Day 7. "To cure" or "to heal"

My sister, an Internist back in Chicago, wrote to me today about having to correct a medical intern who described the physician's goal as being to cure the patient. "No," my sister interrupted, "it is to heal." The distinction was driven home to me today. I had joined one of the medical teams for rounds this morning, ending in Room 5 with Erika, our 13-year-old recovering from very delicate lung surgery headed by our missioner, Dr. John Gregory. The doctors then rushed off to another full day of surgeries while I reviewed my list of tasks. I decided to set papers aside and head back to Erika's room, where I hunted down a bench to pull up beside her. I felt guilty for such an indulgence, knowing the doctors would be on their feet the next 10 hours, but I reminded myself that this was important, too. Erika rarely cracks a smile, and there is more often a tear streak down her cheek, especially when Grandmother Remigia is not here. So I sat and held her hand. She's especially nervous when the nurses come so I had one take my blood pressure, too. I asked about her sister and her school, but her chin barely lifted. Remigia had mentioned a best friend back home, so I asked about her and what they liked to play. For the first time she had more than a one-word response, telling me how they loved to play dolls. When I saw that it was 10:00 I promised to return later and went outside to find Remigia. Although visiting hours don't start until 1:00, I knew Remigia would be waiting and my lab coat and western features would be enough to sneak her upstairs. Image of Erika and Remigia

After translating for a gall bladder surgery at the Santa Maria hospital 4 blocks away (another of this mission trip's 3 sites), I checked on another missioner who had cheerfully taken on the monumental task of organizing our medical supply warehouse. I stopped back at the hotel to pick up a handmade Bolivian doll that caught my eye days earlier in the market. The look on Erika's face when I pulled it out of my purse was one we hadn't seen on her before, a flash of joy! I knew she would like it, but I did not expect what happened next. From behind me I heard someone say, "And my doll?" I turned around to see Trifonia, our 59-year-old terminal pancreatic cancer patient, with arms outstretched and a mischievous ear-to-ear grin on her face. "Where's my doll?" she asked, leaving her family and me speechless and prompting her to burst out laughing. Then we were all laughing, while begging her to stop to keep from tugging at her stitches, which just made her laugh even more and soon the entire six-bed room was roaring. "Well, I didn't know you wanted a doll!" I responded. Here was a woman with perhaps a year to live, but she had given us all the perfect moment to remember her by.

Image of Trifonia with dollLater that night I had just a few minutes to dash back to Room 5. I had actually purchased 2 dolls, the second an elaborate Bolivian "Chola" with a pink crocheted shawl and golden ruffled skirt. Trifonia's eyes opened wide and she took it in both hands and planted a kiss smack on its lips before tucking it in the crook of her arm. Her 78-year-old mother and all of her children beamed, exclaiming "your first doll!" I wondered if I had misunderstood so I asked if it was true that she had never had a doll before. They all shook their heads no, implying that it was too much of a luxury.

I still felt terribly guilty that I could enjoy these moments with our patients while the doctors at this late hour had yet to eat or even sit down. Fortunately they also know what I was now understanding on this final day of surgeries: that sometimes this "work" was perhaps as important as their's (albeit much easier) in the ultimate goal to heal our patients, and their families as well .