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In this story from November 1996, the beloved actor shares how he came to rely on God's grace and the love of his wife as he battled a mysterious illness.
Each of us faces pain, no two ways about it. But I firmly believe that in every situation, no matter how difficult, God extends grace greater than the hardship, and strength and peace of mind that can lead us to a place higher than where we were before.
Let me tell you about one of the hardest times in my own life, and how I found this to be true.
I had been alone for a long time when I met an extraordinary woman named Cindi Knight. She had come to Manteo, N.C., to be in a production of The Lost Colony, a summer play in which I had got my start several decades before.
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Our relationship began as a friendship, but as the months passed, I couldn’t help but notice her strong faith and gentle strength. Did I mention she was also quite beautiful? Somehow she fell in love with me. Five years after we met as friends, we became husband and wife.
When she married me in April 1983, I was not at the pinnacle of my career. Ageism is rampant in Hollywood, and although I was only in my fifties, work was getting harder and harder to find.
Cindi had had frequent and major attacks of sore throat all of her life. So, shortly after our marriage we returned to Los Angeles and went to see a throat specialist, Dr. Robert Feder. He determined her sore throats were coming from her tonsils, and scheduled an operation.
Early the next morning we drove over to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Dr. Feder took out her tonsils. While she was recuperating, I got a bad case of the flu. Not exactly a honeymoon of the rich and famous.
My illness was strange. As I got better, the symptoms of influenza were replaced by pain–terrible, searing pain that ricocheted through my entire body. Cindi and I joked about our invalid status and settled in that Saturday to watch the Kentucky Derby on television.
But after the race, when I stood up and took a few steps, I pitched headlong into a nightmare. I was overcome by pain so encompassing that I couldn’t feel my feet. I had no control over them, and fell to the floor in agony.
We couldn’t reach any of our doctors that weekend. Yet I was so desperate for relief from the pain that I took some of the codeine prescribed for Cindi for her throat. It barely made a difference.
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On Monday my doctor met us at a local hospital. There a roomful of doctors attempted to find out what was wrong. For four days they hadn’t a clue. Finally they did a spinal tap. When the results came in, one mystery was solved.
I had Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare form of nerve inflammation. It’s thought to be caused by an allergic reaction to a viral infection, such as the flu. The nerves become inflamed and begin to send erroneous and scrambled messages to the brain.
In some people it causes little pain but extensive paralysis; in cases such as mine, it causes little paralysis but intense pain.
There are no drugs or surgery to treat Guillain-Barré–so the doctor sent me home. “There is nothing we can do,” he said. “You’ve got to ride it out. I’ll prescribe some pain medication, but use as little as possible. Come back in a week.”
The following week he said the same thing. And the week after that.
By my next visit I was desperate. If anything, the agony was intensifying. Cindi tried not to let me see her fear, but my physical condition was deteriorating noticeably.
Up to that point we had seen every doctor and specialist I had ever known. Nothing was helping, and the pain had become so consuming that there was nothing else in my life.
Then an old friend, Leonard Rosengarten, a psychiatrist, asked if he could come visit. I didn’t want a friend to see how bad off I was, so I took my most potent pain medication just before he arrived.