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My Right Foot



An acclaimed novelist, friend of Andrew Weil's "since the days when he couldn't afford to fix his washing machine,” and former co-executive producer of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, recounts an odyssey worthy of Achilles to fix her own right heel maybe even her soul. Did she get well because she heard the right message or found the right drug or the right healer? Or was it time itself?

The heel pain came on suddenly — a stabbing sensation in the bottom of my right foot. I kept walking on it, thinking the pain would go away in a few days, but it didn’t. Instead, the heel pain seemed to trigger a slide into a black hole of health problems, none of which was life-threatening but which ruined the quality of my days.

When the heel pain had started, I went to the internist. He took X rays, said I did not have a bone spur, and referred me to a podiatrist who said I had plantar fasciitis — an inflammation of the connective tissue in the heel. He gave me a cortisone shot in the side of the foot but when the heel pain grew worse, he said there was nothing further he could do. As weeks passed, I grew frustrated and alarmed. You don’t appreciate your feet — and all the activities that require them, such as hiking, cycling, running, dancing — until you lose use of them.

I went to see a second podiatrist, Dan Altchuler, who said the first had been wrong. I had bursitis — an inflammation of the bursa in the bottom of the heel. He said the cortisone I’d received in the side of the foot was “useless” and gave me a second shot directly into the spot where it hurt. Sure enough, this felt different: it was excruciating! I screamed and did Lamaze panting and was numb afterward, but, as if by miracle, the heel pain disappeared.

The skies cleared, the sun shone, but my joy was short - lived. Within days, I suffered an attack of phlebitis, a condition I’ve had intermittently for fourteen years. When a clot forms I have to lie in bed and inject myself with a blood thinner, heparin, until the clot dissolves.

A few weeks after the phlebitis subsided, the heel pain returned, so Dr. Altchuler gave me a second cortisone shot. Once again, a miracle, the heel pain vanished, but two days later I had the most violent attack of phlebitis in my life. Had the cortisone triggered the phlebitis? “It shouldn’t,” Dr. Altchuler said. But the pattern couldn’t be ignored: the two ailments were playing tag in my right leg, conspiring to keep me off my feet.

I’d consulted blood specialists and vein surgeons as well as the two podiatrists and they couldn’t agree on what was causing the problem or how to cure it. So I considered the possibility — which was difficult for a seeker who’s also a rational materialist — that some emotional or spiritual issue might be at the root of this.

I called my spiritual teacher, Nina Zimbelman, a wise, loving, no-nonsense woman in her fifties who currently lives in Robbinsville, North Carolina, in the heart of Appalachia. Nina said she felt I had pain in my foot because “there’s a step you need to take in your life. A step you’re resisting. You’re in a crisis that’s not strictly physical. You’re being prevented from walking in the old way. There’s some message you’re blocking, some change you need to make. The next step.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’m ready. What’s the step?”

Nina laughed. “I don’t know what it is and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. These things have to be known from inside.”

That’s helpful, I thought in dismay. But I meditated and pondered, “What’s the step?” No message came. I’d written a book, Cowboy, that was about to be published, but I had no idea what my next writing project or the next part of my life would be about.

“Maybe you need to step away from Sara Davidson as you know her,” Nina said

How on earth do you do that?

A few weeks later I was in Arizona visiting Dr. Andrew Weil, a friend from long before he became America’s most famous and trusted advocate of natural healing. Andy believes one of his strongest gifts is the ability to match individuals with the right practitioner. On the morning I was to leave, he said, “It’s come to me. You should see Rosalyn Bruyere. She’s an energy healer.” Andy had brought Rosalyn Bruyere to the University of Arizona’s Institute of Integrative Medicine to teach his students how to read energy, and while there, she’d cured Andy of a sinus infection that had plagued him for months.

Not knowing who she was or what she did, I drove to her home in Sierra Madre, where she’d founded the Healing Light Center Church. Rosalyn appeared wearing loose black pants, a flowing shirt, and dangling earrings with silver stars. Her face was warm and projected imperturbable assurance. She asked me to lie on a table covered with a leopard-print cloth, under a ceiling painted bright blue. Without guidance from me, she placed her hands directly on the spot where my heel hurt most.

“You have a bone spur,” she said.

“The X rays don’t show that.”

She smiled. “Do you know that X rays can lie?”

No, I didn’t. Then she moved her hands to the place on my calf where I’d had the most violent phlebitis attack. “You have an energy block here.” She frowned. “Oh, my. Your circulation is blocked from the pelvis down to the foot. Your body is fighting inflammation.

It starts in the heel, goes up the right leg, and crosses over to the left lung.”

My skin prickled. The week before, I’d been treated for pneumonia in one lung but I didn’t know which one.

“How do you know it’s in the left lung?” I asked.

“I see it.”

As soon as the session was over, I called my internist from the car and asked, “Which lung was the pneumonia in?”

“The left,” he said. I was awed — Rosalyn could see into the body —but then my mind began to search for an explanation and I thought: she had a fifty-fifty chance of guessing correctly.

While I lay on her table, Rosalyn placed her hand on my stomach, which shook. “Is that my stomach or you?” I asked. She held up her hand: the center of her palm was beating, I could actually see the skin pulsing outward. Whatever was pulsing through her, my leg seemed to crave it, to drink it in like a thirsty animal laps up water.

When I left her compound, 1 felt so elated I could barely sit still in the car. It was as if I were driving through an illuminated world: every tree, every building seemed a majestic work of art, even the cars jammed on the freeway moved in graceful, colored swirls. Over the next two months, I returned to see Rosalyn for treatments once a week. She said the heel pain might take four months to heal. Four more months! But the phlebitis improved dramatically. I stopped taking blood thinners — against my Western doctor’s orders — and in the year that’s elapsed since then, I’ve had no phlebitis.

The heel pain stuck, however, and new ailments erupted. Two small spots on my skin proved to be cancerous and had to be surgically removed, and I had irregular bleeding which suggested cervical problems. So I called Nina again. “It sounds like you need to come to Robbinsville,” she said. This was not a simple trip: it required a full day, taking several flights and driving three hours through the mountains. But since my visits to Nina had always triggered insight, I booked the flights.

I had met Nina in 1992 through my sister, Terry, a therapist in Hawaii. I was reeling from a divorce and Terry said, “You should see this woman, Nina Zimbelman.” I called Nina in New Orleans, where she and her former husband had run a motorcycle store. At the end of our talk, Nina said, “I’m going to open a gland in the back of your neck and life will start to expand for you.” I didn’t know what gland she was referring to but within days, doors opened and opportunities came flooding in.

Nina’s teaching was simple: “To live from wholeness, accept what is.” But the words don’t convey the experience of being with her. A year after our first call, I flew to Portland, Oregon, where Nina was teaching. We sat in her living room and she lit candles. She said she’d learned to tune in to higher frequencies and states of consciousness the way one tunes different stations on a radio.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said.

She smiled, catlike and playful. “Maybe you need to have the experience.”

She looked into my eyes, asked me to take a few breaths, and inseconds, I was blasted into a state Id experienced years before and nearly forgotten. I was at peace, profoundly at ease, suffused with a sense of the all-rightness of life and that there was nothing to worry about under the sun.

“This is where I want to live,” I said. “Will I be able to get here myself?”

“You have the capacity,” she said. “But will you choose it?

A dismantling of the ego has to take place.”

She began to work with me on the telephone regularly from Portland, and when she moved to Egypt, I spent time with her near the pyramids of Giza. When I was with her, I would ask myself, who is Nina Zimbelman? She was a short, plucky woman with dark hair and intense black eyes, but she had many facets and I kept seeing her in different guises. At times she seemed like a sixteen-year-old girl, at times she was a powerful, sagacious queen, and at moments I would look at her and shed dissolve into a field of apricot light.

She radiates kindness but also has a laser like ability to pierce your defenses and excuses. She’s tough but not cruel, and often asks you to do what seems most difficult and what you most resist. She says she hears clear messages from “spirit.” In 1995, she was told by spirit to close her foundation in Portland, stop teaching, and move to Egypt for a two-year project. Before two years had elapsed, she was told to leave Egypt and put down roots in Robbinsville, in one of the poorest counties in America, where her ex-husband had purchased undeveloped land. Without knowing why, “following spirit,” she began to have housing sites bulldozed out of the wilderness. By the time I arrived, in 1999, others had joined her and a community was rising. She’d also formed an alliance with Dr. Patricia Johnson, M.D., head of the largest medical clinic in the county, and they’d been collaborating on cases.

I was hoping Nina would place her hands on my right foot and I would walk free of pain. But after dinner, she said, “I’m not being guided to work on your foot. There has to be a deeper healing.”

Why did I come all this way? I thought. The next morning, frustrated, I drove with Nina to Lake Santeetla, where Patricia Johnson shares a house with her partner at the clinic, Dr. Katie Lynch. We were meeting, Nina said, to bring both Western medicine and metaphysical knowledge to bear on my situation. We discussed my medical history as well as my emotions and fears. I spoke about how I’d always been a seeker, restless and eager to cut new paths if they might lead to greater wisdom, and I was also a skeptic, keeping a sharp eye out for snakes. For twenty years, I had waded into many streams — meditation, yoga, tai chi Chuan, Jewish mysticism — and while I’d found much of value, I’d never immersed myself completely. I told the three women that I felt some greater commitment was being asked of me — a willingness to walk through fire — and I was frightened. I had two teenage children, a boyfriend, and work I was not prepared to leave. Later in the week, Nina would call our meeting “pivotal.” She said, “I saw you take responsibility for your crisis and I knew healing was possible.”

Patricia Johnson gave me medications to try, including Relafen, which helped to control the inflammation. For the rest of the week, I explored the local rivers by kayak — one of the few sports that does not require using your feet. I accompanied Nina as she counseled people and gave classes in developing intuitive wisdom. On my final day, as I limped to my rental car, I winced with pain. Nina hugged me. “You’re going to heal yourself. Pain is a reminder, a great teacher. I didn’t have the impulse to take it away.”

To say I was disappointed is an understatement — I was leaving as crippled as when I’d arrived — but I felt a quiet alertness as I started the drive to the Atlanta airport. Clouds were hanging low over the lush green hills like mysterious puffs of smoke that floated in the air. For the long ride, I’d brought tapes of a recorded book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I dimly remembered from high school. Listening to the story as I drove, what surprised me — what I didn’t remember at all — is that it’s a deeply spiritual book. Uncle Tom is a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself to spare the other slaves from suffering. I’d come to the part about the sickness of little Eva, the blond child who’s born with instinctual goodness into the family that owns Uncle Tom.

I consulted my directions. I had many turns to make onto poorly marked roads so I was reading every sign, anxious not to miss a turnoff. I passed the Hillbilly Mall and a barn on which was painted, “Jesus Is Lord.” Other signs said “Jesus Saves” and “Gospel singing— Saturday at nine.” On the tape, little Eva was dying. She called all the slaves into her room and told them she understood that most of them felt that no one loved them. Little Eva’s own mother had abused the slaves terribly, but Eva told them, “I love you all. And Jesus loves you.”

I turned onto Spur 60. Little Eva said she would soon be going to heaven but she promised the slaves that if they were good Christians, she would see them in heaven and they would all be “angels forever.” I was rapt by the story and nearly missed the exit for Route 515. Little Eva cut off strands of her blond hair and gave one to each slave so they would remember that she loved them. The slaves moaned and grieved to be losing such a friend and Eva’s father wept in anguish. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I had to wipe my eyes to see.

As I turned onto the interstate, the cassette ended. Up ahead, I caught sight of a billboard that said, in large letters, “You Work for Jesus.” That’s fitting, I thought. This is Appalachia. They put up billboards about Jesus. I fumbled for the next tape, slipped it into the cassette deck and looked back at the road. As I drove closer to the billboard, I saw it was an ad for a local bank that said, in large letters: “Your Bank Has Loans.”

I was stunned. I’d been wearing my glasses, my eyes were now dry and I had seen the words distinctly, “You Work for Jesus.” How could I make “Your Bank Has Loans” into “You Work for Jesus?”

This is a message, surely, but what exactly is it? I’m a Jew, how could I work for Jesus? Then I thought: you work for God. And I felt, at that moment, a conviction I’d never articulated to myself: I want to lead a consecrated life. I want to move toward light, toward wholeness, toward oneness, and any work I do, any decision I make, will be viewed and filtered through that prism: You Work for God.

The following morning, I woke up in my own bed in California, walked down the hall and noticed there was no pain in my heel. Could it have vanished overnight? At first I didn’t trust it and walked about gingerly, but as the days and weeks passed, I reveled in gratitude. The irregular bleeding stopped, the phlebitis was gone, the plague was over and I was healthy!

You Work for God.

“What caused the recovery?” I asked Andy Weil. Was it the message on the billboard, the cortisone pills, the energy healing, or simply time? “We can never really tease those things apart,” he said. I agreed; it was not important to isolate the element that had worked and suggest that other people try this pill or see that teacher. If I’d learned anything from my ten-month journey, it was that healing, like sickness, is unique for every person. Resources for healing are everywhere and what’s important is to take the initiative and follow your instincts until a climate is created where healing can occur. I’d learned, also, that there’s a distinction between curing and healing. A cure restores you to the condition you previously enjoyed. Healing brings you closer to the light.

Sara Davidson’s novels include the best-selling Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties and Cowboy: A Love Story. She created the ABC-TV series “Jack and Mike” and was co-executive producer of CBS’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” Her journalism has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Magazine.

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