Facing down disability
The story of one family's enduring love
Roger Melton, ebullient in his north-Texas drawl and smile so broad it crinkles his whole face, is an uncommonly grateful, upbeat man. His wife, Sue, says Roger's cheer is so relentless it can irritate when you're down and don't want to get up. But she can also affirm that it's Roger's unceasingly positive, faith-based outlook that has held their family together and probably even saved their son Jason's life.
"Jason's being alive is a healing," says Sue, who now, nearly 19 years later, calmly recounts the "life altering" August evening when 13-years-old Jason was left broken and brain damaged by a hit-and-run driver.
Jason's story became the Meltons's story—much the way any long-term care case, like Downs syndrome, Alzheimers, or stoke, can become a family's defining theme—when healing is sometimes measured in increments of the heart rather than instantaneous wholeness.
While many might see Jason's story as a quiet family tragedy hidden behind suburban normalcy, Roger Melton's faith in God and expectation of healing has given Jason's life a decidedly positive spin. And, say family friends as well as medical professionals, there is a measure of hope-sustaining progress and arguably much to be grateful for that could only have come from a spiritual source.
"Y' all are Christian Scientists, what are you doing here?" Roger recalls the hospital chaplain's comment to the Meltons as they hovered near Jason in the intensive care unit the day after the accident.
That might well be the instinctive, if impolitic, question anyone would ask of Christian Scientists, known for relying on spiritual healing, if their child lay rigged up to the best technology modern medicine could offer.
Roger explains that even with his lifelong experience with spiritual healing, the physical picture of Jason's injuries was simply more than he could handle at that time.
"Here Jason was hooked up to all this stuff [and I was thinking] I believe in prayer, but ..." he says of the enormity of the challenge.
Further, while Sue had attended church and was raising Jason and his older sister, Laura, in the faith, she was not a practicing Christian Scientist.
"Most people who would have seen [Jason] would have fainted," says Sue, whose intense brown eyes signal a filterless honesty. "It was like science fiction—he was on a cooling bed rotating side to side, with tubes going in and out of him. A probe was inserted in his brain. You had to get strength from somewhere. Where would you get it if you didn't have faith?
"Both legs were broken. His pelvis was broken. The sinus cavity was crushed. And that was the least of it. He had brain damage, too. He was in a coma," she says, reconstructing the magnitude of the healing task at hand.
"I'd attended Christian Science church and I definitely wanted a [Christian Science] practitioner called. I had no problem with that, and it would have been weird not to call one—it never occurred to me you couldn't do that."
While Sue was comforted to know a Christian Science practitioner had taken Jason's case and was supporting the family through prayer, her spiritual groping would take her through difficult extremes in the years to come.
But Roger speaks of some immediate "visions"—moments of spiritual clarity in which he feels Jason's healing began, even as doctors were telling the family in the first days after the accident that there was no sense in operating to set his legs because he probably wasn't going to live.
Sue and Roger sat with their unconscious son round the clock, reading the Bible and singing hymns he knew from Sunday School. When the head nurse of the intensive care unit gently urged them to gather their family together "because Jason is passing away," Roger stepped out of the room. He recalls scrambling mentally to find a spiritual foothold in his belief that God is good and that Jason, as an idea of God, could only be cared for and safe, no matter the vivid circumstances at hand.
"I had a vision," he says utterly unselfconsciously. And with a convincing confidence, he explains that "there's a difference in getting this kind of angel message and just thinking 'I wonder if....'" As he explains it, from somewhere in his consciousness came a scene in which angels, swords drawn, formed around his son's bed.
"That kind of thing had never happened to me," he says. "OK, I'm not gonna philosophize and say whether I saw real angels or if I saw a spiritual idea—I just know that when I walked away from the scene, I removed myself mentally, and what I saw was angels ready to do battle. It was just a sign to me" (see Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 567).
Was it spiritual? Or was it medical, because Jason was under medical care? Roger says it bluntly: "Prayer saved Jason's life. The doctors have admitted that on different occasions, numerous times. And that answer to prayer never said, 'He's on medicine, sorry he can't be healed.' He was healed."
Roger's vision was the first of a long series of spiritual incidents—that continues to this day—sustaining his faith and Jason's healing progress.
Another landmark for Roger came as he sat by Jason's hospital bed, reading a testimony published in the September 1982 Christian Science Journal by a former New York City policeman whose crippling feet injuries were healed after years of pain and disability. Once he quit trying to find a specific physical healing and awoke to his spiritual wholeness, the man's physical problems dropped away. That testimony gave tangible justification for Roger's belief in the possibility that a "hopeless" situation could be healed. Roger taped that testimony and still plays it for Jason.
At one point in the first weeks of Jason's hospitalization and coma, a pulmonary specialist warned that Jason's blood gases were deteriorating, a life-threatening condition not expected to reverse itself. Jason's Christian Science practitioner was asked to pray about this condition, and by the next morning Jason's team of six medical specialists were surprised to find his blood gases back to normal.
"They all turned to me and said, 'You all keep doing what you're doing,' " smiles Roger. And Sue recalls that the head nurse of the intensive care unit even began giving them specific problems to pray about for Jason.
At different moments when Jason appeared to be dying, Roger says he learned to prayerfully listen.
"If you're humanly, actively, praying all the time, when are you ever listening? I learned to quit moving lickety-split, and stand still and 'know that I am God' (Ps. 46:10).
"I also remembered a phrase from the Bible about 'in all thy choosing, choose life.' So when they were saying Jason was dying, instead I'd actively hear that phrase 'choose life'" (see Deut. 30:19).
By the time Jason left the hospital three months later—still medically considered comatose—he was breathing without a respirator that doctors had suggested he might always need. And he had begun eating bits of solid food, no longer reliant on a surgically implanted feeding tube. Sue says the decision to feed Jason—rather than leave him permanently on feeding tubes—came when Roger discovered he could swallow. Doctors argued against solid food, saying the family couldn't just hand-feed Jason, because it could take hours each day.
"You had to get strength from somewhere. Where would you get it if you didn't have faith?"
But Sue, in the eye-rolling irony she's good at, says: "What else were we going to do?" If Jason—after all this—was alive and able to eat, how in the world could they justify not feeding him?
The Meltons recount Jason's accident as a set of human events, not the emotional quagmire of anger and blame it understandably could have been.
"When they were saying Jason was dying, I'd actively hear that Bible phrase 'choose life.'"
Jason was riding on the back of a friend's moped just outside their junior high school. On the same street, witnesses said, two young men were drag-racing cars at high speed, and collided, sending one car right over the back of the moped. Jason took the impact and was dragged away by the car. The moped driver had only minor injuries. Both of the drivers left the scene before ambulances arrived. But a classmate of Jason's saw the accident and had the presence of mind to capture the details of the cars and drivers that would help police find them. Only the driver who hit Jason was prosecuted, and received ten years of probation for the accident. His insurance—the minimum—provided only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital bills and the years of nursing and rehabilitation that wiped out the Meltons's savings.
"[The driver] was the least of our worries," says Roger.
A successful apparel company executive, Roger had to bow out of his job because of the commitment he wanted to make to Jason's healing. He has been involved in commercial real estate to makes ends meet since the accident, but says, "I've always felt what we were doing is as important as being president of General Motors. We're giving 100 percent spiritually and physically."
This was a major detour in the hopes, dreams, and finances of a middle-class family. And yet, says Roger, "To dwell on [the driver] is counterproductive.... I had to go through a process of not blaming him for the situation and forgiving him.
"Humanly, he did something. Spiritually, he didn't. Jason was our focus. We wanted this guy found—there was a penalty he had to pay. But he was forgiven by me a long time ago."
Sue, too, seems at peace with the driver, who has never contacted the Meltons. "He's always been a non-issue. He didn't do this maliciously, he made a huge mistake. But it would be a waste of energy and time to focus on him. And I'd assume he's had many a sleepless night."
Roger Melton gives loving meaning to the phrase "in your face." This guy is all over Jason—arm slung around his son's neck, fingers laced with Jason's, and nose-to-nose or cheek-to-cheek, reminding Jason who he is, that his family and God are right there with him along the way, that this northern Dallas household is a joyous one. It can be funny: "You look like you swallowed a possum, Jason!" Jason's face curls into a smile, his moan-like vocalization clearly aims to be a laugh, and the shake of his head clearly means "no!"
It can be practical: "You want to eat Mexican food tonight?" A definite nod of approval from Jason.
It can be touching: "This is the day the Lord hath made;/Be glad, give thanks, rejoice;/Stand in His presence, unafraid,/In praise lift up your voice," sings Roger (Hymn No. 342). And Jason smiles in quiet.
Friends consistently point to the way the Meltons deal with Jason as a "real," "valid," person and never ignore him. Even when Jason was in a coma, the family assumed he could hear, and insisted conversation around him reflect the respect implicit in that.
Laura, now a California real estate manager whose married name is Cox, says her Dad's upbeat, respectful attitude buoyed her adolescent social and spiritual insecurities in the wake of the accident.
"I remember how positive my dad always was. And when I had friends come over, he'd make it easy for everyone to be around Jason," says Laura.
Before the accident, Jason was a typically mischievous 13-year-old who hadn't yet taken a shine to girls and was prone to teasing them. He had a horse, Ben; a dog, Zeke; played junior-high football, and was crazy about Tom Landry's Cowboys. His bedroom is still littered with the atrifacts of Texas boyhood: a hunting knife, a BB gun, cowboy and Native American art, a set of long-horns, spurs, horseshoes.
The outlines of that boy are still visible in the 32-year-old man he is today—the handsome face and an apparent sense of humor. But Jason cannot walk or talk. His family and the caregivers, on hand six days a week, must haul him via an electric winch out of bed and into a wheelchair or bathtub. His mental age, estimated by therapists, could possibly be as high as that of a two-year-old.
But these clinical details hardly capture the unmeasureble Jason.
"We know they underestimate what he can do. We don't have to accept what they say—that's not the essence of who Jason is—a spiritual being," says Sue. "You can't deny that he has a physical problem. But it's not the end of the story."
"Jason still has a long way to go. He's fully dependent. But," says Roger, "some of the healings he's had would be a lifetime's worth for someone else."
The medical community—in 1982 so pessimistic about Jason's prognosis and definitely not supportive of the family taking Jason home to live—sees a remarkable case.
Dr. Phillip E. Williams, Jr., the neurosurgeon who had treated Jason right after the accident, wrote this in a 1987 follow-up visit: "He has made good progress and really looks good. I think this is all a result of the wonderful family care he has had. I don't think this would have been the situation had he been placed somewhere else."
Though Jason is healthy and is largely cared for through Christian Science spiritual treatment, the family must make periodic visits to a doctor for documentation needed to keep him in publicly funded rehabilitation programs and to receive the benefits he's entitled to for home care assistance.
The physician who sees Jason occasionally, James Caddell, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, says the family's choices—and successes—are "absolutely" attributable to spirituality.
"There has been some progress. Of course it's really hard to quantify, but he does seem to respond really well to them [Sue and Roger]. Some of that could be just learned behavior, but on the other hand, Jason definitely seems more alert and more responsive now than he was several years ago.
"They really do have strong faith, and they're a very optimistic, spiritual family that believe what they do makes a difference. Personally, I believe in God and the miraculous ... that definitely anyone's [medical] treatment is augmented when the spiritual situation is optimal."
Roger talks constantly of his gratefulness for each spiritual step Jason and the family have taken toward healing—Jason's first nod, his first vocalization, new facial expressions, having the money to buy a van with a wheelchair lift.
"This evidence of healing as we go along, has kept us going," he says.
One key moment for the family was when Jason gave a simple signal he'd emerged from his comatose state. Roger—who talks constantly to Jason—asked him if he'd like to have a fancy new van that could take him places. Instead of what Sue calls that "hello, is anybody in there?" blank look, expression came over Jason's face, and he nodded. Further confirmation of his comprehension came the first time he was lifted in his wheelchair into the new van. It was clear he was too tall to fit through the door, and Roger expressed dismay by saying, "If only Jason could duck."
"Definitely anyone's [medical] treatment is augmented when the spiritual situation is optimal."
—Dr. James Caddell
Nancy Corlett, the home health aid who, for five years, has spent four days a week caring for Jason and accompanying him to a rehabilitation program, describes his progress as slow but steady: "You always see new things he does."
Though she's unsure of Jason's intelligence level, Mrs. Corlett says that, completely outside her medical training, she's able to discern Jason as a spiritual being. "I feel somewhere in the back of his mind he's getting grounded," she suggests, noting the way Jason basks in the message of Christian Science Bible Lesson tapes his grandfather John Melton records for him every week.
She was particularly impressed by a healing Jason had that she's hard pressed to call anything but spiritual. For two years Jason suffered from a virulent rash common in the groin of those people confined to wheelchairs. Because it did not heal, the family consented to use of a medicated ointment. But, says Mrs. Corlett, the cream merely controlled the problem—and whether it was used or not, the rash would burn on constantly. But, she says, she left Jason one night when the rash was particularly severe, and found it completely gone the next morning: "I know medicine didn't do this."
"I stood by the bed and I said, 'This just isn't right.' And a voice said to me, 'We'll take care of it.' "
The way Roger sees it, this was another instance of spiritual clarity, an angel vision, that came as he was just at the breaking point of frustration over this horrible rash that had not healed through medicine or through prayer.
"I stood by the bed and I said, 'This just isn't right.' And a voice said to me, 'We'll take care of it.' I tossed the $60 tube of cream.
"It's interesting to me how answers to prayer come when I'm reaching to my emotional depths, something humanly rock bottom brings out a real answer."
People who know the Meltons—old high-school and college friends, the barber who cuts Jason's hair, their favorite waiter at their favorite Mexican restaurant—bubble about them and the aura of love around Jason. It puts people at ease, giving room for spiritual compassion to subsume the human urge to pity.
"They're probably unique" in their choice to keep Jason at home and not put him in an institution as most doctors had advised, says Dr. Caddell. "Most people would not be able to handle all the requirements—not just the actual physical requirements. But the wear and tear emotionally is so great."
Laura, who resists using religious labels to describe herself but who has an active spiritual life, says she can only attribute Jason's good health and "amazing laughter and joy" to spiritual healing.
"It's a miracle he's lived under the conditions he has. People like him generally don't live ten years [beyond their accident], and he's healthy, he doesn't get colds or any of the diseases typical of people like him," she says.
For all their upbeat spiritual sensibility about Jason, neither Sue nor Roger will deny the difficulties they—and anyone in such a situation involving long-term care and healing that may not be complete—have faced.
Aside from spiritual study and support for Jason, the Meltons also had to maintain strength, courage, and good judgement in negotiating the maze of technicalities—from benefits and public services, to choosing institutional help in Jason's education and rehabilitation, to wheelchair ramps and special lifts and winches, to living as spiritually as they could in an environment that sometimes required medical help. All this was a strain on their marriage as well as a crisis setting that darkly colored Laura's teen years.
And yet, from Laura's perspective now, 19 years later, she says that despite the difficulties, her parents are an extraordinary example to her of fortitude.
"As I've gotten older, I see how fortunate Jason and I are to have parents like that, to have stuck by him .... You can't grow up around [someone like my dad] without having some of that rub off on you .... he just keeps going and going and going, never doubting Christian Science or Jason's ability to have a healing," she says.
There was a period early on after the accident in which Sue and Roger weren't speaking and were unsure they would even stay married—a time when Sue could hardly come home to the difficulties of their altered life. At one point, as she was searching far and wide for spiritual answers, Sue says she would blame Christian Science—and indirectly, Roger—for not healing Jason, and she would question whether Jason even wanted to be a Christian Scientist. At another point she found meaning and purpose in throwing herself into disability rights activism—successfully campaigning locally for air conditioning in disabled students' school buses and for an extended school year for the disabled.
But asked if they ever doubted their faith in God—both say that through all the difficulties and pain, neither ever faltered in the belief that a higher power was present.
"The hardest thing that I personally had to do was really giving Jason to God—meaning his care is God's responsibility," recalls Roger. "The spirituality of what that means is not dwelling on if he's ever going to make it or if he'll ever improve. There were 50 different catastrophes that were expected to be permanent. When there's so much going on, it's hard not to personalize the responsibility."
Sue's spiritual progress was more difficult, she says. "Roger adapted readily, and I didn't for years. After about three years the enormity set in. I was not just despondent but depressed.
Roger views Jason's continued problems not as a failure of spiritual healing, but as "a work in progress."
"But over the years I realized if it weren't for Christian Science, or spiritual healing, there would be no hope. I don't care what you call it, I know healing is going on all over the world," she says, indentifying herself as a student of Christian Science who reads broadly about spirituality.
"I've realized I can't be disappointed every day that Jason doesn't have his healing. And even if Jason isn't healed, I'll know he could have been."
Roger says he can't view Jason's continued problems as a failure of spiritual healing, but as "a piece of work in progress."
"I know people have thought this about us: Too bad he didn't die, look what they're going through. But I would have missed Jason's smile, the joy, and love. Yes, it can be tough to deal day by day as we are, but I'm expectant of healing, and I'm grateful for the opportunity, that we've got Jason here."