How a TV Doctor Saved the Life of a Man with Special Needs
A man with cerebral palsy was determined to meet the star of his favorite medical drama—and no one could've expected what happened when he did.
marco martins/Shutterstock (TV) Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock (Everett)
I’m kneeling on the floor of a cheap roadside motel somewhere in western Tennessee. Next to me, leading me in prayer, is a large middle-aged man with cerebral palsy named Ronnie Simonsen.
He says, “Bless my mother, my brothers and sisters, and my pastor back home in New Hampshire. God, bless Bob Hope and Cher … and all three of Charlie’s Angels. Especially Jaclyn Smith.”
And then Ronnie says, “And Lord, please help us get to California quickly, where I know I’m going to meet my spiritual brother, Mr. Chad Everett, the star of CBS’s drama Medical Center.”
And here, I interrupt Ron. I say, “Ron, you know, we might not meet Chad Everett. We’re not sure that’s going to happen.”
He says, “Yeah, yeah, I know, but keep praying. Keep praying.”
I first met Ronnie about eight years before that. I was working at a summer camp for people with disabilities. I was a counselor there, and I had brought along a video camera because I was also interested in making films.
Ronnie came right up to me and wanted to talk about movies and TV. He had cerebral palsy in his legs, but he also had a combination of autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It manifested itself in this fascination with television and movie stars from the 1970s, which is when he was a kid. Learn the things you should never say to a parent of a child with special needs.
He spent most of his childhood in hospitals, and he became particularly obsessed with the people who played doctors on television. He took comfort in their calm voices. There was one man, above all, whom he held as sort of like a god, and that was Chad Everett, who played Dr. Joe Gannon on CBS’s Medical Center.
I really liked Ron. He was fun. He was great on camera—he loved to be on camera. We made lots of videos together at the camp.
Some of the most popular videos were these newscasts we would do. (We made our own news show.) Ronnie was fantastic at that, especially when we could go downtown and he would interview people on the street. He was this large man, and when he would talk to people, he couldn’t stand up for too long, so he would lean on them for balance while he was asking them questions. And he would get them to do skits. He had this real ability to bring people out.
These films that we made developed this underground popularity. Eventually I was able to get some funding to make a film where we would drive across the country with five people with disabilities from this summer camp.
We were going to go from their houses in New England all the way to Los Angeles. Everyone on the trip had their own hopes and dreams for going to California, a place they’d never been. But Ronnie’s dreams overshadowed everybody else’s.
To him, California was the Holy Land. It was the place where he was destined to meet Mr. Chad Everett, his spiritual brother. It was his biggest dream. (He told everybody, “It’s my biggest dream.”) These quotes about dreams prove that no dream is too big.
He took this biggest-dream mission very, very seriously. It kind of stressed him out. I felt like this whole situation was mainly my responsibility as the director of this ridiculous film, and I decided I would be Ronnie’s roommate across the country.
And that’s how I ended up in this hotel room in Tennessee, praying with Ronnie Simonsen.
As Ronnie prays, I say my own little prayer. I’m not a very religious person. I had never really prayed much before. I’m 29 years old, but this is the first time I pray in earnest. I say, Please, help us get to California safely. And please, when we get there, give me some guidance. Help me to solve this mess that we’re going to have when we get to California. Because I have this secret that I haven’t shared with Ron. I probably should have shared it with him, but I just can’t.
I’d gotten in touch with Chad Everett’s agent before we went on the trip, and I’d asked if we could set up a meeting between these two people. I knew it was going to be a fantastic moment on film.
But his agent made me understand that Chad Everett was a very busy man, and that he wasn’t going to have time for something like that. In fact, he didn’t really wanna encourage his obsessive fans.
I probably should have told Ronnie that, but he didn’t take disappointment very well.
I’d helped Ronnie write letters to numerous celebrities over the years. Ronnie was so excited, ’cause he got this head shot in the mail. It was a smiling picture of Chad Everett. Ronnie memorized every word that Chad Everett had signed on this picture.
It said, “To Ron, Life’s not meant to be lived in reruns. Watch me in the new show Love Boat! Walk in the light, Chad Everett.”
And so all the way across the country, as we were driving from Texas to the Grand Canyon, Ronnie would go over the contents of that letter with me.
He would say, “What does that mean, ‘Life’s not meant to be lived in reruns’? And what does that mean, to ‘walk in the light’? I’m walking in the light, right?”
And I would say, “Yeah, Ron, you’re walking in the light.”
When we reach California, it’s a wonderful moment. We all go swimming in the ocean, and everybody’s really happy. Except for, of course, Ron. Because he’s on a higher mission.
He and I come to this agreement: Everyone else involved with the film is going to fly home, and he and I are going to spend a few more days in Los Angeles.
On our last day in California, we hatch an idea. We go to this town near Malibu, out in the hills, where Ronnie had heard that Chad Everett lived. We go to a shopping center, and Ronnie gets really excited because he interviews this kid who apparently had bagged Chad Everett’s groceries. Then someone else tells us that they know the street that Chad Everett lives on.
Ronnie says, “I just wanna see what his house looks like.”
It’s a gated community, and I find myself sneaking past as the guard’s not looking. We get to what we think is his house.
Ronnie says, “I just wanna take a picture in front of his house.” So Ronnie gets out, and it’s not until we’re hiding in the bushes and we’ve been there for over an hour that I realize that this is a terrible idea. Why are we here? What did I think was going to happen? I had this crazy idea that Chad Everett would see Ronnie and he would understand that this was someone that he should get to know. But of course, if Chad Everett walked out of that house, Ronnie was going to rush toward him, and someone was going to call the police. It was going to be a disaster.
So it was a certain sense of relief that I felt when a security guard came up and told us that we had to leave. And that film ends with Ronnie kissing Chad Everett’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s a good ending, but of course it’s not the ending that Ronnie and I wanted for that film.
As we took the film to festivals around the country, Ronnie became a little bit of a celebrity, and it was funny because that didn’t mean anything to him, to be a celebrity himself. He would ask anybody in the audience at the festivals if maybe they knew a way to get this film into Chad Everett’s hands. That’s all he cared about.
Throughout that year, Ronnie would call me up and he’d say, “You need to send a tape to this person because they might know Chad Everett’s daughter.”
I was starting to get kind of annoyed, to be honest. I was like, Man, we went all the way to California. Why can’t he just drop this whole thing?
And I was kind of annoyed with myself, too, because I had become tethered to this dream of Ronnie’s.
On top of that, I had a version of the dream that was a nightmare for me, which was this: that Ronnie would somehow meet Chad Everett … and I wouldn’t be there. If Ronnie were to meet him and I wasn’t there, I didn’t think I could live with myself. I honestly felt that way. I was in this state.
Then one day I got a phone call. There was a deep voice on the other end of the line, and it said, “Hello, this is Chad Everett.”
I said, “No, it’s not.” And he said, “Yes, it is.”
And it was Chad Everett. He had seen our film, and he liked it. He liked it a lot. In fact, he agreed that if we could get Ronnie to California, he would meet Ronnie. And he would do an interview with him. I hung up and I drove three hours to Ronnie’s house, and I said, “Ronnie, Chad Everett saw the film, and he wants to meet you.”
And Ronnie said, “Oh, boy!!!” Read about more random acts of kindness that changed people’s lives.
For two weeks straight, Ronnie couldn’t sleep. All he could do was call me up and talk about exactly what was going to happen.
Eventually, we fly out to California. The whole way, Ronnie’s clapping his hands and rocking back and forth. Everyone he meets, he tells them that he’s going to achieve his biggest dream—he’s going to meet Chad Everett.
I said, “We’re going to do this on a beach, because it’s a big, wide-open space.”
I think this is a good plan until we get to the beach and I’m walking with Ron on the sand. At this point Ronnie’s legs are really kind of giving out, and he can hardly walk on solid ground without assistance.
We sit him down on a beach chair, and I’m trying to think, Where else could we do this?—when this convertible pulls up down at the other end of the beach, and the license plate says Sir Chad.
This handsome older man steps out, and he starts walking across the beach. He’s a hundred yards away, and Ronnie spots him.
He yells, “Is that Chad Everett?”
And Chad Everett yells back, “Yes, it is! You betcha!”
And Ronnie hoists himself up out of this chair, and he starts running across the beach. I’ve never seen Ronnie run ever. And he is running across the beach. He’s kicking up the sand.
He’s going, “Chad Everett! Chad Everett!”
I think he’s going to fall and wipe out, and Chad Everett’s going, “Slow down! Slow down! Slow down!”
Ronnie’s running toward him, and he looks like a little boy.
And when he reaches Chad Everett, he throws his arms around him, and he says, “Chad, I’m so happy to see you!”
They have a wonderful time. They do skits together on the beach. Ronnie interviews him. And they say a prayer. It’s wonderful.
We take the red-eye home that night, and Ronnie’s exhausted. He’s a man who hasn’t slept for weeks. He says to me, “Well, Arthur, we did it.” And then he finally goes to sleep.
After that trip, I didn’t hear from Ronnie for quite a while, and that was strange because he would call me so often. When I finally did hear from Ron, he had some bad news. He had been diagnosed with leukemia, and his mother told me privately that he was given six months to live.
Ron said to me, “Look, I know that Chad Everett’s a really busy man. But do you think you could tell him about this?”
I said, “Sure, Ron. I can let him know.” So I did. I told Chad Everett.
And an amazing thing happened then.
Chad Everett started calling Ronnie every Sunday, and they would talk. Without fail, he called Ronnie every Sunday.
And Ronnie outlived that diagnosis by months and months. He lived for over two years. In fact, he went back to California and saw Chad and had a party to celebrate.
Eventually Ronnie did die of that disease.
I thought a lot about the lessons I had learned from Ronnie Simonsen. About the importance of having a biggest dream, no matter how silly it is.
But I often wondered, Did I spend too much time chasing this other person’s dream that wasn’t really my dream?
Then, recently, we were putting together a compilation of tapes that we’d made with Ronnie.
The editor called me up and said, “Hey, I’ve got this audio track I want you to hear.”
It sounds like it’s someone who’s going up the stairs or really out of breath. And then I hear my voice going, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”
It’s the audio from my camera as I’m filming Ronnie running toward Chad Everett. And as they hug, I swear you can almost hear my heart beating out of my chest. I’m so excited.
If you had asked me “What’s your biggest dream?” ten years ago, it would not have been “to meet the star of CBS’s Medical Center.” But through Ron, that became my dream.
And I’ve always wanted to thank Ron for sharing it with me and for making it come true. Read on for more heartwarming life lessons from people who spent time with the dying.
The new book from The Moth, Occasional Magic: True Stories About Defying the Impossible, is available online or at your local bookstore.
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