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Blithe spirit: MS may have shut down Penny Gillett Silvius's body, but her spirit still manages to soar.

The load can't get much heavier. But even if it does, Penny Gillett Silvius will find a way to carry it. She may have lost her voice and the use of most of her body to multiple sclerosis (MS), but she hasn't lost her reason for living.

"l could stay in bed all day if I wanted to. Sometimes I feel like it," says Silvius, speaking with the aid of a straw-like vibrator that allows her mouth to form words that sound as though they're coming from a fast-talking computer.

"But as I follow in the footsteps of Jesus, I don't see Him standing still. He keeps going."

Silvius, 42, has had MS since she was 19. The disease that destroys the protective covering around nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord has shut down her body but not her spirit. "I'm not a typical person with MS," she says. Only 15-30% of people with the disease end up in wheelchairs. Other people with the condition should not expect it to progress like mine. The Lord doesn't give us anything we can't handle. Who's to say we can't minister to someone else, even when we hit our lowest point?"

As her condition worsened, Silvius was forced to give up her career as a marriage, family, and child counselor in 1990 after eight years in private practice. Since then, she has concentrated on being a missionary of encouragement.


Once a week, with the help of her home health aide, a motorized wheelchair, and a specially trained golden retriever named Francine, Silvius visits the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, in Fresno, Calif. Between regular trips to the hospital, Silvius spends a lot of time writing. Her articles have appeared in magazines such as Guideposts and the Journal of Christian Nursing. She also has written Miracles in the Darndest Ways, an unpublished book-length manuscript about her experiences. "Miracles are occurring all around us," she says. "Every day is a miracle."

People who know Silvius are amazed at her attitude. Ron Climer, Fresno juvenile hall chaplain and Christian social ministries director for the Mid Valley Southern Baptist Association, met Silvius when she was beginning to struggle with the effects of her disease in the early 1980s. "Penny was doing a mental-health internship at juvenile hall for her counseling degree," says, Climer. "As I walked by her office, I noticed she looked sad. I stopped to talk, and she shared her feelings." At this point, Silvius was in a wheelchair, and her disease was progressing rapidly.

"l was very angry at God when I got MS," says Silvius. "l didn't understand why He didn't cure me."

Climer tried to help Silvius make some sense of her situation. He told her it was all right for her to be honest about her feelings. He suggested God may have allowed her illness for a purpose and urged her to record her thoughts and feelings with an eye toward helping others.

"Ron helped me become `unmad' at God," says Silvius.

Climer says Silvius has made an inspiring transformation. "When she was sad, she was the saddest and maddest person I had ever seen," he says. "But she dealt with her feelings. Now, every time I see her, she seems happier than the last time."


Dr. Alvern Vom Steeg, former pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church (Fresno) and now president of the Mission Society for United Methodists (Norcross, Ga.), encouraged Silvius to get involved in church activities after she started attending services in 1984.

"Penny is one of those people who has a bright attitude even though she has a lot of reasons not to feel bright," say Vom Steeg. "She taught the third and fourth grade Sunday school class at our church. It was impossible not to be attracted to her."

Silvius and her dog became fixtures in Sunday-morning worship services at St. Luke's. Vom Steeg says her presence made others more conscious of the needs of people with disabilities. "l made regular visits to her home when she lost her voice," says Vom Steeg. "She didn't even have enough air to whisper in my ear. We used to sing duets. l'd sing, and she'd move her lips." When it became clear that Silvius would not regain the use of her voice, volunteers from St. Luke's helped her speak in a different way.

"Penny needed to tell her story," says Vom Steeg. "Volunteers from the church went to her house. One would hold an electrolarynx to her throat, and the other would run a tape recorder or take notes." Her words transcribed on paper became articles about MS and her faith. Silvius has donated all money from the sale of her writing to the St. Luke's mission fund.

"Penny told me, I've always wanted to be a missionary; now I am one,'''says Vom Steeg.

Connie Clendenan, executive director of Valley Teen Ranch, a group home for troubled boys, has known Silvius for ten years. The two met when Silvius worked as a therapist for the boys at the ranch and their families. Clendenan also is one of the volunteers who help Silvius with her writing.

"Penny gives new meaning to the word `survivor," says Clendenan. "She just doesn't give up. It takes an incredible spirit to overcome unbelievable physical obstacles. It's been a huge transition for her to go from being an independent person to being totally dependent on other people for everything."

Although Silvius is no stranger to tears, she has not lost her sense of humor. "l laugh about a lot of things. Laughing is close to crying. The emotions are related," she says.

Eric Silvius, who married Gillett 13 years ago, says her sense of humor was one of the things that attracted him. She was funny. She had a good spirit about her." He says his wife's writing is a good example of her determination. "It's a slow, laborious way of putting words on paper. It requires help from others. But she just keeps doing it."

For Eric, there is no simple answer to the difficult question of how to keep a marriage strong in the face of devastating

AT RIGHT: "My husband is the most

knowledgeable, most supportive man

in the world," says Silvius.

illness. "We gave a talk one time to an MS support group, and they asked that question," he says. "We didn't have an answer. You just deal with things as they come. It helps to realize that a person's physical situation is only one element of your life. To the extent that Penny can compensate for that, we work our way, around those things. We focus on positive rather than negative things."

"My husband is the most knowledgeable, most supportive man in the world," says Silvius. "I'm sure my illness has been very difficult on him. But he's been my strength. I could not have gotten through it without him. His favorite saying, is, `This too shall pass.'''

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Silvius is eligible to participate in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). For the past ten years she has traveled all over to cities such as San Antonio, Dayton. New Orleans, and Miami, Fla., to compete.

Gillett was a co-winner of the 1995 Spirit of the Games Award. presented to the participant who has shown the most spirit. At this year's NVWG, held in Seattle in July, she entered four events and placed first in the Women's Open Division of Air Guns Quad (with assistance and Women's Open 1 A of the Motorized Wheelchair Rally, Motorized Slalom, and Field Club.

An older sister, Bonnie Vance, of Modesto, Calif. is Silvius's traveling companion to sporting events. "Last year [Silvius] signed up for air rifles, and she Couldn't really see the target [because of the distance]," says Vance. But with her usual determination, Silvius peered through the rifle scope and won gold.

when asked what she admired most about her sister, Vance says, "When I look at her, I don't see her as having an illness. I just see Penny."
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Title Annotation:includes related information on Canine Companions; multiple sclerosis
Author:Keeler, Guy
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Previous Article:Genetic modification.
Next Article:Things are looking up: some progress is evident in media depictions of people with disabilities.

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