Panamanian school teacher felt ‘current of heat’ after praying for healing from genetic skin disease at Fr. Solanus’ tomb
PACORA, Panama — Paula Medina Zarate knelt at the tomb of Fr. Solanus Casey, carrying what seemed to be the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Paula, now 62, was making her first trip to Detroit and the Solanus Casey Center in September 2012, traveling with Fr. Joe Timmers, OFM Cap., a priest she knew from his work with the Capuchin mission presence in Chepo, Panama, Paula’s hometown.
In Chepo, Paula is known for being a kind soul, a religion teacher and catechist for school children who spoke out for the poor and suffering, all the while dealing with ichthyosis vulgaris, a disease that caused her skin to turn into scales and bleed. A genetic condition, there is no known cure for the disorder.
“I was born with a difficult skin condition where my skin would get dry and turn into scales,” Paula, who speaks Spanish, told The Michigan Catholic by phone from Panama, with Fr. Larry Webber, OFM Cap., vice postulator for Fr. Solanus’ sainthood cause, translating. “I never used to wear anything short. I had to cover myself, legs and arms, sometimes the face. I always had clothing with long sleeves.”
Wearing long sleeves in the tropical Panamanian climate while dealing with a painful skin condition is bad enough, but Paula said the biggest pain was watching her mother and brothers see her in pain and discomfort.
Because of her condition, Paula was forced to retire early at 57 years old because the skin rash had gotten so bad she could no longer go outside.
“My skin was like leaves all stuck together, and it was getting worse,” Paula said. “My hair stopped growing and my fingernails were giving me problems. When I was correcting exams and homework, my arm was causing problems, because when you grade papers you have your left arm rubbing against the desk.”
A voice at the tomb
Forced out of her profession early — meaning her government pension would be considerably less — Paula’s spirit was low. That’s when two Capuchin friars from the mission invited her to Chicago to visit the Capuchin ministries there.
Fr. Timmers, a Midland native, was in Chicago but on his way to Michigan, so Paula joined him on a trip to Detroit and the Solanus Casey Center.
“When we came to Detroit and the Solanus Center, we stayed in the monastery overnight. The next day I came to the center, but I didn’t know who Solanus was,” Paula said. “I heard of Padre Pio, but not of Solanus. So they told me who Solanus was and how big of a presence he had there.”
Paula approached Fr. Solanus’ tomb, knelt down and wrote her intentions on the white pieces of paper — all 14 of them.
True to form, despite the many stresses of her disease, Paula wrote intentions for her mother, her brothers, all of her students and the people of Chepo.
Fr. Timmers called to Paula that it was time for lunch in the Solanus Center’s dining hall. She rose from the tomb and heard a voice: “And you, what do you need?”
“I fell down to my knees, saw the cross and thought about Christ’s Passion and all the pardons granted, thinking I didn’t ask for anything myself,” Paula said. “I asked God for my legs and arms to be healed, and then I began to feel this current of heat in my body. I felt dizzy, like in a dream. After a long time, I got up.”
Paula joined Fr. Timmers in the dining room but quickly excused herself to the bathroom. That’s when she made what’s now deemed a miraculous discovery.
“I felt a lot of heat in my body,” Paula said. “I was thinking, ‘My God, what’s happening?’ I was afraid, my legs were so hot. My doctors warned me that my skin might crack open and bleed. I touched my skin, and the scales began to fall off, with no blood.”
Paula saw a rose-like color of flesh appear where the scales had been. For the next day or so, more and more of the scales began to fall off. She gathered the scales into a piece of paper to show what was happening.
“I told Fr. Joe what happened, explaining it all to him,” Paula said. “I spent that whole afternoon in my room crying, giving thanks to God. I couldn’t sleep, but I tried. I passed the whole night touching my leg; I couldn’t believe what was happening. The next day I woke up, and it kept falling off; everything was just falling off.”
Doctor moved to tears
Paula wanted to see her dermatologist in Panama right away, but she promised the young people of the Capuchin parish in Chicago she’d visit.
After five weeks in Chicago, she arrived back in Panama and went straight to her dermatologist, Dr. Leticia Munoz Buckner.
“I didn’t tell the doctor what happened, but when she came in and saw me, she asked what happened,” Paula said. “The doctor examined me, and while she was massaging my legs, I explained to her about Fr. Solanus. This doctor worked with me for 17 years and said she couldn’t believe it.”
For years, Paula’s doctor wanted her to continue working, but knew her condition was forcing her to retire.
“She didn’t know what to say or do, so we cried together,” Paula said. “She said only God could have done this. In Panama, it’s very hot. And I was her patient that always had to wear long sleeves and be out of the sun. And this doctor didn’t know how to help me.”
A year later, Paula came back to the Detroit area, where more doctors examined her to make sure the disease was truly gone.
Three doctors from Metro Detroit examined Paula — including an expert on ichthyosis vulgaris — doing a biopsy to come up with a reason why the disease disappeared. They came up with nothing.
“In 2015, when they started doing the (miracle) investigation, I got checked again by the doctors, and they said everything is completely healed,” Paula said. “They had to get all my medical records in Panama since I was a child. They left no rock unturned, but no one can seem to explain it.”
When the case was fully documented, it was forwarded the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, which carefully examined Paula’s case before recommending to Pope Francis that it be accepted as an authentic miracle. In May of this year, the Holy Father agreed, paving the way for Fr. Solanus to be declared “blessed” by the Catholic Church.
Paula is moved every day by the miracle granted to her through Fr. Solanus’ intercession and how it has shaped her life since that visit to the tomb.
“I think of everything Solanus did; he never rested,” Paula said. “He did the things no one else would do, listened to people when no one else would. Had the grace to do what the Lord decides. I work for Christ. The people in town say I don’t rest, and I respond and do the things the Lord gives me.”
Thanking God ahead of time
Paula’s miraculous healing is often overwhelming, and emotional, for her to think about. She makes an effort to come to the United States and visit Fr. Solanus’ tomb whenever she can. It’s the part of this trip to Detroit she is looking forward to the most.
“All of these years since I’ve been thinking about what Jesus did through him for me,” Paula said. “In the deepest part of my desires, I feel something has happened since then — what I felt at the tomb of Solanus. (Jesus) has marked my life forever. I was alone with Solanus at the tomb when praying, and I know my life changed, but most especially the change happened internally in my heart.”
Paula was alone at the tomb, but she won’t be alone at Ford Field.
She will carry the relics of Fr. Solanus to the altar during the Mass, an acknowledgment that it was her miracle that advanced Fr. Solanus’ cause to beatification.
“This point is the center of my life, bringing all the people to the beatification Mass,” Paula said. “Bringing my mother and all my spiritual children and important people in my life, the people who were with me in the most difficult moments of my life. Sometimes, I think it’s better not to think about what will happen when I get to Detroit.
“I still dream of the tomb and what happened,” Paula continued. “Before we go to the stadium, I want to stop at the tomb and pray. That is where I get my peace and energy. Everything I’ve lived through, that’s where it stays. With Solanus and what he spoke to me.”
When Paula is at Ford Field, she knows she will be surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people, many of whom have their own Fr. Solanus story.
And while it was her story that sparked the holy friar’s beatification, Paula insists their stories are just as important and just as significant in showing the awesome power of God working wonders in peoples’ lives through the intercession of the blessed porter who did so much for so many.
“I feel that we can all now say that we’re all family,” Paula said. “In that sense, Fr. Solanus made us all a family. In a very large sense, it’s profound to know other people who have been healed by Solanus. I know there is a lot of mercy the world received through Solanus; it wasn’t just me.”