The prick of a needle. The pain as it's pushed into a nerve root. A spreading ache as the fluid in the syringe is released. Then, relief.
Lois Porath sits on the edge of a treatment table at the Seattle-area naturopathic clinic she frequents. Her scalp is visible beneath her thinning hair, and her face is puffy from steroids. A walker is within arms' reach.
Her doctor searches her back and neck with his hands, determining the next injection site to treat her inflammation. She credits this man with saving her life multiple times over the past decade. Now, she's counting on him to do it again.
"I don't want to die," Lois says into the phone. "I have fought for 16 and a half years to get better, and I don't want to die. I think I can do a lot of good in this world... and I want to do something so good after going through so much bad."
Lois shared her story with the Focus last week via a telephone interview, speaking from Washington state, where she regularly stays with friends while undergoing specialized treatments at the Sophia Health Institute, an alternative medicine center near Seattle.
Her struggles all started in 2001, with a botched spinal tap. She was studying for her master's degree at a Canadian college when she visited a hospital there with flu-like symptoms. The spinal tap was meant to test for viral meningitis, she says, but something went wrong. The pain of it was excruciating and she was immediately paralyzed.
Since then, she's been plagued by a neverending series of infections and related health problems she says stem from that spinal tap. At different points over the years, she's suffered from meningitis (inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes), osteomyelitis (inflammation of the bone), septicemia (blood poisoning) and full renal failure.
She has several strains of staph infection in her body, including an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph called MRSA, which is very difficult to treat.
Her troubles are exacerbated by a mineral deficiency that inhibits her body's ability to absorb the minerals it needs to get better, as well as Lyme disease, which she contracted in 2006 after being bitten by a spider at a local grocery store.
Lois visited numerous doctors and hospitals for several years after being paralyzed. Her complications, symptoms and pain levels varied in that time, but on the whole she didn't get any better.
"No one knew how to help me," she says, and at one point she was told to go home and prepare to die.
She didn't accept that advice. Instead, believing she had exhausted every option conventional medicine had to offer, she sought out alternative treatments. That's when she found Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt, a physician, researcher and founder of the Sophia Health Institute. A renowned-though some say controversial-specialist in pain management and treating chronic illness, Klinghardt gave Lois new hope, and she says he immediately started getting her life back on track. Upon his referral, she traveled to Puerto Rico to undergo Electro-Neuro Medullar Therapy, a kind of neurotherapy she couldn't get anywhere else.
After just two weeks, Lois was walking again. She had been paralyzed for nearly eight years.
Her remarkable transformation was deemed "The Lois Porath Miracle" by the Perham newspaper. The community, which had been following Lois's journey and supporting her through prayer and fundraisers, celebrated.
Staring at the clinic wall in front of her, a needle poised behind her, Lois turns her thoughts to easier times.
As a teenager, she walked the pageant stage with charm and confidence, becoming Miss Perham twice in the early 1990s and winning fourth runner-up in the 1994 Miss Minnesota pageant. She was valedictorian of the Perham High School class of '92, and she eventually earned her master's degree in International Relations. She learned to speak five languages, in addition to her native English, and got a job at the Bureau of Foreign Affairs.
By then, she was in a wheelchair, and things were starting to get harder.
After Lois was able to walk again, in 2008, most people assumed the worst was behind her. In reality, what lay ahead was a nightmarish rollercoaster of one serious health issue after another.
Getting her spine better meant she could start dealing with the infections in her body, but that process turned out to be like "peeling away the layers of an onion," as Lois describes it. One infection would get treated only to lead to another issue, with new and often painful symptoms.
The pain was bad enough that she started to long for the days when being paralyzed was her primary problem.
"I literally made an agreement with God that I would never complain about being paralyzed again; I didn't care if I ever walked again, I just wanted to get rid of the pain," she recalls. "I had no life. I couldn't do anything, the pain was so horrific."
In 2014, she was diagnosed with a rare infection called Calcific Tendonitis of the Longus Coli, which caused muscles in her neck to calcify. She was unable to swallow, could barely speak and had trouble breathing. The pain was nearly unbearable, and recovery took several months. The condition is so rare, she says, that the ENTs who treated her are publishing an article about the ordeal.
Twice, staph drained out of her caudal epidural space, creating massive infections along her spinal cord and vertebrae. In 2015, staph got into her abdominal cavity, where it mixed with rust from old surgical clips that were left in her body during a years-old surgery. This created a tumor on her bladder, and the removal of the tumor released an infection that spread, leading to septicemia and complete kidney failure. It took her months to recover. It also caused her to develop a severe allergy to metals, which has created more complications.
Unfortunately, episodes and scenarios like these have been common occurrences for Lois in the past decade. And because the infections directly affect her spinal cord, her ability to walk has wavered, and her height has varied from less than 5 feet to 5'6".
"I have been told by many, many doctors I should not be alive," she says. "They say cats have nine lives, I have 29."
Lately, Lois's main issue has been fevers. Her body temperature has been at least 100 degrees for the past few months, but there have been days when it's reached upwards of 107. The highest it has been measured is 108.4, an extreme fever that has the potential to cause brain damage, convulsions, shock and other serious problems. Body cells start to die at about 106 degrees.
"I've been really scared because of these fevers, because I get hit so hard, so fast," she says. "And it takes a lot to scare me, because I've been through a lot."
She pulls her shirt back over her head and reaches for her walker. Her treatments are done for the day. She hopes that someday they'll be done forever. She's optimistic that one day, she won't have to get poked with needles anymore. Maybe she'll even be able to travel just for fun. She's visited Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Puerto Rico... but always to see doctors, to undergo special treatments. But maybe someday she'll be free again. Free from pain. Free to have children. Free to live her life without the constant worry of death.
Lois has just started a new, aggressive, multi-week treatment program to tackle her infections. Every day, she's doused with a powerful antibiotic cocktail designed to kill several strains of staph and strep, even the ones that are hard-to-kill.
The effectiveness of this particular combination of antibiotics was only recently discovered within the medical community, Dr. Klinghardt says, and "it is pretty much our last hope for Lois to reenter the normal stream of life."
Klinghardt first suggested this treatment over a year ago, but the antibiotics are costly, and Lois couldn't afford it. After her recent high fevers, however, she decided she couldn't afford not to do it. Without these antibiotics, she fears, she'll die.
The treatment is risky-Lois could develop a resistance to these last-resort antibiotics if her funds run out and she can't complete the full course, leaving her with no other treatment options. But, if all goes well, this could be the light at the end of her long tunnel. If she can get rid of the dangerous infections, it could mean a fresh start.
She's been taking the antibiotics for about two weeks now, and so far, the drugs are making her sicker. That's a good sign they're working.
"Lois has shown promise," Klinghardt says. "We are very, very hopeful that this will work."
Klinghardt describes Lois's condition as a chronic, persistent infection, and he's never seen another case quite like hers in all his 42 years of medical practice.
Lois's parents, Deland and Diana Porath, have watched with an emotional mix of fear, admiration and optimism as their daughter has suffered through these illnesses.
"It's been hard. It's been really, really hard," says Diana. "As a mother, you worry all the time."
At the same time, she adds of Lois, "I can't believe her inner strength. I've never known any person as strong as she is. I swear God put her on this Earth for something really special. We just have to figure out what that is."
A GoFundMe page has been created to raise money for Lois's latest treatment regimen. Nearly a decade after local fundraisers helped get her walking again, Lois is once again turning to her hometown for help. Already, enough has been given to cover a few weeks' worth of antibiotics, but she needs 12 to 15 weeks' worth in order to properly deal with her infections.
Charlie Nelson, the president of KLN Family Brands and an old schoolmate of Lois's, is using his connections and marketing skills to help spread the word about her situation.
"The fact is, she needs additional help," he stated in an email to the Focus. "So hopefully this community will continue stepping up like we always have. One of the many things that makes Perham great is, we don't forget about our own."
Lois still considers Perham her home. When she's not in Seattle, she's either with her parents at their lake home here, or in Canada, where she's still attending school. She's just one exam away from obtaining her PhD.
Realizing that goal is one of the things that keeps Lois going, she says. She also finds great comfort in her faith, her loved ones-especially her mom-and her dog, Riley.
To read more about Lois's health history, or to make a donation toward her antibiotic treatments, visit her GoFundMe page at https://www.gofundme.com/lois-poraths-gofundme.