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Mister Rogers Visiting a Young Fan in the Hospital

What Mister Rogers Did For This Young Fan in a Coma Will Make You Ache That He's Not Here Anymore

The following story by Beth Usher was originally published on her Facebook page.

When I was five years old, I suffered up to one hundred seizures a day. During my seizures, I would often fall and bang my head on the floor or whatever hard object presented in my descent, and the only way for my mom to shower and dress for work without worrying was to prop me up with soft pillows and place me in front of the TV. One time she turned on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and I didn't have a single seizure for the entire duration of the show. Something in his voice calmed the electrical circuits in my injured brain and allowed my body to rest.

Mister Rogers, my friend, called to ask me about my brain surgery.

My mother and I performed this ritual every work day for two years with great success. I quickly began to consider Mister Rogers a real friend, and would talk back to the TV screen, saying things like, "Yes, I will be your good neighbor!" So it came as no surprise that my sweet mother called Mister Rogers' TV studio in Pittsburgh in preparation for my upcoming brain surgery. My neurologists had determined that I had somehow contracted a very rare brain disease called Rasmussen's Encephalitis. They theorized that a slow growing virus was killing brain cells in the left side of my brain, causing life-altering epileptic seizures. The only cure was an operation called a hemispherectomy, or the removal of one half of my brain. My mother told Mister Rogers' assistant that the show was a sanctuary for me and that I believed Mister Rogers was speaking directly to me when he sang his song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor." She explained about my seizures and upcoming surgery and the fact that that the seizures would subside during his entire show. My mother hoped that Mister Rogers' assistant would send an autographed photo of my TV friend, or even a note from him assuring me that I was going to be OK.

One week before my surgery, the telephone rang. My mother spoke for a few minutes and told me that a friend wanted to talk to me. I remember feeling excited that someone calling themselves a friend was calling me (friendships were difficult for me at the time). I said hello, heard a familiar voice, and immediately felt at ease. Mister Rogers, my friend, asked me about my brain surgery. I told him that I was scared but wanted the seizures to go away; I told him that I wanted the kids in my class to like me and play with me; I asked him about the members of his neighborhood who I had come to love — King Friday, Lady Elaine Fairchild, and Daniel Striped Tiger. We talked for nearly an hour. Before I hung up the phone, I said, "I love you, Mister Rogers."

During our seven-hour drive to Johns Hopkins Childrens' Hospital in Baltimore, my mom and I listened to the many cassette audio tapes sent to me by Mister Rogers a few days after his call. His soft voice discussed so many topics that concerned young children. My favorite cassette was the one where he sang, "I like you just the way you are." While in the hospital, I endured back-to-back medical tests to determine if my body could survive the 12-hour surgery to remove my entire left hemisphere. I was confused and scared, but believed my doctors and parents wouldn't do anything to hurt me. In between the tests, I was able to spend time with my beloved brother. We played games and watched movies. I didn't realize it at the time, but my older brother was worried he might never see me again. He was only ten years old.

The very last thing I said to my parents as I was wheeled into the operating room was, "No more seizures."

My surgery went well, and my doctor told my parents they could see me in the recovery room. I lay swollen with tubes and wires in and all around my head and body. My parents had faith in my surgeon and neurologist, but later that night, for reasons that have never been explained, I fell into a deep coma.

Mister Rogers gently placed his clarinet case on my bed, opened it, and took out King Friday, Lady Elaine Fairchild, and Daniel Striped Tiger. For the following hour, I was the star in his neighborhood.

With the sounds of life-support machines beeping, IV fluids being pumped into my body, nurses and doctors running in and out of my room, and my parents softly sobbing, you could hear Mister Rogers singing "I like you just the way you are" from a cassette player in my ICU room. My mother was called from the room to the nurse's station where she was handed the phone. It was the Mister Rogers, and he wanted to know how I was doing. My mom gave him the bleak news that although the surgery went well, I suffered severe brain stem swelling and was in a coma. They talked a little more and he told her that he would pray for me. What we didn't know was that Mister Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian Minister.

For the following two weeks, Mister Rogers called every day to ask about my status and to pray with my mother. One morning he called and asked her if it would be OK if he visited me the next afternoon. My mother told him that sadly I was still in a coma and wouldn't know he was there. He said he would come anyway. He asked that she not tell anyone he was coming because he wanted it to be a private visit and didn't want the press to be there.

The next afternoon, Mister Rogers flew from Pittsburgh to Baltimore with only a clarinet case in tow. A minister friend from Baltimore picked him up from the airport and drove him directly to the hospital. My parents, brother, grandparents, and many other family members took turns keeping vigil by my bedside, each trying in their own way to wake me from my coma. They immediately recognized the tall man with the kind face as he stepped inside my room. Mister Rogers gently placed his clarinet case on my bed, opened it, and took out King Friday, Lady Elaine Fairchild, and my favorite, Daniel Striped Tiger. For the following hour, I was the star in his neighborhood.

I'd love to end this story by telling you it was in that moment that I emerged from my coma, but that wasn't the case. After his visit with me and several more minutes with my family, Mister Rogers' minister friend drove him back to the airport and he flew back to his hometown in Pennsylvania, taking along an empty clarinet case. What I can tell you, though, is that when I did wake up, Mister Rogers became my real friend and not just a TV friend. We remained close and shared many conversations, birthday wishes, and milestones for the following twenty years until his death on February 27, 2003.

Image Source: Beth Usher
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