Watching movies on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) on occasional evenings has become part of our recreational time together while sheltering in place. With so many of our pre-COVID 19 schedules and activities disrupted, watching classic films has provided wonderfully uplifting reminders of eras far removed from today’s sometimes chaotic world. Well, not always. . .
The movie “Sister Kenny” was one evening’s offering. It’s a biography depicting the pioneering efforts of Sister Elizabeth Kenny who for over forty years devoted her life to an alternative treatment for the paralysis that affected so many victims of polio. I actually was unaware until I watched the movie that this devastating illness had been around for decades prior to discovery of the Salk vaccine made available in the mid-1950s.
The story is an engaging portrayal of this phenomenal nurse who was not only a pioneer in what would later be termed physical therapy, but also, a brave example of the courage needed by a woman in her position during those years of male dominance in the field of medicine. Sister Kenny (called “Sister” as that term is used in Australia for a nurse in the bush country rather than reference to a religious title) met impenetrable resistance to her alternative approach to treating polio through muscle retraining. Rather than follow conventional treatment of polio by applying plaster casts, she developed a muscular manipulation technique which successfully provided these patients full recovery and no paralysis. Her success spanned 40 years and yet was completely rejected by most orthopedic physicians in the medical community. Despite the lack of acceptance and multiple setbacks as her clinics were closed, she never gave up.
Her life is a model to us of perseverance and sacrifice. As a young nurse entering the profession, she chose to practice in the hinterlands of Australia, the bush country, rather than in a city hospital. Her vision was to care for the under-served population there, those who would otherwise not have access to proper medical treatment. She did not accept defeat in the sometimes disappointing effects of her earliest treatment attempts, but rather, was challenged to try harder and to think more creatively. She did not accept defeat when others rejected her ideas, but rather, started her own clinics to provide her method of treatment to patients no longer being treated by physicians. Even with those no longer in the acute phase of the disease, but chronically crippled, in many cases she was able to make them walk again.
She gave up her personal life for the good of healing thousands of children over many years, even though she was engaged to be married and wanted children of her own. She did not compromise her values, nor her integrity, despite rejection, and eventually after decades of doors shut on her efforts, she had the courage to enter a room of doctors being trained in plaster casts to try to show them the truth of her method of treatment. Nevertheless, despite her best efforts, refusing to accept her methodology as provable, the majority of the attendees and the authoritative literature at the time did not accept the Kenny Method. Despite the truth that it worked, it remained a minority viewpoint.
We, as Messianic Jews especially, can relate to this journey, one requiring vision, sacrifice, patience, perseverance, resilience, dedication, courage, and yet, respect for those who reject our beliefs in spite of it all. In the poignant scene in which Sister Kenny confronts the group of doctors at the plaster cast training session, after years of frustrating efforts to get them to see the truth of her message, she still expresses her respect for physicians and their systems. She understood their reasons for having boundaries and rules. Nevertheless, her frustration was immeasurable in the medical community’s inability to see truth when that knowledge ran counter to established practice and expectations.
How many saw Yeshua’s miracles and still didn’t believe He was who He said He was? His coming did not fit the mainstream expectations as was then interpreted by the writings, just as Sister Kenny’s method went against conventional medical wisdom at the time. How much more difficult is it to believe a view counter to one’s own when no evidence can be seen, when there are no obvious miracles? So it is with us as we dialogue with the wider Jewish community. Some are getting it. Others not. It is a trying time for those of us in these conversations, but they are conversations that must continue, even with those who steadfastly guard the boundaries.
In Sister Kenny’s story, eventually her techniques were implemented by some orthopedic doctors. Just as several physician groups began to train doctors in her method, so too, more people are coming to recognize Yeshua as the promised Messiah. It is for us, the fighters for this truth, to “keep the faith”, to not lose hope that someday all will know Him. Sister Kenny’s story is an inspirational reminder of the importance of speaking truth to power, staying the course, not giving up, especially for a cause as transformative and healing as knowing the love of Messiah.
Be bold. Be brave. Be encouraged.