An Interview with Helo Matzelle
Author of Halo Found Hope
Helo Matzelle thought her relationship with God was as good as
it could get. As a busy stay-at-home mom and devoted wife,
she would have described her life as beautiful. Then, one Friday
afternoon in 2011, her life changed. In her new book, Halo Found
Hope: A Memoir, Matzelle shares how her life went from
planning ahead for the weekend to relearning basic skills after
being diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. What’s most
remarkable is not what she endured physically, but how she
Q: Halo Found Hope is a memoir written about an especially harrowing time in your life.
Can you share a bit about what led you to write this book?
I never thought I’d write a book. This one started out as a simple diary, on a yellow pad, hidden in a drawer. . . . Private notes written to God helped carry me through a difficult time. I’d scribble down my fears, doubts and frustrations and then lift them up in prayer. I often included verses from His word for encouragement. After a year of diary input, I shared my story with an acquaintance, now a dear friend, and he pointed out an eagle in the sky. To his surprise, I remarked, “Wow, that eagle is beautiful. . . . God made it!” He joyfully responded, “Helo, no one else has ever described that eagle the way you just did, and I point it out often.” Then I shared my harrowing journey and all that God pulled me through. My friend told me, “Sister, you have a story to share.” And from that day forward, God helped me turn my simple diary into a book.
Q: Prior to 2011, how would you describe your life?
My life was beautiful, good and busy. I was happily married to an amazing man. We were blessed with three incredible children. I loved being a wife, mom, daughter, sister and friend. I went to church, loved God as much as I thought I should and took nothing for granted. Or so I thought.
Q: What symptoms did you start experiencing, and did you think they were anything major? How did everything come to a crashing halt after a visit to the doctor?
Looking back, I might have paid more attention to the symptoms and worried more about them. But at the time, I thought no one would believe me even if I shared them. I heard voices in my head, as if a movie clip was playing in mind. I’d stop whatever I was doing and try to figure out which movie they were from. The voices quickly stopped, I’d sense a brief metallic taste in my mouth for a few seconds, and then it vanished. I felt like I might faint, but I never did. The majority of these symptoms took place while I was in a building that was painted often. I attributed my peculiar sensations to the intensity of the paint vapors. I told my dad (a retired physician) about the odd symptoms, and he attributed them to my type-A, busy-mom lifestyle. His reasoning made sense to me. In the weeks that followed, I experienced loud ringing in my ear that got so loud at night I couldn’t sleep. More than 50 million Americans suffer from this, and I thought, “It’s not a big deal.” However, I decided to see my Ear, Nose and Throat doctor with ringing in my ears as my chief complaint. A test revealed I had lost more than 50 percent of the hearing in my right ear, which was masked by the noise. My doctor ordered a MRI to rule out a benign tumor in my ear canal.
My Friday afternoon of planning a busy weekend ahead quickly turned into being told, “This has absolutely nothing to do with your ear. You have a golf ball-sized tumor lying over the main artery in your brain that needs surgical removal as soon as possible. You have an appointment scheduled with a neurosurgeon on Monday.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and fell into a state of complete shock.
Q: What were your first thoughts in the moments after receiving your diagnosis?
There is nothing like sitting in a room with three doctors talking about things you don’t understand. Thinking, blanketed by shock, doesn’t come easy. Although I was not sitting by myself, I’ve never felt more alone. I silently cried out, “God, please hold onto me, and don’t let go.” Moments after diagnosis, I was shocked, speechless and trembling and felt frozen. I wanted to fall to my knees and cry out, switching back and forth “God, tell me this isn’t happening! Father, I need You. Your will be done.” After crying out, I was no longer frozen, but melting in the hands of God. Hours before, everything was “just fine.” I was looking forward to the weekend and writing a to-do list. After
hearing terrifying news, my mind began to race: “Why me God? This doesn’t feel real. Tell me this is a mistake. What will happen to my family if I go to Heaven now? Who will love them and take care of them like I do? I am too young to die.” It is odd to think, “Will this be the last week I will be around? Or will I be OK?” Time felt like it was simultaneously freezing and vaporizing at the same time. And although that may not make any sense, none of this did to me. I wanted to rewind the clock and make this nightmare go away, but God is in control — we are not. God is our refuge and strength and ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1 NIV).
Q: In those first hours and days following your diagnosis, what kinds of prayers did you pray?
The prayer I remember the most was lifted up when my husband walked me to our room and asked me to pray. It was very simple. I whispered, “God, please make something beautiful out of this.” After that, my prayer life felt like it was on auto-pilot, as if I was walking around in non-stop conversations with God. When I watched my husband, Rich, I’d pray, “God, please take care of my best friend. Find him someone new to be his wife, if You want him to have another bride. Help him watch over our children. Never leave Him. Give him the comfort, strength, wisdom and peace he will need should you call me home. Tell him not to miss me too much while I’m gone, because I’m in Heaven, where I belong. Remind him how much You love him.” When I watched my children, I was absolutely heartbroken. One by one, I’d pray for them and often found myself alone in our room to pull myself back together. I wanted them to see the strong side of me —not frighten them with my weak side. Privately I cried out, “Dear God, I don’t want to leave my children. I want to watch
them graduate from college, get married and have children of their own. Most of all, I want to watch them grow in their love for You.” Sometimes my prayers consisted of cries of anguish, “Why this, God? I am scared, and I feel so alone. Please hold on to me and promise me You will never let me go.” I wasn’t afraid of where I would go. I knew Heaven was waiting for me. I just didn’t want to leave behind a family encircled in pain. Each day ended with a prayer like this one, “Father, we all need You. Please protect us and don’t let go. Keep reminding us how much You love each one of us.”
Q: What advice can you offer to parents on how to talk to their children about what is happening in situations such as your own?
I’d tell them: Ask God to hold on tight, and not let go of your family. Take time with your spouse to pray together and ask Him to take the reins on the conversation you are about to have with your children. Tell them you have something hard to share, but God is our refuge. He loves them, and no matter what happens, we’ll be all right. Share the news with the knowledge of assurances you have from the great physician and medical staff (as it applies to your situation). Ask if they have any questions, listen and close in prayer. This approach may vary with the ages of your children. Ours were 19, 14, and 12 at the time. My husband and I held onto optimism and faith — after all, my projected hospital stay was only six days followed by two weeks of recovery — and God was in control.
Q: Prior to surgery, your doctor expected you to go home about a week after the surgery, but it took eightweeks instead. What happened that caused the delay?
My projected hospital stay was only six days. In 29 years of practice, my neurosurgeon only had one other patient in stay the hospital for more than a week after brain surgery. Of diagnosed brain tumors, mine was one in two million with a particularly nasty trait. When the tumor is touched, it’s like touching poison ivy; when doctors went in to extract it, my brain swelled, and I became non-responsive. At first, my coma was drug-induced, and then I slipped into one on my own. Life-threatening complications persisted, yet miracles counteracted them.
Q: What was your recovery process like? What did you learn during those difficult days?
My recovery process was lengthy. After three weeks in the ICU, I spent five weeks in in-patient rehabilitation learning how to walk, talk, eat, think and function again. I was an exhausted, floppy, Raggedy Ann doll with contorted double vision and felt completely trapped inside my body. I slept more than 19 hours a day, and the goal of three hours of daily therapy was not simple to accomplish. Learning how to do so much over again was frustrating, but I learned the battle was not my own to fight. God stayed by my side the entire time and helped me turn frustration into determination.
After eight weeks of hospitalization, I was finally discharged to go home — but therapy didn’t stop there. I endured an additional 20 weeks of in-home therapy in an attempt to gain a new normal. My patience, endurance and strength were monumentally tested, but I held on to 1 Peter 5:10 (NIV), which says, “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”
Q: What were some ways that your friends and loved ones showed support to you and your family during this time?
For the eight weeks I was hospitalized, my husband and parents rotated shifts so someone stayed by my side every day. My children and extended family visited as often as they could. Loved ones, family and dear friends lifted us up in daily prayer, dropped off home-cooked meals, drove our boys to school and various activities, ran errands and did their best to fill in the gap when my husband and I were not around. When I returned home, my mother-in-law, a retired ICU nurse, flew across the country to take care of me. The support and affection of family and close friends did not waiver. It was humbling to ask for continual help, but I will always be grateful for it.
Q: How did you work through your feelings of doubt and fear?
I got real with God and held nothing back. He is one amazing listener. When I doubted Him, I let Him know. When I was terrified, I wasn’t afraid to let Him see my fear. Nothing can be hidden from God. That is beautiful and comforting. He has this tender way of understanding and never holds back His perfect affection. Sometimes I thought He did, but I learned quickly He does not let go. When I felt like He had abandoned me, it was because I wasn’t looking upward. Over and over again, I’d ask God, “Will I walk, talk, eat, think and function again? My strength is wearing thin. I’m afraid. Why did this happen to me? God, I am scared and sometimes I feel like you aren’t really there.” Time and time again, I reflected on Psalm 121:1 (NIV), “I lift my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and earth.” God reached down and asked “Helo, do you trust Me?” Over and over again, I said, “Yes.” and when doubt set in and I felt like quitting again, He repeated, “Helo, do you trust me? Remember, I promised you I’d never leave you.” Now that is one amazing love.
Q: How would you have described your relationship with God before your health scare? What about afterwards?
Before my health scare, I thought my relationship with God was as good as it gets. I convinced myself I spent enough time with Him, knew how much He loved me and thought I loved Him back enough. I was wrong about that. After my health scare, I fell in love with Him all over again, in ways I never imagined possible. Over time, I saw the more I fell in love with Him, the more I wanted to get to know Him. That cycle of falling in love and wanting to spend time with Him didn’t stop. His affection is contagious. At times, I felt I couldn’t get enough — and still do today. That’s beautiful. After the storm hit, I placed God as my first priority. Before it hit, I admit I didn’t consistently put Him there. I learned when we ask God for something in His name, He doesn’t always give us what we want but rather gives us what He wants — for our good.
Q: How has this experience changed your perspective on life? How has your faith grown?
I look at everything differently now. I take nothing for granted — well, I’m better at trying not to. Given a second chance at life here on earth, I’m humbled, have a new heart and new motive, and made my top priority loving Jesus. I live life not simply following God and calling myself a Christian, but live for Him. I’ve learned to trust God more. I’ve learned to be patient and wait upon Him. I’ve learned Jesus doesn’t say, “Just ask me, and I’ll give you exactly what you want.” God doesn’t work that way. And I am happy he doesn’t. His ways are perfect, and mine are not. He takes what He pulls us through to make us stronger and molds us. He knows how to show us what He alone is capable of. We simply need to pay attention. He’s a great teacher who is not done with me (or you) yet. God knows how to show His children what He alone is capable of. All accolades go to Him.
Q: In what other ways has God used your brain tumor for good?
He’s taken this journey and not only helped those with brain tumors, but those facing various afflictions, including cancer, Parkinson’s, depression, frustration and loneliness. Many tell me my journey inspires them and sets their day in perspective. I tell them this is all about what God can do — not me. I am bolder now in sharing God’s strength and affection for each and every one of us.
Q: Do you still experience any side effects from your tumor and surgery?
A large portion of the left side of my face is permanently numb due to nerve damage — as if I go to the dentist every day — but when I smile, no one can tell. I’ll be on anti-seizure medication for the rest of my life. I am challenged and tire easily. My “new normal” brain can only handle so much stimulation, so if I overdo it in one of three areas (cognitive, emotional or physical), I start to shut down and exhaustion sets in. But I’ve learned to pace myself and recharge my brain capacity with rest. Quiet time with God restores me emotionally; physical rest helps me to press on.
Q: What would you like readers to learn or realize from reading Halo Found Hope?
If I were sitting right across from a reader of Halo Found Hope right now, I’d lock eyes with him or her and say, “No matter who your are, what you are going through, God is right there. You don’t have to face anything alone. He can replace fear with courage, doubt with trust and discouragement with determination — if you let Him. My hope and prayer for you is that you will see — in Jesus, hope is always found. Reflect on His words in John 16:33 (NIV), ’I have told you these things, so that you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’”
Learn more about Helo Matzelle and Halo Found Hope at www.halofoundhope.com and on Facebook (Helo-Matzelle) or Twitter (HaloFoundHope).
Dog Ear Publishing
December 11, 2014
Book Trailer of `Halo Found Hope`