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In 1998, when their daughter Michelle was a senior at the University of Chicago, Larry and Marilyn Martone received a call saying she had been hit by a car and had a traumatic brain injury. Ironically—and also providentially—Martone was teaching health care ethics at St. John’s University in New York.
“The things I taught in the classroom, now I’m actually experiencing,” she said. “I teach people that children are gifts, not possessions … And the fact that I viewed my daughter as a gift changed the whole experience, because it meant she’s not mine. She’s on loan. I don’t own her. She belongs to God.”
Michelle did not die, but she remained in critical condition. For four days after the accident, friends organized a 24-hour prayer vigil. “When you’re going through this—I couldn’t pray,” remembered Martone. “I was numb … but I felt it, I felt their strength.” She added, “What happens to you, it doesn’t matter, as long as you have the grace to go along with it.”
This grace sustained Martone as Michelle spent almost eight months unconscious, nearly two years in hospitals and rehab facilities, and two and a half years with a feeding tube. Uniquely prepared for this crisis with both her ethical training and her knowledge of health care, Martone fought for her daughter to receive appropriate care, even when insurance companies refused to provide further resources for a patient who was progressing so slowly.
In Over the Waterfall, a book she self-published last year, Martone tells the story of this struggle, describing how her faith has deepened through suffering and reflecting on ethical issues in health care. In a recent review, America, the national Catholic weekly, called the book “Marilyn’s description of Michelle going over the waterfall. There her daughter’s entire life, consciousness and even personality are shattered in her descent; and her family scrambles against the rushing water at the bottom of the waterfall to find the pieces to save her.”
One of Martone’s goals in writing her book was “to keep my daughter and our family part of society and not allow us to be pushed to the fringes.” The book describes the reactions of discomfort and avoidance some people show in response to Michelle’s physical problems. “Persons with disability frighten us,” Martone said, “not because of who they are, but we realize, deep down, that could be us.”
Helping Michelle recover some of her abilities and her personality has required patient endurance from the Martones. Today’s society “looks for the quick fix, the magic pill, the surgery which is going to make everything better in an instant,” said Martone. “[But] the way we got our daughter better was just every day, repetition, repetition, repetition.”
Once the Martones brought her home to receive more intensive therapy, Michelle gradually progressed from eating only four ounces of applesauce in an hour to eating normally. Martone asked the physical therapist not to box Michelle in, but to see what she could do. As a result of this positive mindset, Michelle can now move around with a walker, despite doctors’ predictions that she would always be wheelchair bound.
“You’d never be able to do this in an institution,” Martone said. “They don’t have the staff, they don’t have the time, and it’s not personalized to the individual. The individual has to fit into the system, instead of the system being there to help the individual.” The Martones count themselves blessed to have the funds from a lawsuit to pay for several hours of customized care per day. But Martone acknowledged, “Certainly not everybody’s going to get what my daughter gets, because it’s just too expensive.”
Looking at these costs—not just financial, but also emotional—people often wonder, “Why would you want to save a damaged life?”
“We’re just so happy to still have her with us,” Martone responds simply. “I think that there’s a reason for all of this,” Martone said, “but I don’t know what it is. Isn’t that what faith is? You go on not knowing for sure, but believing that God does.”