Today is Wednesday, day 5 of this mission trip and day 3 of surgeries, with 20 patients already on the mend. One characteristic marking this trip has been the high number of complex surgeries involving different cancers. We are proud that our mission trip team includes some of our country's finest surgeons allowing us to offer many of the latest techniques. But our Executive Director, Juan Lorenzo, is always reminding us that our journey goes far beyond any medical labor, as we are called upon to know and love those who come to us for aid. Keeping that in mind helps us especially when faced with those cases in which our medical support on its own is ultimately not enough.
On Sunday I had snuck out to the hospital patio for a moment to clear my thoughts when a young woman approached to ask when our doctors would be seeing her mother who had been admitted for tests. I asked her name and whether she knew what her mother was here for, and she said she had "a small abdominal tumor that just needed to be taken out." I promised to check, and a short while later I was able to glance at her file, only to realize that her mother, Doña Trifonia, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to several organs. Her case was being handled by pancreatic cancer specialist, Dr. Malcolm Bilimoria, and his team. When they were ready to see Trifonia, I tracked down Marlene who remained outside entertaining her toddler.
Dr. Bilimoria gently explained the situation to Marlene and her brother. He proposed a palliative surgery to allow her to eat better and minimize discomfort. The diagnosis was a complete surprise. In the following days I had to explain the situation to several of Doña Trifonia's six children because none was willing to tell the other. Trifonia speaks Quechua, with only limited Spanish, but since by now I was a familiar face, I offered to accompany her through her surgery. The medical team gave me quick lessons on how to help ease Trifonia through pre-op. Just before she drifted off to sleep, I asked her what she was thinking and she said "en mi Diosito," in her dear God. I invited her to say a prayer in Quechua, which she did with a broad smile. Her surgery went as well as anticipated, and she is now in recovery. Her 78 year old mother, who speaks only Quechua, waits with the rest of the family to see her and take her home to love and cherish her while she continues to teach her eight grandchildren her language and customs.
It wasn't until I wheeled Trifonia into recovery, while her extended family strained to catch a glimpse and looked into my eyes for reassurance, that I was unexpectedly overcome with tears myself. I was forced to duck behind the curtain to gather my composure before going out to meet with them. It had been my first time in an operating room, and I was struck by the fragility of the human body stretched out in search of healing. I was also glad that my humble presence had served to provide some comfort. To borrow the words I had heard earlier from Juan Lorenzo in response to the gratitude expressed by another family, the truth is that we are all poor and we will all someday find ourselves sick and in need of a hand.
In the meantime, the best we can do is to find the courage to make our lives a blessing.
It is late, but I can't sign off without adding a warm "Happy 8th Birthday" to my daughter, Eva, and a "hello, I love you!" to both her and my 11-year-old, Elena, both back home in Evanston. Your lives have been my greatest blessing.