Tony Coelho: "Epilepsy Gave Me a Mission." (Role Models)

Article excerpt

I was a happy kid, living and working on the family farm in California, good in school, fair at sports and popular with girls. I wanted to be a trial lawyer and later, a priest. I had no idea that my life would not go as planned.

Everything changed when the pickup truck I was riding in flipped over. I got a nasty bump on the head, but you recover fast when you're 15.

I was milking cows when I had my first convulsion - a grand mal seizure. My parents, children of religious Portuguese immigrants, sent me to faith healers, seeking a supernatural explanation for what they couldn't understand. But the convulsions continued.

After high school, I entered Loyola University in Los Angeles, where I was president of the student body. hi my senior year, I applied to a Jesuit seminary. They were overjoyed to accept me, an intelligent young leader deeply committed to serving God.

But, the cross I was destined to carry was the stigma of disability, not the crucifix of a priest.

During a routine physical for the seminary, I learned I had epilepsy. Like many with unexplained physical or mental problems, I felt freed. Now that it was understood that my repeated seizures resulted from a brain injury and could be treated, I thought everything would return to normal.

I realized my naivete when I broke the news to my father

"No son of mine has epilepsy!" he shouted

"This one does!' I shouted back.

I then discovered that my parents had known about my epilepsy years earlier, but wouldn't accept it. Centuries-old prejudice held a firm grip on their minds. In medieval times, people who had "fits" were considered possessed by the devil, and for some people, this belief persists.

Relief, but persecution

The diagnosis which had given me such relief was the beginning of the personal and institutional persecution so familiar to people with disabilities.

I was expelled from the seminary. Sorry, they said, but epileptics are not eligible for the priesthood.

When the doctor reported my epilepsy to state authorities, my driver's license was revoked. Soon after, my health insurance was canceled.

Because I wouldn't lie on employment applications, I couldn't get a job. All the offers I'd had since graduation disappeared. Not even the army would take me, though they were drafting others my age for Vietnam.

Nothing about me had changed since taking that physical, but suddenly, I was an "epileptic," an outcast.

Booze helped me through the idle days and lonesome nights. I was out of work, out of luck and out of hope, scared to face the future in a world where no one wanted me.

Hope from Hope

I had seriously considered suicide until a Jesuit priest provided me with an opportunity to live with the Bob Hope family. Mr. Hope befriended me. "If you find your way blocked," he told me, "find another route to get where you want to be."

He suggested I find a ministry outside the church, perhaps in Congress. So, I began my career in politics.

Role Models

What I once considered a curse forced me to face life, shaped me and strengthened me. …

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