Children’s Trauma and Mister Rogers

Mr. Rodgers; a role model for being quietly present in the life of a child.

I admit it, I am a big fan of Mister Rogers.  I was reading a few quotes of his and came across this story.  But first let me share one of my favorite quotes.

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”  – Fred Rogers

Childhood trauma

Beth User was 5 years old and suffered up to one hundred seizures a day. During her seizures, she would fall and bang her head on the floor and the only way her mom could get ready for work without worrying was to prop her up with pillows and place her in front of the TV. One time she turned on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and she didn’t have a single seizure for the entire duration of the show.

Her mom performed this ritual every work day for two years with great success. She quickly began to consider Mister Rogers a real friend, and would talk back to the TV screen, saying things like, “Yes, I will be your good neighbor!” When brain surgery was scheduled her mom called Mister Rogers’ TV studio in Pittsburgh. Beth’s neurologists had determined that she had somehow contracted a very rare brain disease called Rasmussen’s Encephalitis. They theorized that a slow growing virus was killing brain cells in the left side of her brain, causing epileptic seizures. The only cure was an operation called a hemispherectomy, or the removal of one half of her brain. Beth’s mother told the person on the phone that the show was a sanctuary for her and that she believed Mister Rogers was speaking directly to her when he sang his song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” She explained about the seizures and upcoming surgery and the fact that that the seizures would subside during his entire show. Her mother hoped that Mister Rogers’ would send an autographed photo, or maybe even a note.

One week before surgery, the telephone rang. Her mother spoke for a few minutes and told Beth that a friend wanted to talk to her. She said hello, heard a familiar voice, and immediately felt at ease. Mister Rogers asked about her brain surgery and she told him that she was scared but wanted the seizures to go away.  She asked him about the members of his neighborhood who she had grown to love — King Friday, Lady Elaine Fairchild, and Daniel Striped Tiger. They talked for nearly an hour.

During the seven-hour drive to Johns Hopkins Childrens’ Hospital in Baltimore, she and her mom listened to the many audio tapes sent by Mister Rogers a few days after his call. He discussed so many topics that concerned young children. Her favorite cassette was the one where he sang, “I like you just the way you are.” The last thing she said to her parents as they wheeled her into the operating room was, “No more seizures.”

Her surgery went well, and the doctor told her parents they could see her in the recovery room. Her parents had faith in the surgeon and neurologist, but later that night, she fell into a deep coma. With the sounds of life-support machines beeping you could hear Mister Rogers singing “I like you just the way you are” from a tape player in the ICU room. Her mother was called from the room to the nurse’s station where she was handed the phone. It was Mister Rogers, and he wanted to know how she was doing. Her mom gave him the news that although the surgery went well, she had suffered severe brain stem swelling and was in a coma. They talked a little more and he told her that he would pray for their daughter.

For the following two weeks, Mister Rogers called every day to ask about her status and to pray with her mother. One morning he called and asked if it would be OK if he visited Beth the next afternoon. Her mother told him that she was still in a coma and wouldn’t know he was there. He said he would come anyway. He asked that she not tell anyone he was coming because he wanted it to be a private visit and didn’t want the press to be there.

Mr. Rogers Visit

The next afternoon, Mister Rogers flew from Pittsburgh to Baltimore with a clarinet case in tow. A minister friend from Baltimore picked him up from the airport and drove him directly to the hospital. Her parents immediately recognized the tall man with the kind face as he stepped inside her room. Mister Rogers gently placed his clarinet case on her bed, opened it, and took out King Friday, Lady Elaine Fairchild, and her favorite, Daniel Striped Tiger. For the following hour, she was the star in his neighborhood.

In an article Beth wrote later she says: “I’d love to end this story by telling you it was in that moment that I emerged from my coma, but that wasn’t the case. After his visit with me and several more minutes with my family, Mister Rogers’ minister friend drove him back to the airport and he flew back to his hometown in Pennsylvania, taking along an empty clarinet case. What I can tell you, though, is that when I did wake up, Mister Rogers became my real friend and not just a TV friend. We remained close and shared many conversations, birthday wishes, and milestones for the following twenty years until his death on February 27, 2003”.

This is what many children’s therapists do. They sit with a child in therapy and enter their world understanding their perspective and helping them find answers. They support the parents and share insights and strategies with them. They go to school meetings and visit children when they are hospitalized. They even hold sessions at the detention center if the child is incarcerated and support them in court.

Thank you Mister Rodgers –  you remind us to keep quietly going forward, the reward is knowing that we made a difference in the life of a child. If you would like to read more about the Centers work concerning children and trauma please follow the link.

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