Evy McDonald: The Power of Love

Early in 1980, Evy McDonald felt her body begin to crumble. The middle-aged nurse lost the ability to control her movements, and soon enough she couldn’t walk at all. Her doctor diagnosed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

It was a death sentence. The doctor predicted she would not survive the year. Her muscles wasted away. She felt, she said, “like a bowl of Jello in a wheelchair.”[1]

She hated her body for all the ways it had let her down. For a few months she stewed, depressed and angry. But after enough time had passed, she couldn’t help but remember what she often taught others about the connection between the mind and the body—and she got curious. What could she do to make the most of her last few months?

She decided she needed to change her relationship to her body. All her life, ever since a childhood bout with polio left her disfigured, she had hated her body. This couldn’t be good, she realized. If her mind and her body were connected, what chance could her body have if her mind hated it?

So McDonald got to work. “As I sat in my wheelchair, six months from death, a single, passionate desire pressed to the front of my mind. In my last months of life I wanted to experience unconditional love. I wanted to know that sweetness.”[2] She decided she needed to love herself, unconditionally, and she needed to start by learning to love her body. Her first step was to notice and write down all of the negative thoughts she had about her body each day, and all the positive ones. When she added up the numbers, her self-hatred was obvious. So she determined that every day she would sit in front of the mirror and identify one part of her body that was acceptable to her—no matter how small or apparently insignificant. She countered every negative thought with a positive one. With that, she began rewriting her life’s script. She sat in front of the mirror every day and spoke words of love and affection to her reflection. At first, she had to fake it, because no love would come. But soon enough the self-acceptance became real. “Eventually,” she wrote later, “I found myself completely content with me and my physical body. And as my experience of love for myself deepened, I was finally able to love others as well as accept their love for me.”[3]

And then something miraculous started to unfold. McDonald began to get her body back. Slowly, she recovered. Completely.

Much later, in 1994, McDonald and her colleagues published a study exploring how mental outlook affects ALS outcomes. The research team found that even when controlling for variables such as length of illness, age, and severity of symptoms, people with ALS who demonstrated psychological well-being had a longer survival time than those in psychological distress.[4] This was quite a monumental finding. What it meant was that McDonald was on to something fourteen years earlier when, faced with death, she decided to figure out how to love herself.

I first heard McDonald’s story as a participant in the HOPE (Healing of Persons Exceptional) support groups back in 1989 when I was very ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. (To learn more about HOPE, click here: Healing of Persons Exceptional.) HOPE founder Ken Hamilton, MD, told our little group the story, and I, for one, never forgot it. Lately, I have been finding myself telling this story to some of my clients.

It’s been 31 years since Evy McDonald was first diagnosed with ALS. I emailed Ken for help filling out the details of a story that had hidden away in a nook of my brain for 22 years, and found out that Evy McDonald is still alive and kicking, the pastor of a church in the state of New York. In her picture, she looks full of life.

[1] Evy McDonald, R.N., M.S., M.Div., “Another Perspective of ALS,” Holistic Medicine, March/April 1988. http://www.ahha.org/articles.asp?Id=55.

[2] Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., Peace, Love and Healing, Harper & Row, New York, 1989, p. 31-32.

[3] Evelyn McDonald, R.N., M.S., M.Div., “Another Perspective of ALS,” Holistic Medicine, March/April 1988. http://www.ahha.org/articles.asp?Id=55

[4] Evelyn R. McDonald, M.S., Sue A. Wiedenfeld, Ph.D., et. al., “Survival in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: The Role of Psychological Factors,” Archives of Neurology,  Vol. 51, January 1994.