The hands Merlyna Valentine uses to express herself or flip notes aren’t real.
Neither are the legs she uses to pace back and forth while giving her testimony.
Valentine, of LaPlace, is a quadruple amputee, having lost her hands and her legs below her knees to an infection 11 years ago.
Yet, Valentine can hardly talk about the life-changing event without mentioning her faith.
“I can’t tell my story without bringing God into it,” Valentine told an attentive crowd Sunday at House of Grace Ministries in Baton Rouge.
Valentine, 50, loves to share with others how she made it through the struggle because she believed in the power of God.
“I’m a miracle,” she said. “I meet wonderful people every day. I’m sharing my testimony. People are receiving my message.”
Her message is a testament to her faith and years of hard work.
“My comfort and healing happened because I trusted in God’s plan for my life,” said Valentine, who received a bachelor of science degree in elementary education from Loyola University, a master's of education from the University of New Orleans and spent 30 years as an educator. “Although we cannot see God physically, we see God all the time. We do know he’s here. He’s always moving and speaking in my life.”
Valentine felt God speaking from the beginning of her health ordeal.
She was days from starting another year as an elementary school principal in August 2007 when she felt some discomfort in her side.
A doctor visit indicated a kidney stone and then the flu which kept her from making it to the first day of school.
She got sicker, trying a second hospital. A third hospital airlifted her to a fourth hospital, where she was put into a medically induced coma and given a 10 percent chance of surviving her first night there.
“I was told that if — you heard me say if — I survived, my life as I know it would be over and I would struggle the rest of my life because I had become septic," she said.
Septic is when a wound or a part of the body becomes infected by bacteria. Valentine’s sickness was a result of blockage in her kidney from her kidney stone.
Valentine made it through those first few weeks on a ventilator.
Then, the doctor tried to explain she would be facing four amputations.
Valentine took the news with a laugh, prompting the doctor to recommend a specialist — on her mental state.
“The smile on my face got bigger. I said, ‘I don’t need your therapist, your psychologist, I’m talking to someone, and I’ve been talking to him through this ordeal. And his name is God,’” she assured the doctor.
“God had told me it’s going to be OK,” she said. “I’m going to make it through this storm. I’m going to be able to share this testimony with others because he saved me and he’s surely not done with me yet.”
Also, during that time, Valentine said God also spoke through Scripture, mostly sent by family and friends.
“I found comfort in the word of God,” she said. “I’ve been struggling all my life with trying to figure out what God is trying to tell me. Well, now he made it a point for me to be still, be patient and learn what he’s trying to instill in me.”
She spent three months in the hospital.
“(God) was able to humble me in a way I needed to be humbled,” she said. “Sometimes that’s what it takes: a life-changing event. That’s what I had ... I realized at that moment that all of my life I had been trying to fight battles on my own and thinking I was in control. And God said, ‘I’m here and I’m going to help you through this,'" she said.
Valentine was determined to get her life back and get back to the 650 students at her school.
Two years, six surgeries and countless hours of hard work and therapy later, Valentine danced her way back to school on the strength of her prosthetic legs.
She learned to count every blessing on the way back from her seemingly tragic situation.
“I was supposed to be at home and not at a job,” she said. “I was supposed to be doing nothing, and my life was supposed to be over, but God said, 'No, it’s not.’”
Valentine said she never questioned God.
“I refused to say, 'Why me?' As a matter of fact, I said, 'Why not me?' You know God picked on me and because of that, I feel blessed.”
Another constant for Valentine — a divorcee and single mother — during that time was boyfriend and Baton Rouge native Tory Valentine. He was there before her illness, stayed and became her caregiver — and makeup artist and hairstylist. The couple, who met on Valentine's Day 2006, were married in 2011.
“My new normal is the joy that I have now in having him as my husband,” she said. “Who I am today is because of him, because before that I worried about whether my eye shadow matched my earrings.”
Valentine encouraged the audience at House of Grace Ministries to make every day count.
“Make a common effort in your life to look at things and say that’s a blessing,” she said.
Remember those blessings even through adversity, Valentine stressed.
“I bet all of you can look at your lives right now and see how many blessings you have and how blessed you’ve been,” she said. “You can walk away today and meet someone and introduce yourself as a miracle. I’m not the only one who has experienced the grace of God.”
Valentine said God is still in the miracle business. She cited several examples, including Southern University football player Devon Gales who suffered a serious spinal cord injury during a game last September against Georgia.
“He’s taking steps ... he’s lifting his legs a few inches,” Valentine said. "Don’t tell me that family doesn’t believe in miracles. When you’re doubting about miracles and what God can do, think about all the people who are experiencing miracles every single day.”
Perhaps one of best stories Valentine shared was the time she attended a nonreligious women’s conference. A skeptical attendee privately questioned her about her faith and the presence of God during her trials.
She prayerfully answered.
“God was with me when I went home from the first hospital and I didn’t die that night,” she said. “The second hospital I was sent home and I didn’t die that night. He was with me when I went to the third hospital and the doctors sent me to the (fourth hospital) that saved my life. … He was with me when they said I had a 10 percent chance of living and he turned it around. … Where was my God? He’s right here and he’s all over me.”
Faith Matters runs every other Saturday in The Advocate. Reach him at (225) 388-0328 or firstname.lastname@example.org