ONCE IN A while you meet someone so interesting that your own life seems pale and insignificant in comparison.
Sue Hanson is such a person. I met her through a friend who attends Hopkins with her.
Sue was born and raised in Harford County on her parents' dairy farm, and she has recently gone back there to live in her own house.
At 18, Sue's world started falling apart.
She became subject to acute pain and strange discomforts.They took her gall bladder out, but it didn't help.
"In 1974 I was diagnosed as having Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract. Then later I developed systemic lupus erythematosus, a skin disease sometimes affecting the connective tissue and the spleen.
"Since the gall bladder, I had a partial hysterectomy, then a full hysterectomy in 1969. I have had a collapsed lung, then subsequent surgeries. I developed Meniere's syndrome, another chronic disease resulting in hearing loss. I have had shunts put in my ears to keep my vertigo at a minimum. I have learned to do an IV on myself. On a daily basis, I have stomach ache and constant headaches."
But Sue has been a dairy farmer, an accountant, she has two undergraduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University, is a teacher of bass violin, has written a historical novel that is in the hands of an agent, she's a nursing school dropout and presently she is a partner in a cat furniture business. She's also headed for theological studies at a seminary and her eventual doctorate.
She and I are sitting eating lunch, only she is on a supplementary liquid diet, and I am eating a salad, hoping she won't mind. She says she doesn't; she is used to not eating. She has trained herself to ignore food.
A smiling and attractive woman, she looks the picture of health. This day her books are slung over her shoulder in a back pack and she is in tennis shoes and jeans.
I listen to a person who at mid-life has taken on an almost holistic approach to getting well.
"I fired the medical profession back in 1981 after many operations and drugs. I felt they were too knife happy and were covering my symptoms with Band-Aids such as surgical procedures and more pain killers -- I was getting worse."
All medical indicators, she says, state that a systemic lupus erythematosus patient with these complications does not live past 45 or so.
"But I have to finish my doctorate in theological studies before 45, and I will. I am already better.
"Yes, I am in daily pain now, but I have learned to live with it, and I have set some goals. My grandmother, who was my role model, worked on our farm up until 82 with crippling arthritis, congestive heart failure, breathing problems and an oxygen tank on her back. She taught me that you can survive if you have faith and put your mind to it, especially if you have objectives. My parents have also been role models of courage."
We talk about survival. She hadn't read Norman Cousins' best seller, "Anatomy of an Illness," in which he took his serious illness in his own hands, using his mind over his body.
Nor has she read Dr. Bernie Siegel's new book, "Peace, Love and Healing."
"I know about the many books on mind over body, but I decided I didn't need them because if you develop your own healing plan you can do it yourself. My plan is working for me. I do have a general practitioner, a friend, with whom I work in tandem and who understands my problems."
And she believes that the blind acceptance of the medical profession's authority is losing some ground.
In spite of her illnesses, she has a full-time job as co-founder of Cat House Originals Inc. in Colora, near Rising Sun in Cecil County. She and her partner are selling great-looking and innovative feline furniture. Business is good, she tells me, as cats are in.
I listen to her story of courage to go it alone. She tells me the secret to her energy and daily coping.
"It's so simple. It's God. I am not a religious fanatic, but God has been constantly at my side, and he told me I could live with this.
"I have totally rearranged my life, of course. But I am so much happier not being on prescription drugs and not waiting for another operation. I believe prayer and my partnership with God have sustained me. He gets me through each day, it is as basic as that. I have to admit I was a spiritual person even before my illnesses -- this helps."
This is no Shirley Maclaine. Sue Hanson is not "out on a limb." If anything, she seems in her belief as steadfast as a tree trunk. She sees her illnesses as a gift rather than a burden and an opportunity for new beginnings.
She sums up: "The Lord and I are in this together, I just wish all people could know that God IS."
My lunch is over; she has sipped some water; she picks up her school books and is on her way back to class.