By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator

From Merlyna Valentine’s outward appearance and lively personality one may think she sails smoothly through life. But her sunny outlook and sharp wit belies the fact that the quadruple amputee has weathered many storms, from being born when Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans in 1965 to surviving Hurricane Katrina four decades later.  

 p 1 Cross Wise MInistry.tif

Merlyna Valentine, center, is prayed over, from left, by Deacon Mathew Dunn, Deacon Pete Walsh and Deacon Danny Roussel before she speaks at a meeting of Cross Wise Ministry. Photo by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator  

 

Valentine discussed the storms of life she has endured during a July 17 meeting of the new Cross Wise ministry at St. Patrick Church in Baton Rouge.  

Cross Wise developed from a positive response to an end-of-life issues series, according to pastoral associate Pam Folse. She said Cross Wise focuses on the wisdom people have collected and earned based on hard life issues.  

“Without the cross, without Christ, without our faith, we probably would not have made it through or not have made it through in the way that we did,” Folse said.  

Valentine’s own journey through troubled waters started at birth.  

“I was born (during Hurricane Betsy) in a hospital with no electricity and rising water on the floor and sent home to a house with no electricity for three weeks,” said Valentine, a native of Edgard. She wryly added, “First, I thanked my parents for not naming me Betsy.”  

She added in a serious tone, “And second that was a foreshadowing of the life I would live and that I would be able to overcome all storms and shadows that come my way.”  

Valentine, who was an educator for 30 years, started her first year as principal at St. Rose Elementary School in St. Rose in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast.  

“We were very fortunate that our school did not have significant damage, and we welcomed families and wanted them to feel like they were a part of us,” Valentine said.  

Feeling victorious that first year, Valentine thought, “I am up for any challenge … until August 17 (2007) showed me who is boss.”  

She was greeting new families during a school event when she experienced pain in her side.  

She visited a doctor on a Tuesday who scheduled her to see a specialist that Friday. But on that Tuesday night she experienced pain again and asked her daughter to bring her to the hospital. 

A kidney stone had blocked Valentine’s kidneys and she was undergoing multiple organ failure. After being transferred to four different hospitals, she was put in a medically induced coma. Doctors told her she had a 10 percent chance of living.  

At one point, her heart was operating at 20 percent, but by the following week her heart returned to working at 100 percent.  

“They (the doctors) said they didn’t know what happened, but I know what happened; it was a miracle that I was still here, that God decided that he would keep me here, that he would be with me and that this would turn into my testimony,” she said.  

She spent three months in the hospital, and as blood flowed to her brain and core of her body to preserve her life, her limbs became septic.  

She “watched her limbs die off” and got through it by praying that God would help her endure her afflictions.  

When she was faced with amputation of her legs and hands, she smiled and thanked the doctors, who then sent a psychiatrist who asked her, “Do you understand the process you will be undergoing and do you need someone to talk to?”  

“I told him, ‘I’ve already talked to the one person I need to talk to,’ ” said Valentine. “ ’And God said this is all going to work for my good. I’m good. I want to move on to the next phase in my life, to the next journey and I’m ready.’ ”   

With the physical therapist’s approval that she could do it as long as it did not cause medical issues, Valentine pushed six months of therapy into six weeks to return to the school as principal.  

Valentine helped the students understand the changes she had experienced by storytelling. She referred to her legs as “Jack and Jill” and her hands as “Hansel and Gretel.” 

With silicone hands that look natural and only a small limp in her gate, people would likely have no idea of the suffering Valentine endured.  

She said her recovery and healing came through the support of her husband and Baton Rouge native Tory Valentine, who was also at the Cross Wise meeting. Each morning he attaches her prosthetics, helps her dress, applies her makeup and styles her hair.  

“I just love her so much that I prayed for God to heal her and bring her back. And he did that,” said Tory. “I want to see her doing what she loves to do.”  

The couple, who met on Valentine’s Day in 2006, married in 2011.  

She recalled a time after she had received her prosthetic hands that she and her husband did some “retail therapy” and parked in a handicapped zone. A person pulled up in a van, rolled down his window and said to her, “You see they’re giving those handicapped placards to anyone. There’s nothing wrong with either one of those two.”  

“All I could think about was joy was in my heart. If he had seen me two days prior I would’ve been rolled out of that van down the ramp in a wheelchair with no limbs attached, with a sheet covering my body so that I could feel comfortable, and I could make others comfortable and there would be no question as to why I was in that spot,” Valentine said.  

But rather than taking the easy road of blending in and appearing to be “normal,” Valentine tells her story to motivate others experiencing life changes to “push on.” Her audiences include school children and people with disabilities, and her story has also appeared on “The Today Show.”  

Drawing from her educator’s background, Valentine correlated life experiences with punctuation: A period means stop; a question mark means ask, “What are the possibilities in this?; and a comma means to pause before completing the rest of the sentence when life hits hard. 

The most important part of the sentence is the dash, Valentine said. On cemetery headstones, there are the birth date and end date of a person’s life. She said the dash refers to the life between birth and death.  

“Make the most of your dash,” said Valentine.  

Meetings are held on the third Wednesday of each month at 10 a.m. in the St. Patrick Parish Activity Center and are open to all.  

The next meeting will be held in September. For more information, call Folse at 225-753-5750 or email pfolse@
stpatrickbr.org.