fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

Close this search box.

fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

Close this search box.
  1. Home
  2. /
  3. Stories
  4. /
  5. Imagine


Linda Koebner 

“Her vitals are fine,” the nurse told Besarta’s mother during a rare visit to the family’s basement apartment in the Bronx.

Besarta’s mind is also fine–sharp and clear. She asked me to use her real name in this story.

Her twenty-five-year-old face is beautiful and flawless, despite the howls of frustration, rage and pain she directs at her family, at fate and especially at Friedreich’s ataxia, the disease that controls her.

When I come for our weekly visit, Besarta’s blue-green eyes smile at me from where she sits in her wheelchair. Then her head suddenly wobbles sideways. Her face smashes against the chair’s headrest–first the right side, then the left.

I can only watch helplessly. Much worse than my impotence is the knowledge that modern medicine can do nothing to stop this disease. There is no cure–not even a way to slow its progress.

A rare hereditary illness, Friedreich’s ataxia usually begins in childhood. It attacks the central nervous system, thinning the spinal cord and peripheral nerves. Patients suffer from impaired balance and coordination, slurred speech and spinal curvature. They can also develop heart disease, diabetes and loss of vision and hearing. Their lives are usually short.

Since Besarta’s diagnosis, at age eleven, her mobility has steadily eroded. She has lost the use of her arms and legs; she can’t wiggle her toes, which are always icy cold. With each passing week her tongue seems to grow thicker, muffling her speech.

Like a sadistic jailer, her disease is pushing her further and further into the prison of her body, until one day she will be locked in, motionless and speechless–a dead weight, but not dead; aware, but unable to do anything but think.

She can still use her right hand to press an iPad touchscreen, but it takes moments of agonizing concentration to send the signals from brain to finger. To write this sentence would take her hours.

This is why I come to sit with her each week.

These past two years, while studying for a master’s degree in health advocacy, I interned at a children’s rehabilitation hospital. A member of the board asked whether, “as a mature person,” I’d be willing to help one of the hospital’s past residents write her story.

It sounded like a great opportunity, and so Besarta and I began weekly dictation sessions.

Because it took her hours to speak even a few sentences, we decided that she would talk into a recorder during the week, and that I would transcribe her words.

Now her story–her book–is 200 pages long. There’s much more to go. But will there be enough time?  

“We must finish my book by January, because I probably won’t be able to talk after that,” she told me not long ago.

Besarta’s urgency is understandable. She will never have children, a husband or a profession; she can leave only her experiences. Her story will be her legacy.

She wants to be a voice for other young people who face her fate. She wants their parents and the medical community that cares for them to understand a child’s point of view.

There may also be another reason. Besarta’s younger sister shows symptoms of Friedreich’s. Although Besarta never says so, I believe this story is for her sister.

Besarta was born in Kosovo. Her early childhood was spent on the family farm with her parents and many siblings.

“When she was a little girl, Besarta climbed trees so fast! High in the branches, she tossed baskets full of cherries down to me,” her mother once told me with pride.

Hearing this, Besarta tried to smile.

On my next visit, I brought a bag of cherries, but quickly realized my blunder.

Grabbing them from me, her mother yelled, “Not for Besarta! She might choke–only soft food now!”

In Kosovo the family led a simple rural life until gunfire, bombs and carnage began to tear their country apart. When Besarta was ten, they fled to the U.S.

Around that time, her symptoms started: she felt weak and unsteady and listed to one side when she walked.  

It was a year before the family got sufficiently settled to seek medical care for Besarta. But when they took her to the doctor, he had no clue as to what was wrong.

Only when Besarta could barely walk did her school’s social worker step in, finding a physician at a research hospital; he saw Besarta and handed down the diagnosis.

Besarta’s parents were stunned–and frantic. Speaking almost no English, they could neither ask questions nor truly understand the doctors’ advice about treatment options.

For Besarta, both diagnosis and treatment were hellish.

Imagine you’re a young girl who speaks and understands very little English. The doctor says you are going to have “pictures” taken. For days ahead, you plan what to wear and how to braid your hair. Before going for the pictures, you put on your mother’s lip gloss, “to look pretty.”

Imagine, then, the shock, fear and humiliation as a man yells incomprehensible words and motions for you to take off your clothes and earrings and stand in front of a huge machine. Once you’re there, he pushes you into postures you cannot physically hold–if you could stand as he wishes, you wouldn’t be here.

Imagine a doctor’s asking you to hop, bend over, crawl and then walk a straight line, wearing only your underpants and a paper hospital gown, in front of a roomful of strangers–medical students.

Now imagine doing this as a twelve-year-old Muslim girl.

Imagine a doctor’s telling you that surgery for your scoliosis will make you walk normally. Imagine awaking in agony after the operation, but doing your best to bear it, believing that once you can walk again, people will no longer laugh and stare.

Imagine learning, after weeks of grueling rehab, that the night before the surgery was, as you put it, “The last time I could brush my teeth by myself.” Because now you can’t do anything by yourself.

Imagine studying hard so you can graduate high school, despite your disabilities, and earn your American citizenship.

Finally, imagine aging out of your rehab program–reduced to minimal services and suffering a series of bureaucratic snafus, year after year, until all you have left are days spent sitting in a manual wheelchair in a basement apartment, waiting.

After more than two years and many Medicaid applications, Besarta still has none of the equipment–a power wheelchair, a special bath–that would make her life so much easier. She’s been unable to enter a day program; they’re not accepting new enrollees.

So she sits and waits.

This is the bare outline of the story I’ve promised to help Besarta tell. I don’t know if we will finish it before she is silenced by her illness, so I offer the medical community two vital truths she wishes to share.

First, if you want to give compassionate care, communicate openly and truthfully.

“Be absolutely clear in what you tell a patient, even if she is ten years old,” Besarta urges. “Take time, no matter how difficult, to be honest. Say the truth so patients understand, so their families understand.”

Second, treat your patients as people, not just cases.

Besarta knows that the doctors did what they could, and that they must sometimes use patients as teaching tools. But she wishes they’d also known how to reassure a scared young girl.

“What I wanted more than anything,” she says, “was for the doctors to know me, not just my sickness.”

Now I, too, am impatient to tell Besarta’s story. I want her to know, before she dies, that her story will be heard.

I want this mostly because she wants it, but also because I have come to care so deeply for her.

Besarta has shown me what true bravery looks like. She has opened my eyes to the plight of the countless young people who inhabit the chasm of “aged out” and who deserve more, much more.  

And she reminds me, and will do so every day for the rest of my life, to be grateful that I can pick a cherry, put it into my mouth, and savor the flesh and juice without thinking twice.

About the author:

Linda Koebner has been a lifelong advocate for human and nonhuman animals. In her early twenties she created a sanctuary for chimpanzees retired from biomedical research; this became the National Institute of Health’s Chimpanzee Sanctuary System. She recently received a master’s degree in health advocacy from Sarah Lawrence College. In addition to serving private clients, she works as a patient advocate and patient representative at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. She has also initiated a pet-therapy program for hospice patients with one of her dogs, Spirit. While at Sarah Lawrence, she became interested in the power of medical narrative. “Writing has always brought me comfort and leaves me amazed at what appears on paper if I just let go. I love hearing people’s stories and exploring the breadth and depth of experiences in medicine’s complex world.”

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


18 thoughts on “Imagine”

  1. It is hard to know what to say when confronted with such difficult circumstances. I just simply applaud Linda for taking the time to really listen….And .Besarta, you are my heroine. A heroine is not someone who is extraordinary but someone ordinary who does something extraordinary. And your struggle with life is extraordinary. Thank you

  2. Thank you one and all for your heartfelt comments on Besarta’s story. I just came from visiting with her and reading your messages. What a smile!!!

    It is hard to describe what a profound impact you have all had in her life…now, at least she feels heard. An amazing gift for her and for me.

    Hopefully Besarta’s book will also be realized – and maybe, just maybe even if she doesn’t get the services and equipment she needs, others will. Thank you!

  3. How good that PULSE is here right now and through it Linda can tell Besarta’s story ! What a courageous young woman!

  4. Thank you so much for this story…it is a wonderful service that you have offered this young lady and grounds for reflection as I move through this day…I surely hope this writing and her book will relieve some of her suffering and isolation. Thank you for your willingness to share hours of her life and realize the value of patience and gratitude as you move forward through your own life. Both are remarkable gifts that this young woman has given you…and I have touched on both through your story. Thank you once again.

  5. Fantastic story to share. My students and I reflect on issues of suffering as well as end-of-life events. this story should challenge their eagerness to find one answer to all health issues. Great work, Linda.

  6. Dear Linda,

    Both your words and deeds are impressive: “Like a sadistic jailer, her disease is pushing her further into the prison of her body, until one day she will be locked in…”

    Do you know, and have you worked with, the new Chancellor / CEO?

    Ron Banner

  7. Besarta’s pain is thankfully is receiving Linda Koebner’s beautiful words. Her bravery despite her needless suffering will not be for naught now. Much like Anne Frank, the story must be told so that it never happens again. Tell it, share it and hope this simple wish brings Bersarta is small dose of the comfort she so much deserves. May Besarta gain some peace – and a real photograph deserving of her true beauty.

  8. I am a teacher. I have a 13 year old student who has the same illness. I had never heard of it until this year. I think this is a fine essay, and I thank you for writing it.

  9. martina Nicholson

    Thank you for this heartrending and poignant story! I just wish it could be read to the Congress, to the people who do not want to pay for universal healthcare. I am so sorry that the wheelchair, the equipment, the support have not been forthcoming. The disease itself is horrific, its inexorable toll so hard to bear. I want to say “Let us try stem cells. Let us start collecting the stemcells from every baby’s placenta and cord blood— so we have banks sufficient for the research for this kind of rare disease. Let us do it here in the USA and let it be quickly brought to every other nation. Perhaps there are going to be treatments. This story is like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. Thank you for having the love and patience to help translate and share Besarta’s story!

  10. Sister Mary Bernard

    I cherish the value of my patient’s story each time I write it. I have had the privilege of writing “VITAL PATIENT STORIES” at Griffin Hospital in Derby, CT for the past nine years as part of their PLANETREE PROGRAM. Our staff is able to learn who the patient is rather than simply why he/she has been hospitalized. To me, this is the greatest gift I can offer to the subject, the family, and/or the reader. I applaud Linda Koebner’s efforts in her ministry to others. God bless her in all she is doing for others.

  11. Phyliss Geller,LCSW,

    There are not enough words in the English language to describe my feelings. Linda Koebner’s compassion is inspiring and her work to promote her ideals is expressed in her gratitude. Her work with the young girl who will die is beyond touching. Her advocacy for humans & non-humans helps to provide relief from all the bad news one is exposed to daily in the media.

  12. Tess Galati, Ph.D.

    Please tell Besarta that she may not be able to hold a toothbrush, but she is definitely able to hold a reader’s heart in her hand. That such a wealthy country as this could allow this travesty is beyond belief, but there it is!

  13. Thank you Linda. I am inspired to find out more about medical narrative. Please tell Besarta that reading her story inspires me to be stronger in dealing with my own illness. Tell her I thank her for reaching out to touch my heart and that she is here beside me as well as in her basement apartment. I am glad for her company.

  14. My heart began to physically ache as I read Besarta’s agonizing story. (Linda, you told it compassionately and beautifully.) Please share with Besarta that this woman in California read and “heard” her story and will share it with others…especially doctors and healthcare professionals. Bless you both. Salaam.

  15. Dear Linda,
    You communicate so much through your writing of your relationship with Besarta. Besarta comes through. The depth of presence to her and care for her, allow us to come to know her, her dignity, her courage, her soul, her message. It is certainly a book , a legacy that I want to come to know more in depth myself.
    Thank you for offering it to us today.

  16. Heartbreaking. Thank you so much for sharing a story that might otherwise not have reached the world. Is there anything that concerned citizens can do to hasten the arrival of the disability equipment she’s been applying for?

    1. Thank you Linda and Besarta for telling this story. “Imagine” is truly a story of narrative advocacy, both because you, Linda, have worked with Besarta to enable her story to have public voice, and because her story itself points to so many ways Besarta’s care could have been different and the quality of her life improved.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Stories


Popular Tags
Scroll to Top