Steady on

by Kara Hansen

Buried right in the middle of the Mass each week is the familiar, comforting — yet challenging — prayer, the Our Father.

The Lord’s prayer is right at the heart of Rick Peterson’s story, too.

“Thy will be done” was on his mind as he knelt at the tomb of Blessed Mary MacKillop, asking to leave behind the symptoms of his Parkinson’s  disease, once and for all.

And it was in holding daughter Jessica’s hand two days later, as the words of the prayer first uttered by Jesus came tumbling out, that someone else first realized that Rick’s prayers had been answered.

A firm resolve

It was not a great surprise when Rick received his original diagnosis of early onset Parkinson’s at age 39 in 1999. Parkinson’s disease ran in Rick’s family; his father died in 1995 after a battle with the illness.

Doctors were not able to give the Peterson family much hope, as there is no cure for Parkinson’s. Rick was enrolled in two different studies through the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., and Yale University in New Haven, Conn., but physicians could do little more.

Rick experienced many of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, including fatigue, tremors in his right hand and arm, and muscle cramping.

Stress seemed to worsen Rick’s tremors, bringing them on more frequently and with greater severity than when he was not stressed. Rick and his wife Maura, a nurse, knew the tremors would spread and worsen over time. It was merely a waiting game.

“Rick seemed to progress quickly at first and then his symptoms plateaued for the next six years after his diagnosis,” said Maura. “About a year or two before World Youth Day [2008], we noticed his symptoms slowly progressing again. I knew as the Parkinson’s progressed I would be able to care for him, but there was also a fear of what was in store for us in the future.”

Still, the couple was determined the disease would not define them or their family.

“We just figured this is something God has picked for us to deal with, so we’re going to deal with it the best we can,” said Rick. “My prayer, like that of my dad, was to handle and accept it graciously.”

So they did. Rick continued his work as an electrician, and he and Maura continued raising their five children. When they had to make changes to accommodate Rick’s symptoms — which included nearly constant tremors in his right hand and forearm — they did.

“It never really altered Rick’s ability to do daily activities, but fatigue is what I saw in him the most,” said Maura. “There were a few tasks he used to be able to finish in a shorter time.”

Rick also took to heart the example of his father, who lived a joyful life despite the pain and suffering that came with Parkinson’s disease.

“His dad handled it beautifully, with a sense of humor,” said Maura.

Faith journey

For Rick, continuing on with his life as best he could meant continuing to practice his Catholic faith, ardently and often. The Petersons had long been involved in various aspects of their faith — from personal prayer to attending retreats, mission trips and helping with youth ministry at their parish.

“Both my parents are very dedicated and very strong in their faith,” said daughter Jessica, 24. “They were youth ministers for 20 years and we were surrounded by the Catholic faith as we grew up, along with the youth they were ministering [to]. It was more than just going to Mass on Sundays.”

When the opportunity to attend World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, came up in 2008, Rick jumped at the chance. He had attended the event in 2000 in Rome with daughter Julia and wanted a chance to go with Jessica this time.

As a WYD veteran, he knew that World Youth Days were as much of a pilgrimage as they were an event. Therefore, preparing for the journey would be an important part of the experience. Rick began online research of the World Youth Day schedule, theme, and selected patron saints for the event.

It didn’t take long before he developed a special interest in one saint in particular. “I noticed a link for Blessed Mary MacKillop, one of the patron saints of World Youth Day 2008,” said Rick.

There was something about the beatified Catholic nun that Rick found inspiring. Though she was well-known in her native Australia and highly praised by Pope Benedict XVI, most Americans — including Rick — knew nothing about her. “I started reading about her life and then found myself looking for the prayer opportunities at her shrine,” said Rick. “I figured that it would not hurt to ask for guidance from someone who had traveled the area around Sydney, that we might have a safe and wonderful pilgrimage for our whole group.”

In fact, figuring it was a once-in-a-life-time opportunity, Rick purchased tickets to visit her shrine in Sydney before even leaving the United States.

He also found that the theme of World Youth Day 2008 — “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses ” (Acts 1:8) — touched him in a special way.

So in preparation for the trip, he began praying specifically to the Holy Spirit — something he hadn’t done in years.

As he began excitedly sharing plans for the trip with friends and co-workers, they asked Rick the one question he had not even allowed to cross his mind: Are you going to ask for healing from Parkinson’s disease?

“I only said, ‘I will just have to wait and see what happens when I get there,’” said Rick.

Australia bound

On Friday, July 18, many of the World Youth Day attendees — officially called pilgrims — participated in the living Stations of the Cross. The stress of the 15- hour flight, colder winter air, and lack of sleep seemed to have caught up to Rick, and the tremors in his hand and arm were as bad as they had ever been.

“He was having a lot of problems buttoning his shirt sleeve,” said fellow pilgrim Kelsey Waetzig, a 17-year-old parishioner of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Topeka. “His hand was shaking and he couldn’t control it long enough to button the sleeve.

“He was really upset because he had never had to ask for help before.”

Finally, with his cuff fastened with Waetzig’s help, Rick, Jessica and six other WYD participants from the archdiocese were ready to visit Blessed Mary MacKillop’s shrine for the evening prayer vigil.

Once there, Rick joined in the scheduled evening prayer, then had some time to pray alone at the shrine.

By that point, there was no doubt in Rick’s mind what he wanted to pray for.

“We were invited to spend time at Mary’s tomb,” explained Rick. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been in deeper prayer — it was like I was the only one there.

“I said, ‘Mary, I’m asking you to pray with me. Lord, I’ve asked Mary to pray with me and I’d like nothing more than to leave the Parkinson’s and tremors buried in the soil beside Mary. Yet only if it is your will.”

As he got up to leave, Rick paused at the shrine’s gate and added a final request: that the tremors would also stay away. Then he offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the outcome of his pilgrimage, whatever it might be.

It wasn’t until he was visiting with fellow pilgrims on the train ride home 20 minutes later that Rick looked down and was startled to see what he had not seen in nine years: his hand and arm — perfectly still.

Rick’s sleep was restless that night. He woke nearly every 10 minutes, every time checking his arm to see whether the tremors had returned, and offering a prayer of thanksgiving when he saw that they had not.

During both the long walk to Randwick Raceway for Mass with Pope Benedict XVI and the camp-out that followed, Rick’s arm continued to be tremor-free, even though the walking, lack of sleep and cold temperatures had always made his tremors far worse in the past. Saturday came and went — and still no tremors.

On Sunday, during the papal Mass, Rick could no longer keep it to himself. As she gripped her father’s hand after the Lord’s Prayer at Mass, Jessica was struck by a stillness that had not been there for a long time.

“At first, I thought it was the peace of being at Mass when I noticed his hand wasn’t shaking,” said Jessica. “Then my dad looked at me and started crying as he told me about his prayer.”

Jessica could hardly take it in.

“I started crying; I was shocked,” she said. “You hear about miracles, but to have it happen to my own dad is amazing.”

Word spread quickly among the archdiocesan WYD attendees.

“He came up to me and told me the next day about what happened,” said Waetzig. “I was amazed, and thought it was awesome to be a part of it.”

Elaina Cochran, the freelance photographer that covered World Youth Day for The Leaven, had noticed Rick’s tremors on the flight over and her photographer’s eye was drawn back to his arm over and over again after the tremors stopped.

“I was really excited for him,” said Cochran. “Even as we were packing our gear and on our way back, his arm no longer had any shaking whatsoever.

“His faith healed him.”

Rick and Jessica returned to Blessed Mary MacKillop’s shrine on Monday to share the news with the Sisters of St. Joseph, who maintain the shrine. There, Rick began the paperwork that documented that he had received what is called a “favor” through the intercession of Blessed Mary MacKillop. It is possible that, should the cessation of Rick’s symptoms prove permanent and after much time and painstaking investigation, the account of his experience will help in the canonization process for Blessed Mary MacKillop.

Calling home to share the news with Maura presented an unexpected challenge.

“When Rick called to tell me the news, I was working as a charge nurse and couldn’t talk at the time,” said Maura.

She literally had to stop her husband in midstream “and ask him to call after my shift, to allow me to focus on my patients.

“The news was overwhelming.”

Even after hearing the news from Rick later that day, Maura found it still took awhile for it to fully sink in.

“To go from a husband who had a life-changing illness — thinking this illness would eventually disable him — to the illness no longer being a part of our future seemed unrealistic and hard to comprehend,” said Maura.

It was six more days before Rick and Jessica flew the 15 hours back to Kansas City. As members of their family made their way to the airport to pick the two up, a series of little accidents transpired.

First, Maura was in a small car accident on her way to the airport. Then Rick’s mom hurt her foot and daughter Julia re-injured her shoulder as the two entered the airport. The series of events would normally have caused Rick so much stress his arm and hand would have been trembling violently.

And that was Maura’s first thought.

“I called him and said, ‘All I want to know is if your hand is tremoring right now,” she said, “because we could not have put much more stress in your life.”

It was not.

Nor is it now, more than a year later.

Healed by faith

“There are some health professionals that are not willing to jump in and say this is a favor or healing,” said Maura, “but now we’re in the 14th month with no symptoms. And not only that, but the symptoms have not even hinted. That’s where I’m in awe.”

The neurologist treating Rick for Parkinson’s disease has not seen any symptoms in the past year, either. Because Parkinson’s disease is a symptoms-only diagnosis — in other words, there are no tests to conclusively diagnose someone with the disease — Rick’s physician cannot say for certain he ever had Parkinson’s disease.

“Anytime these symptoms get better for any reasons, it’s a good thing,” said the neurologist, who asked to have his name withheld.

The Petersons agree.

“A year ago we would not have even begun to hope for that,” said Maura. “To think of a whole year symptom-free is beyond our hopes.”

And if the symptoms return?

“I would hope that my prayer on that day would be no different than one of acceptance and continuing to witness to God’s good works,” said Rick.

“If this lasts two days, two weeks, for the rest of my life — it’s a gift no matter what,” he added simply.

And perhaps it’s that complete acceptance of God’s will in his life that is the most extraordinary part of Rick’s story.

“One of the greatest witnesses to Rick’s faith was the prayer he prayed at Mary MacKillop’s site,” said Maura. “I have always had a tremendous respect for people who can say, ‘Your will be done, not mine’ — and mean it.

“That quote really sums up Rick’s faith path.”

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