Ginger Skillen: Beautiful blessings in horrible pain
Before Ginger Skillen contracted COVID-19 in the fall of 2020, she was a busy homeschool mom, pastor’s wife and clean eating coach.
“I was extremely healthy,” she says. “I was involved in everything at church and taught at our homeschool co-op.”
That changed dramatically Nov. 6 when Ginger awoke with a debilitating headache. She tested positive for COVID-19; the headache was her only symptom.
“I felt like my skull was in a vice grip and being tightened beyond what I could handle,” she says.
Though the virus passed, the headache remained. Eventually, Ginger was diagnosed with “post-COVID headache,” a type of long COVID.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions in the U.S. and around the world have experienced long COVID. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 13 adults in the U.S. (7.5 percent) have “long COVID” symptoms, defined as symptoms not present prior to their COVID-19 infection that last three or more months.
During the past two-and-a-half years, Ginger has rarely left her bed. Her husband, Joe, and children, Avery, 13, and Ezra, 11, care for her. She’s thankful that technology allows her to attend church and connect with others online. Joe is the teaching pastor at Ridgepoint Church in Wichita, Kan.
“I kept waiting to get better,” she says. “I couldn’t do anything and needed help with even the smallest of tasks. I haven’t had one minute free of head pain.”
Ginger has tried many treatments and medications. She sees a headache specialist and wears a frozen headache hat around the clock. She’s seen little to no improvement since her condition began.
At first, Ginger says she was in survival mode, holding on for dear life and waiting for the pain to go away. “I prayed and pleaded with God to take away my pain,” she says. “I still do. He hasn’t yet, but I’m not giving up on him. He has never given up on me.”
Ginger went through a season of blaming herself and trying to figure out why her suffering occurred. Like Job’s friends, people offered Ginger lots of potential explanations. “God knew you could handle this” and “God is doing this to teach you something” and “This is the enemy and we have to pray against spiritual warfare” are a few of the responses she received.
“None of that sat right with me,” she says. “If this pain was from the enemy, then the enemy was winning, no matter how faithful I’d been. And if God did this, I had a hard time seeing him as loving while causing me such pain. That’s not who he is. I have prayed and journaled and cried and pleaded, and God has been with me every second of every day of this pain. He can handle my doubts and my discouragement. My worst days don’t scare him away. His nearness is what I need and what he freely gives.”
Ginger believes that though God didn’t cause her suffering, he will make it matter. “There are beautiful blessings everywhere around this horrible pain,” she says. “I see Jesus in my husband, Joe, as he makes my morning smoothie and gets the kids where they need to be. I see Jesus in my kids as they snuggle me, pray for me and hold hope even when I feel I can’t. I see Jesus in my mom as she drives me to my appointments and my dad as he researches long COVID daily. I see Jesus in the women from church who show up weekly to clean my house or drop off a meal. I feel Jesus through friends who text to check on me.”
Ginger keeps a gratitude journal to record the beauty and blessings she sees in her life. “Every day, I make a point to find something that I am thankful for,” she says. “There is always something, even if it is small. Gratitude is the main thing carrying me from day to day. When I see all the good things I have written down, it makes it hard to be consumed by the pain. Psalm 23:6 says that God’s goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life — and I believe that to be true!”
Mark Wetterholm: Coping with mystery illness
In 2021, two bizarre medical events led to a health journey Mark Wetterholm refers to as his “Magical Mystery Disease Discovery Tour.” In July, following a golf game on a hot afternoon, the California special education teacher experienced extreme dizziness and fatigue that led to hospitalization for severe Hyponatremia (low sodium).
In November, after his sodium levels had normalized, Mark suffered severe nerve pain in his legs that three weeks later led to the inability to bear weight on them and sudden loss of bladder control. This necessitated a second, longer hospital stay designed to discover the cause of his symptoms. However, tracking down the cause of his symptoms has been a long, arduous journey.
Over the past two years, Mark has worked with endocrinologists and neurologists both locally and at Stanford Medical Center to address a varying onslaught of symptoms with no clear answers. He has undergone multiple surgeries to fix a hole in his spinal cord and remove a small benign growth on his pituitary gland. He has endured numerous tests and medical procedures and spent 44 days in the hospital. At his lowest point, Mark was wheelchair bound and went on disability with his school district.
Following his surgeries, he began to regain the use of his legs and walk again using a walker. In October 2022, Mark returned to his job teaching 4th and 5th grade students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities.
“Returning to work was mentally uplifting,” Mark says. “I was reminded of the gift God has given me to work with these students. I love what I do, and it keeps my mind off the things I can’t do such as golf, hike or throw a baseball with my grandsons.”
Though he gets around using a cane, he continues to suffer from leg weakness, stiffness and numbness which affect his balance.
Through his health ordeal, Mark has gained strength by memorizing Scriptures such as Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope.” He quoted these verses during anxiety-inducing medical tests and procedures.
Mark, who attends Bridge Bible Church in Bakersfield, has also felt bolstered by the prayers and presence of God’s people. “I have been encouraged by so many friends who have prayed, visited me in the hospital, delivered meals, texted and called offering me hope,” he says. “The men from my Bible study encouraged me every step along the way.”
Mark says his wife of 42 years, Beverly, has been the greatest gift, driving him to appointments and serving him faithfully. “In these situations, you realize how precious and important your spouse is,” he says. “I love my wife now more than ever.”
For those experiencing extended health issues, Mark encourages pressing into God’s Word and fighting the urge to isolate. “Surround yourself with people who love you,” he says. For Mark, the love of God and others has made all the difference.
Joanna Chapa: Walking on water with Jesus
In December 2020 Joanna Chapa contracted COVID-19. When severe fatigue, brain fog, mood changes and joint and muscle pain didn’t subside after her illness, doctors diagnosed her with long COVID. Over the next year, however, doctors discovered that COVID had activated Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition.
Prior to her illness and diagnosis, Joanna had been living in Peru, serving since 2016 with Multiply alongside the Peruvian MB Conference.
“Life had come with many difficulties and challenges,” Joanna says, “but the deep relationships of discipleship God had invited me into were so fulfilling. I felt that life in Peru was moving into the next gear, and I was very much looking forward to it.”
Because of her illness, Joanna made the difficult decision to leave Peru and move back to the U.S. “This was the hardest decision of my life,” she says. “It came with so much to grieve and to release. I’ve had to learn how to take care of myself in this new reality and be aware of those things that trigger the onset of the autoimmune symptoms.”
Joanna now lives in Grulla, Texas, where she attends Grace Point Church. She says her illness has strengthened her faith as she’s encountered God’s persistent love and grace.
“These past three years have felt like I’ve been walking on water with Jesus,” she says. “Learning new depths to what it means to have him be my shelter and refuge in times of trouble. When I’ve chosen to keep my eyes locked on Jesus, amid a dark night, strong winds and high waves, He’s shown me it’s not the absence of the storm that brings the ability to remain strong and steadfast. Rather, it’s his presence with me that enables me to walk on the water of this world filled with suffering and trouble.”
Remembering God’s faithfulness has been key for Joanna as she faces discouragement and doubts about her health.
“God calls his people to remember what he’s done,” she says. “To remember how his presence has carried us through in the past and will carry us through now and in the future.”
Joanna says the book This Too Shall Last by K.J. Ramsey offered her powerful insights into her suffering. She notes, “Ramsey shows us that Jesus understands us and calls His church to treat suffering like ‘a story to tell rather than a secret to keep until it passes.’”
Although Joanna has completely changed her life, she sees how her suffering has deepened her faith. “He has led me to new depths of trust and transformation,” she says. “When I remember he has overcome the world, realities like autoimmune disorders no longer rule my life. Instead, I’ve discovered new spaces of deeper trust in the One who has overcome it all!”
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is the co-author of Grit and Grace: Devotions for Warrior Moms and is the co-author with CeCe Winans of Believe For It: Passing On Faith to the Next Generation. She and her husband, Kevin, have four children and attend Bridge Bible Church in Bakersfield, California.