This episode of Finding Fred focuses on a special friend Fred Rogers made in his lifetime: a fan named Beth Usher. Beth had a neurological condition that caused her to have over 100 seizures a day. For a long time, doctors were at a loss to understand what was causing them, telling Beth’s mother, Kathy, and her father, Brian, to “hope for ten good years.” But one day, Beth’s brother was looking after her while she watched an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and noticed that she didn’t have any seizures while it was on. The next day, they noticed the same thing. “At the end of every episode, he would say, ‘I love you just the way you are,’ and Beth would say, ‘I love you too, Mr. Rogers.’ And she would not have one seizure,” Kathy marvels.
Doctors finally suggested a hemispherectomy to cure Beth’s seizures, requiring the removal of the entire left side of her brain. They warned that this intense surgery could leave her paralyzed or even kill her. At first, the Ushers were dead-set against it, until Beth herself begged for the seizures to stop. Since it was so high-risk, Kathy and Brian wanted to make her as comfortable as possible. So they asked PBS for an autographed photo of Mr. Rogers to hang in her hospital room. Instead, Mr. Rogers called Beth and talked to her for over an hour, letting her speak with every character in the Neighborhood. “All of a sudden, we heard her say, ‘I'm afraid I'm going to die and leave my brother and my parents,’” Kathy remembers. “Then we heard her say... ‘I love you too, Mr. Rogers....Thank you for calling me, and I am going to be okay.’"
Beth got through her surgery alive, but fell into a coma that lasted for weeks. One night in the hospital, Mr. Rogers called to ask Kathy how Beth was doing and asked if he could visit. He came to her room with all his puppets and put on a show just for Beth at her bedside, singing to her and taking pictures with all the characters to show they’d all visited her. Kathy describes it as “magical,” saying, “Afterwards, we held hands around her bed, and we prayed, and that really gave us so much comfort. I just remember feeling as though things are going to be okay.”
“Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending,” Beth herself says cheerfully. She woke from her coma a few weeks later, finding all the Neighborhood characters around her “so I wouldn't wake up and be alone. So, I knew he came somehow.” She and Mr. Rogers continued to correspond, and he would call her on her birthday. She even helped him write a commencement speech for the University of Connecticut, where Kathy and Brian both worked. Kathy admits she was skeptical that the college kids would respond to Mr. Rogers, but “this ceremony, you could hear a pin drop,” she says.
Listen to the episode to hear some of Mr. Rogers’ commencement address, Kathy and Beth’s stories about him through the years, and the time Kathy gave him advice (“I'm telling the guru of children?” Kathy laughs, “but that was how he was. He didn't feel he had all the answers. He was asking everybody else”), on Finding Fred.
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