PROVO — It was about an hour before BYU student Kaiya Haimin was set to speak at an evening church meeting on a warm Sunday in Kona, Hawaii.
Kaiya and her husband of 10 months, Mekeli Haimin, both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, planned on sharing lessons learned from their recent trials with a congregation of people Kaiya grew up with. But Kaiya suffered an unexpected seizure, which left her temporarily unable to walk or talk.
Two months earlier, Kaiya had been diagnosed with conversion disorder, a neurological condition that triggers physical symptoms, such as seizures or tremors, in response to emotions.
Even though the only way Kaiya could communicate with Mekeli following the seizure was via text message, she was adamant they would still speak that evening.
“I’ll be able to talk,” Kaiya texted Mekeli.
After typing out the first half of her talk and projecting it on a screen behind her, what the Haimins call a "miracle" happened.
“I stood and just was praying that God would give me my voice back at that point. I was just standing there for maybe five minutes, and then I started to speak again,” Kaiya said. “It wasn’t perfect. It was probably really choppy. But they understood.”
Since being diagnosed with conversion disorder, Kaiya has lived the theme she shared at the gathering in Kona that evening — “We can do hard things.”
I met Kaiya four summers ago, our first term at BYU, when we were randomly assigned to share an apartment with four other women at Heritage Halls. Kaiya was quick to serve others and find the positive in every situation.
When I visited recently to interview her, nothing had changed.
Kaiya’s struggle with conversion disorder began at the end of March. She was at her family’s home in Springville when she had her first seizure. She was rushed to the hospital, but there were no signs of serious problems, so the medical staff sent her home.
She suffered a second seizure a few weeks later, but again, the hospital sent her home, finding no irregularities through scans and tests. Weeks later, she was admitted to the hospital after experiencing tremors in her arms and legs.
This time, she stayed for a week, and left with a diagnosis: conversion disorder.
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, the symptoms caused by conversion disorder have no physiological explanation, and there are only 14-22 cases reported per every 100,000 people.
According to Kaiya, she's been able to see the positives in her diagnosis.
“I was able to see more good in other people and in myself than I ever have,” Kaiya said. “I told my husband that I wouldn’t change this experience for anything else because I have seen so much good and I’ve felt maybe not physically good, but I’ve felt spiritually well.”
‘Different is good’
Conversion disorder brings with it a host of inconveniences. Kaiya, who was completely healthy and played sports before her diagnosis, now struggles to walk and talk, especially after a seizure. The disorder also makes things like bladder control and swallowing more difficult.
But despite the new, less-than-glamorous parts of her life, Kaiya said she remains confident.
“All of those material things, they were just stripped away, and the only thing that I had going for me was the knowledge that I’m a daughter of God,” Kaiya said. “That’s helped me get through those times where I could’ve felt ugly or embarrassed, and I’ve just come to love and appreciate that relationship."
According to Mekeli, one of the couple’s main goals is to serve those around them.
“We just like to serve. It’s something that I grew up knowing a lot, and her family is actually kind of known for it in Hawaii,” Mekeli said. “It doesn’t matter who. Just as long as we’re serving people, we’re happy. I find most happiness in serving others.”
In early May, for example, Kaiya and Mekeli created a video explaining their situation and encouraging others who may look or feel different. Less than two months later, the video has more than 459,000 views on Facebook.
Even though Kaiya notably struggles in the video, she’s still laughing, smiling and cracking jokes when she can.
“We just wanted to make a video to inspire people who might be different,” Kaiya said in the video. “Different is good.”
Along with Kaiya and Mekeli’s families, who both now live in Utah, the young couple has found help in one another and in their faith.
"We’re always there for each other," Kaiya said, "but we now know that we can’t do that unless there’s the man upstairs helping us.”
As I sat in the Haimins' living room in their Provo home, surrounded by the stunning photos of their wedding in the Kona Hawaii temple, Mekeli told me about waiting 18 months for Kaiya as she served an LDS mission in New Caledonia.
“I really believe in God’s timing,” Mekeli said. “If you can get that internalized — that God has a plan, and that anything that happens to you is in his timeline — no matter how big the trial, the bigger the trial the bigger the blessing.”
Kaiya recently started a therapy program at the University of Utah, where she meets with conversion disorder specialist John Speed. According to an interview KSL conducted with Speed in 2012, the treatment for conversion disorder is a behavioral approach treatment.
"It's a very simple principle, which is ‘un-learn the bad; re-learn the good stuff,’” Speed told KSL.3 comments on this story
According to an article by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, most conversion disorder patients find their acute symptoms resolved within weeks. Although some patients experience recurring symptoms over time, the Haimins are hopeful Kaiya will heal, and inspire others with her story in the process.
“I understand that Heavenly Father is using my story and this experience to draw people closer to Jesus Christ and Him,” Kaiya said. “One day, I will be healed, and I will walk perfectly again and talk perfectly again, but there’s somebody out there that will be touched and will come unto Christ, whatever that may mean.”