The Guide


I was a furnace. My throat was raw. My bones ached. I could hardly move.

And then one morning, I discovered a constellation of angry red blisters across my chest. No cold or flu I knew of included anything like this.

I tried to ignore it, but the blisters began to spread and to itch. Desperate for relief, I headed for Urgent Care. Doctors were flummoxed. Blood tests, all kinds of tests offered pages of contradictory information. One began to call friends at other hospitals, and returned looking more worried than I was.

"It might be Stevens-Johnson Syndrome," he said. And then, looking deep into my eyes, he added, "If your condition changes in any way--any way--don't wait to come here. Go straight to Emergency and tell them what I told you."

I drove home in a daze. And my condition changed, drastically, that night. The blisters became a ruby red rash. The itch intensified beyond anything I thought possible. When I fell asleep for a short while during a merciful lull, I awoke unable to open my eyes. They had swollen shut.

My hair was slicked down to my head by a greenish slime oozing from the glands in my neck and behind my ears which were swollen to several times their normal size. I called it, later, the "Quasimodo Phase," because when we rushed into Emergency that Saturday morning before dawn, people reacted to the sight of me much as they did to that poor creature.

No one listened to what I said. They had a new "system," advertised on TV, that promised to get you in and out as quickly as possible. The young doctor decided it was a "virus." But even the nurse who walked me to the lobby, afterwards, shook her head and said, "Call your doctor on Monday."

But things worsened so rapidly that we were back in Emergency, a different one, the "sister" to the first, the very next morning.

Where we met the same young doctor, rotating from the "sister" hospital and still unwilling to believe what the Urgent Care doctor had said.

Stevens-Johnson patients wound up in the burn unit. Their organs roasting. Their skin blistering and scarring as if they'd been in a fire. A fire caused by a bad drug. An allergic reaction to end them all. That usually does end it all.

But my rash was blistering. The sores in the corners of my mouth fit the description, too, like the "muzzle" of blackened skin from nose to chin. I'd seen it, in the awful pictures I'd found online while searching for my own answers.

He gave me no answers. Just more pills. My daughter burst into tears of frustration.

A dermatologist eventually prescribed prednisone, in huge doses. That allowed me to sleep for a few hours after each dose. And when I slept after the first fistful of pills, something changed. Beyond the fever and the itch, something began to guide me.

First, it gave me...Sting. A song that Sting had written. "How fragile we are," he sings. His voice soothed me. I found more Sting songs on Spotify. To calm me through the long, sleepless nights.

From there, The Guide told me more things. Little things. To soak in water. To drink water. And to use oils. Simple oils. Olive oil. Shea oil. A $2 African oil I'd used to soften my skin years ago.

Water. Oil. Where had I heard that before?

Baptism. Anointing. I was being saved.

I surrendered.

And once I did, The Guide began to play with me. Prescribed chicken soup. The canned kind I'd slurped as a child when I was sick.

"Become as little children," remember? I surrendered. And slurped my soup. And of course, soon, one of my daughter's oldest friends hauled over a huge pot of soup.

That, too, was part of His plan. To show me why He'd saved me, why I deserved to be saved, He sent more friends. In droves. Friends from my current life to sit with, feed and clean house for me. Friends from lives past, all the way back from kindergarten, responding to my daughter's Facebook posts, and the Open Salon blog posts I wrote when I could not sleep.

Old lovers returned. My ex-husband gathered all my Hopi in laws and all of his sweat lodge brothers to pray, drum and sing for me one remarkable night. While they sang, the swollen glands shrank. The ooze ended. No more "Quasimodo head."

Most remarkable of all, Roger Ebert, with whom I'd sat "desk to desk" at the Chicago Sun Times, also chimed in. Gravely ill himself, he knew The Itch, introduced me to a cherry juice to supplement my "chicken soup" fast and agreed with our decision to drive to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix.

The Mayo doctors respected The Guide, while offering guidance of their own. Even so, over the next nine months, I would have fevers so high the doctors feared for my life. I would turn charcoal black and shed my skin in sheets. Or in flakes like snow falling from my body, when I moved in bed, when I walked, when I removed my clothes.

And then one morning, while I was "anointing" my face, the black muzzle began to rub off. And my face, from then on, was soft as silk. My daughter loves to tease me about that. An illness that maims most, left me with smooth "baby's bottom" skin.

Save in two places. One that lost pigmentation entirely and one that became a wild, charcoal black design on my knee. My daughter insists that it looks like a falcon, wings spread, rising into the sky.

When most people see it, they cringe. When I see it, I smile. It's my "tattoo." The one my Guide gave me, to remember Him by.

Water. Oil. Childlike faith.

I rose, like Him. Because He taught me how.

There's a song about that, too. Sing.

Longer version first published at Patheos

Photo credit: Bernhard Plockhorst -, Watermark removed, Public Domain,