Student Uses Spirituality to Overcome Illness

Life was going good for Nicholas O. J. Ekers, a 19 year-old art student. He was working part time, having fun with his girlfriend, and attending his long-time dream school, Art Center in Pasadena.

However, a persistent back pain was starting to bother him. After the pain between his shoulders started to worsen, he decided to get it checked by a doctor. That visit in 2005 would change his life forever.

Doctors diagnosed him with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a condition that could potentially render him immobile for the rest of his life. The news was devastating.

This event marked the beginning of a spiritual journey for Ekers. It would take all the courage and hope he could muster to overcome adversity.

Ankylosing Spondylitis is an incurable and very painful inflammatory disease that can cause some of the vertebrae in the back to fuse together, says the Mayo Clinic.

A year later Ekers started to show signs of another ailment called Crohn’s Disease. This inflammatory disease of the stomach greatly added to the pain, and caused him to lose weight and energy.

Doctors misdiagnosed his Crohn’s for several years, attributing it to food poisoning or urinary tract infections. After he was diagnosed, doctors prescribed him a cocktail of 16 medicines that only treated the symptoms.

Ekers was opposed to the idea and decided to find alternative solutions that addressed the causes. He found that a controlled diet, eliminating foods that triggered reactions, and a positive attitude could help to alleviate his symptoms.

A combined attack of both conditions left him bed-ridden. Within just three months he experienced extreme muscle loss. Although he took control of both disorders through diet again, at a mere 90 pounds he needed physical therapy.

Doctors were reluctant to treat Ekers because he wouldn’t take the medications prescribed. Furthermore, the physical therapists he had access to would not make house calls. This would make caring for him harder for his mother. She sacrificed a lot to take care of him, while working 60 hours or more a week.

“I was in a place of really severe depression, having missed out on two years of my life,” said Ekers. “ I felt like a complete prisoner, that my life was over.”

Due to his condition Ekers lost all of his independence and forced him to drop out of art school. With his girlfriend gone too, he had close to nothing left.

“That was hell, I hated that,” said Ekers. “I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and I had to learn to be happy right now.”

Throughout Ekers’ research, he read about the effects a positive attitude has on recovery and started to train his brain to think positively. He wanted to find out why he hated himself so much. He started to identify the source of his pain, finding happiness, despite his deteriorated physical condition.

His mother recalls how they both sent out a need for help to the universe. They hoped they would receive the help necessary for his recovery.

Shortly after, a chance encounter with a masseuse at the market would lead them to the physical therapist he needed. That man was Fernando Villar, who has a doctorate in neurology and biokinesiology.

“He looked like a holocaust survivor,” said Villar.

Villar, having two children of his own, felt deeply for Ekers and dedicated himself to his recovery. There is no research into the treatments they were about to undergo and Villar could make no promises. He did however make house calls.

While his positive attitude had already helped his recovery immensely, Ekers wanted something more. He wanted to learn more about spirituality and wanted to connect with others. Buddhism would be just what he was looking for.

Shortly after returning to school at Glendale Community College, a woman named Colleen Pathe introduced Ekers to the Soku Gakkai International Buddhist Club.

“S.G.I. gives you a chance to polish your life,” said Pathe, who helped found the club more than10 years ago.

The club practices Nichiren Buddhism, one of over 80,000 sects of Buddhism. Followers use chanting as a way to get connected to the universe, concentrating on effecting positive changes in their lives. After his first meeting with the group he was sold.

Villar attributes Ekers’ one-of-a-kind recovery to his determination and attitude.

“[It’s] his willingness to go through the process and trust, enduring pain and hard work,” said Villar.

Ekers is currently waiting to get a suit molded that will help hold his stretched body in place for longer after therapy sessions, retaining the mobility he gains. While he is very independent now and can actually hold his own weight up on his legs, Villar says they have a long way to go.

While back at school, Ekers says he wants to major in English and History. Now 27, he has recently become the president of the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Club at GCC.

“Before Buddhism I felt a lingering sense I could slip back into depression,” said Ekers.

Buddhism has given him the spiritual support he needs to feel confident about the future. It has also taught him to share his story with others in order to help them.

While Ekers was very shy at first, he has started speaking about his experiences. He encourages others to never give up, offering hope and inspiration to those with struggles.