This article was originally shared by Beth Usher on her Facebook page, published here with permission.
I suffered up to one hundred seizures a day as a five-year-old child. Often during a seizure, I would fall and bang my head on the floor or whatever hard object presented in my descent. The only way for my mom to shower and dress for work without worrying was to prop me up with soft pillows and place me in front of the TV. She turned on the children’s TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and I did not have a single seizure for the show’s duration.
Something in his voice calmed the electrical circuits in my injured brain and allowed my body some rest. My mother and I performed this ritual every workday for two years with great success. I began to consider Mister Rogers my real friend and not just my TV friend. I talked back to the TV screen. I would say, yes: I will be your good neighbor!”
So, it was no surprise that my sweet mother called Mister Rogers’ TV studio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in preparation for my upcoming brain surgery. My neurologists had determined that I 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 my brain causing life-altering epileptic seizures. The only cure was an operation called a hemispherectomy; the removal of one half of my brain.
My mother told Mister Rogers’ assistant that the show was a sanctuary for me and that I believed Mister Rogers was speaking directly to me when he sang his song, Won’t You Be My Neighbor. She explained about my seizures and my upcoming surgery and the fact that that the seizures would not occur during his entire show. My mother hoped that Mister Rogers’ assistant would send an autographed photo of my TV friend or even a note from him assuring me that I was going to be okay.
One week before my hemispherectomy, the telephone rang. My mother spoke for a few minutes and told me that a friend wanted to talk with me. I was excited that someone calling themselves a friend was calling me. Friendships were difficult or me. Seizures scared adults never mind kids! I took the phone from my mother and said hello. I heard a familiar voice and felt immediately at ease.
Mister Rogers asked me about my brain surgery and I told him things that I did not even tell my parents. I told him that I was scared but wanted the seizures to go away. I told him that I wanted the kids in my class to like me and to play with me. I asked him about the members of his neighborhood who I had come to love: King Friday, Lady Elaine Fairchild and Daniel Striped Tiger. We talked for nearly an hour.
Before I hung up the phone, I said, “I love you, Mister Rogers.”
We drove the seven hours to Johns Hopkins Children’s’ Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, listening to the many cassette audio tapes sent to me by Mister Rogers a few days after his call. His soft voice discussed so many topics that concerned young children. My favorite cassette was the one where he sang, I like you just the way you are.
The day before surgery I endured back-to-back medical tests to determine if my body could survive the twelve-hour surgery to remove my entire left hemisphere. I was confused and scared but believed that my doctors and parents would not do anything to hurt me. I wanted the seizures to stop and would go along with anything that stopped them.
In between the tests, I was able to spend time with my beloved brother. We played games and watched movies. I didn’t realize it at the time but my older brother was worried that he might never see me again. He was only ten years old.