapel where my parents introduced me to Christ as a child, now, to be back here preparing to speak about the miracle He has done in my life... Was a bit overwhelming to say the least! I sat by the altar for a while, with no words, just a heart bursting with thanks.
(*The beautiful stole Pastor is wearing was handmade for him in Mexico, as a gift!)
Pastor Browning, Pastor Harmon and the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection have literally been Jesus' hands and feet to my family and I throughout my illness. From making meals, driving me to doctors appointments, to driving my parents back and forth to visit me when I was in NYC hospitals, to fundraising to make my treatment possible, and so many other things, both big and small acts of love this congregation has poured out onto our little family... It's amazing, and I am so humbled at the thought of the support their showed us in our time of need.
Above all, the biggest of all of these things was the power of prayer. For 7 years, I remained at the top of the prayer list, and was carried, daily, to the foot of the cross for my complete healing.
During a lot of my illness, I was too weak/out of it, to pray. Knowing I had all of these amazing people interceding for me, praying when I couldn't put a thought together, or utter a word from my own mouth, means more to me than anything in the world.
◄ Luke 12:48 ►says, "To whom much is given; much is required."
My family and I have been given sooo much.
But how do you even begin to say thank you to people who helped save your life?
I don't know the answer to that... There is no way to ever thank them, but I hope that by coming home, sharing my story, and letting each and every one of them see, touch and hug the living miracle they were such a big part of, can somehow express the eternal gratitude I have in my heart for them.
Saturday night services are contemporary- meaning, you can wear jeans and a t-shirt, a live worship band plays upbeat christian music on stage and the overall atmosphere is as relaxed and laid back as you can imagine.
I love this type of service! As the music selections played on Saturday night, the holy spirit was so present, that I am pretty sure the church must have been glowing from the outside!
Pastor Browning introduced me to the crowd and told the congregation a story. He said, "As some of you know, the last time I saw Jessica was in the fall of 2009, down at the hospital in Monterrey Mexico. At that time, her situation was bad... Really bad. Yesterday, I saw Jessica for the first time since than, and she said to me, "Pastor, tell me honestly, when you saw me in Mexico, did you think I would ever get better, and ever be back here in Garden City?" ... The honest answer to that question is, "No." I never thought Jessica would leave that hospital and I certainly couldn't imagine ever seeing her back in GC.... But that is the amazing God we serve, capable of doing more than we could ever ask or imagine!"
To get up onto the altar, after that intro, in the church I came to know and love Jesus in, was an entirely new God-feeling I don't have a name for... It just felt so right. It felt like everything was coming full circle. Like God was closing the chapter on the past 7 years of suffering and giving me a new beginning to use my story (well, really, His story)-for His glory.
After I spoke, Pastor came back on stage and said beautiful words about my mom. He told another story, one I didn't even know until now... Back when he visited us in Mexico, Dr. Cantu apparently pulled him aside and told him that he had to get my mom to leave my side, even if just for a few minutes, because it wasn't healthy for her to stay in my darkened room all of the time.
So, somehow, Pastor coaxed my mom to leave me and take a walk with him. They walked down the hall, past the nurses station, and into the lobby. They stood by a window, and looked out of it for about 45 seconds, then turned around and proceeded to come back to my room.
That was the first time my poor mom had left the room in over 3 months!
Pastor said that in all of his years of ministry, he has never seen God's unconditional love as boldly on display as he has witnessed in my mom and her devotion to me. He said when he see's her, he see's the face of Christ... And I have to agree with him 100% on that! She is amazing!
Another huge blessing was who was there with me on Saturday night. My godmother, my Aunt Carol, flew in to spend some days in NY with mom and I and hear me speak and our dear friend Rosemary, her daughter Kim and her sister Diane, drove 4 hours from Pennsylvania to come and see me!!!! Rosemary's husband, my dear friend, John, was a fellow RSD sufferer who we met during our time in Mexico and become very close with. We consider them family. Sadly, John lost his battle with RSD this past May. Words can't explain how much it meant to me that they came to share in this special night with me, even in the midst of their ongoing grief. I wish John was there physically with them too, but I know in spirit, he was right up in the front row with his beautiful family.
After I spoke Saturday night a large group of us went out for family style Italian food, which was incredible!
Sunday morning I was back to church for both services at 8:30&11am. The youth group from Resurrection, who had attended the National Youth Gathering in San Antonio, got up on stage and gave a brief run down of their experiences, and told the congregation how I had spoken at the gathering and my speech was the highlight of their trip (so sweet!) They presented me with a "LiveLoved" banner; signed by all of them! It was so thoughtful and I will cherish it forever!
As I prepared to speak on Sunday, I was shocked by how many people were in attendance! I went to that church for most of my life and I had never seen so many people packed into the chapel. Especially, so many familiar faces!! My high school friends, Mary, Brittany, Bryn & Jenna were there, which was so great! And so many faces I recognized as people from my childhood!
I got up on stage and introduced myself, and told brief background about my journey. Then a 25 minute video slideshow of pictures of my journey set to contemporary christian music played, and then it was time to speak....
When I speak, I usually have an outline in my mind of what I want to say, so I don't get overwhelmed or say 'um or like' too many times. In the past, this method has worked well for me, as I have a photographic memory.
Well, on Sunday morning, I couldn't retrieve my outline from my mind's eye. I panicked for a second, and then started to speak, words I did not prepare, straight from my heart to the congregation that helped save my life.
25 minutes later, with very little recollection of what I had just said, my speech was over, and everyone was standing, clapping, crying and lining up to hug me.
I know God took over my mouth for those 25 minutes, with His words that He wanted shared. And I am so glad He did!
Pastor ended up adding another service, after the 11am, so I could speak again and share witness to the mighty God we serve.
It was such an honor to be at my church all weekend! My favorite part by far though, was talking one on one with members of the congregation after the services. I love nothing more than to share God-incidences with others and everybody has a story, that is for sure! I feel blessed God has put me in a position where people open up to me like they do!
Monday, we had a few more visits with friends and then there was another surprise visit I had to make; to another very special doctor who was instrumental in keeping me alive during my time in NY. Dr. Finkelstein, is another one of my angels I have been blessed to have in my life. He went way above and beyond for me, including traveling to my home (even on Christmas eve!) to save me the pain of having to travel by ambulance to his office! He always made sure I was kept as comfortable as possible, with whatever medications he could offer. He is one of the most gentle and compassionate doctors I have ever known.
When he saw me on Monday, he cried.
Dr. Finkelstein always told me that I was his 'mitzvah'- which from what I understand, in the Jewish faith, a mitzvah is a worthy, good deed that is considered a commandment given by God. He said helping me was his mitzvah, and now by my coming back to visit, he became mine.
It was another beautiful, truly special reunion!
On our way back from Dr. Finkelstein's office, we made another special stop. We visited the gravesites of my Uncle Charlie and Grandpa Sal and left the flowers that the church had blessed and given to me as a gift the day before there.
Monday night I had the blessing of getting to say thank you to a very special group of guys, without whose help, my recovery would not have been possible either: My 'brothers' at the Garden City Fire Department!!
I have to admit, I was a little nervous when I was wheeled into a board room of about 100 guys, 2 or 3 of whom looked familiar to me. But they quickly made me feel very welcome when they all stood up and applauded as I rolled in!
I wasn't sure how my video would be received outside of a church setting, but it was the most perfect way to show them the depths of my gratitude for the miracle that they too were a part of. The firemen sat in silence during the entire video, and many of them were moved to tears.
After the video, I said a few words about how my dad originally joined the fire department 20 years ago to get away from his girl-filled house, as he was in desperate need of some male bonding and a place he could be a 'guy' and burp and fart without judgement... He was also seriously concerned that if he spent any more time surrounded by woman, he might become one ;)
All kidding aside, I know my dad never envisioned the brotherhood that the GCFD truly is and the deep, lifelong relationships that he would form there.
When I was sick, the GCFD mobilized into action, making sure we had all of our needs met and taken care of. Need a car? Your FD brothers are on it. Have a doctors appt? They arrange a ride. Need someone to move all of your family's belongings across town, including a heavy hospital bed and a ton of medical supplies and equipment? Great! No problem; the GCFD brothers have your back! Fundraising to get your dying daughter to Mexico for an experimental treatment? check!
There is seriously nothing these guys didn't, or wouldn't, do for their fellow brothers. And to think, all they ever got in return was some cold beers and maybe a meal. Yet, they never expected anything in return. It's just who they are. It's inspiring.
That is exactly why it was so important for me to make it back to the Fire Department and thank Chief Castoro and all of these amazing guys in person for their love and support!
Yet, in typical GCFD fashion... They ended up doing something, yet again, for ME.
Assistant Chief Gallo wheeled me over to a table and proceeded to shower me with gifts! All of the guys signed a GCFD t-shirt for me! They gave me an awesome GCFD jacket! And here is the coolest part- I became an 'honorary' ex-captain of the Fire Department! They gave me an official badge, lapel pins and everything!!!
As if that were not enough, chief Gallo handed me a special medallion, one that is only given out of firemen who exhibit exemplary service (like saving someone from a burning building) and he told me it was for me, because what I had to endure was the ultimate fire.
Wow. Talk about blown away! I was so touched!
Tuesday was our last full day in New York and the only day I didn't have pre-arranged plans to accomplish. My mom told me I could pick anything I wanted to do, and we would do it.
Of course, I immediately chose to go into New York City for the day and explore like a tourist!!
Our dear friend Pat drove us into the city, and our adventure began! It was a little bit chilly for this Mexico/Florida girl (52 degrees!) so my new GCFD jacket came in handy!
We started the adventure by taking a NYC taxi cab from where we had parked up to 42nd street/Times square.
By the look of these pictures you are about to see, you would never, ever, guess that this is a NY born and bred girl who lived here for the first 16 years of her life...You would assume I was from some remote small town in the mid-west, seeing the 'big city' for the first time in her life....
However, I decided that I was going to fully, embarrassingly, enjoy the city, as if for the first time, like a tourist!
And that, I did! And it was awesome!
I saw Times square! And Radio City music hall! I ate lunch at the Rock Cafe in Rockefellar Center! I went by the UN building! The empire state building! I went in Toys R Us and rode on the giant ferris wheel! (they even had a handicap accessible swing!) yay! I went into Saks 5th Avenue! And of course, into all of the touristy type over-priced shoppes that all tourists must fall victim to! I took pictures with New York City's finest and posed for pictures in front of every tourist trap we passed by! It was wonderful!
My last stop was a high priority on my list- St. Patricks Cathedral.
I had been there on many school field trips as a kid and was always blown away by it's size, it's beauty and it's history.
I was shocked to see it under such major renovations! I am sure it will look magnificent when it is complete, but for now, it's a bit chaotic to go inside.
But, I really wanted to light a few candles and say a prayer of thanks at the giant altar, so construction or not, inside we went!
The stained glass is still some of the most beautiful I've ever seen and the different crosses and statues displayed throughout remain unharmed by the chaos.
I lit a few candles and said prayers in front of Jesus, the healer's altar, for my friends suffering from RSD.
Nino Cantu, my faithful companion and teddy bear, lit one in front of the Virgin de Guadalupe- the Patron Saint of Monterrey, Mexico, as a symbol of thanks and gratitude for all of the hands and feet he had watching over me down there! Yo amo Monterrey!
I had such a great day! I will never forget it.
I never, ever in a billion years thought that days like this would be possible for me! My idea of 'recovery' included being in less pain, able to eat a bit, and maybe leave my room once and a while without lights and sounds causing seizures.
To be out and about, traveling home, enjoying every minute of my life, is still so shocking to me. I sometimes worry that maybe I am still asleep in one of my coma's and any day now, I will wake up and the past several months will just have been a ridiculously good dream.
For the past year I have told my family that I will not truly feel like my homecoming, or my recovery, is complete until I make it back up to Garden City, my hometown, and share my miracle in person with everyone there whose love, support, donations, and most importantly, prayers, made my recovery possible.
And now, I can say with a big smile on my face... I made it HOME!
My recovery is real; it is complete. And if I am still in a coma, don't wake me up :)
Thank you, beautiful town of Garden City, for the warm welcome home! I promise to not stay away for long... I may have already looked up flights for May, when my school ends and the weather starts getting warmer up there :) I'd love to come spend a few weeks enjoying everyone. If it's God's plan, I will be back very soon!
God bless and thanks for reading and sharing in this amazing experience with me!
/It doesn't matter where you are, doesn't matter where you go/
If it's a million miles away or just a mile up the road/
Take it in, take it with you when you go/
Who says you can't go home?/ Bon Jovi
“...Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” Mark 5:19
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