Linda Osmundson is a domestic violence survivor who has helped thousands of women break from their abusers and find new lives.
She took up cycling in her 50s, pedaled across the country and became a triathlete.
She has a record of beating the odds.
But now she is struggling with a new challenge, and she's doing it in a way that few can fully understand, and many would even find irrational.
A growth covers much of the left side of her face, protruding perhaps an inch. Parts are discolored, part is covered by a bandage. It has partially obstructed her mouth, making it hard to chew or talk clearly. She sometimes must let others speak for her.
But Osmundson, 65, a devout Christian Scientist all her life, is not getting medical treatment. She received a diagnosis, but she won't disclose it.
Rather, she is praying for healing. She has complete faith it will happen.
She does not regard herself as someone with a disease.
"I am God's perfect child," she says.
She does not hide her face from the concerned and the curious, though she asks not to be photographed on her left side.
Nor does she plan to let what is happening stop her from completing a $12 million shelter for Community Action Stops Abuse, the domestic violence organization she has led for 25 years.
She says she is not in pain, and insists on keeping up her demanding schedule.
"The challenge has been that everybody looks at me as a face now," she said. "I have to remind people that I'm still the same person here. And I'm still here to do my work. My brain's just fine. I talk a little funny.''
On a spiritual level, she sees the growth quite differently from many of her concerned friends.
"Ultimately anything that isn't good isn't God-created, and therefore isn't real," she explained, sitting in her St. Petersburg office.
"I expect to be fully healed. So the less I dwell on what this is, the more I am able to pray. To see this as not something that God made."
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Christian Science was founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, who was seriously injured slipping on an icy street. She recovered after reading the biblical account of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand. The Church of Christ, Scientist, now has congregations in 130 countries.
On matters of health, the church generally focuses on the power of prayer and long has kept careful records of successful healings. ChristianScience.com currently features a video of a Naples man, who had an "abnormal growth" that developed for years. After much prayer he realized "the growth had no underlying authority, reality or principle to it, that God certainly didn't create it" and it disappeared.
The church's beliefs on healing have been most controversial when Christian Science parents refused medical treatment for their children, sometimes prompting government intervention.
Bob Clark, a Belleair resident and the Christian Science media liaison for Florida, said it is not considered a sin for Christian Scientists to seek medical attention. They are free to make their own choices, and will be supported by the church either way, he said.
Osmundson grew up in Phoenix, raised by parents who became Christian Scientists when she was 2. Her first job after getting her undergraduate English degree was as a news clerk at the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.
Odmundson explained some of her beliefs about faith and healing in a 2003 article for the then-St. Petersburg Times:
"Many choose, as I do, to rely solely upon spiritual prayer for healing, because they have proved Christian Science is a safe, effective remedy,'' she wrote. "There are documented records of Christian Science healing, including incurable diseases."
Her husband, Maurice Kurtz, is a Quaker. If he were ill, he said, "I would consider it as a medical condition and treat it accordingly."
He met his wife through cycling and they married in 2011. He knew of her faith, and thought about what could happen if she became ill. He decided back then that he would accept her beliefs.
Asked for his thoughts now, he chooses his words carefully.
"I do carry a sense of sadness that this has come so soon in our life together," he said.
But, he added, "it's really my place to support her view on this, even if I would choose a different path. She has my support."
• • •
About two and a half years ago, Osmundson went for a dental checkup. The dentist found something concerning and sent her to a specialist who performed a biopsy.
Was it cancer? She won't say.
"I don't want to make it more real than it already looks," she explained.
Osmundson describes the growth not as a physical reality, but as "an error, or an untruth, a lie about me. About what's true about me."
She added, "I mean, that's not part of who I am. And the minute I say I've got a particular disease, that makes it a reality. It makes it true in my mind, it makes it true in other people's minds."
She prays with Christian Science practitioners, in person and over the phone. She has never been tempted to go back to a physician.
"No, it's not what I do,'' she said.
Able to eat only soft foods, she has lost weight. Osmundson, who previously went from size 16 to a size 8 after taking up bicycle riding, now is between a 4 and a 6, she said.
By her standards at least, her energy is lagging. She now requires eight hours of sleep, rather than her customary four. She stopped training for triathlons.
But she still works a demanding schedule. She and her husband like walking the mile or so from their house to downtown St. Petersburg for dinner and gelato. She loves riding her bicycle to work, and on weekends cranks out 40 or 50 miles.
She says she hasn't suffered much pain, and isn't sure if she would take medication even if she did. She has never taken so much as an aspirin. But she did get the required vaccinations for her international travels, largely to make sure she was following the law.
• • •
More than 100 people stood in a St. Petersburg art gallery recently to celebrate Osmundson's 25 years of leading CASA. The talk was all of her achievements. Nobody mentioned her dramatically changed appearance.
This is a critical time for the organization, which is raising $12 million to build and operate a 100-bed shelter under construction just north of St. Petersburg.
CASA's board of directors scheduled a private meeting with Osmundson earlier this year to discuss her health. She did not share her diagnosis, and they did not press her.
Intellectually and emotionally, said board treasurer Bob Barnum, the board members yearn for answers. What is the growth? What will happen?
"She says, 'That's not really what I do,' " Barnum recalled.
Osmundson said she understood the board's concern, but insisted she felt up to the job and would let them know if that changed.
"The bottom line was, really, we're not entitled to a diagnosis and prognosis as long as she's doing her job," Barnum said.
She is doing, he said, "a phenomenal job.
One day last week she was wearing a purple hard hat, striding through the dirt and onto a concrete slab to inspect progress on the shelter.
She buttonholed the project manager to discuss everything from the delivery of steel girders to grease traps.
The next morning, she met with key staff to discuss a long list of priorities — including finding ways to reach potential donors who have never given to CASA before.
At first, she says, she would get "grumpy'' if anyone asked her about her face. Now she has come to accept the concern.
But, confident in her faith, she refuses to say anything is wrong.
"I'm working something out. That would be the most I would say. Or I'd laugh and say I'm growing my own Halloween mask. But that's all."
She easily makes that joke at her expense. But she's absolutely serious when discussing her faith and her future.
"I expect healing, I really do. Full, complete, healing."
Contact Curtis Krueger at [email protected] or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.